In February 2019, after completing seven marathons, on seven continents, in seven days, Greg Nance thought he would feel triumphant. Instead, sitting in his hotel room in Miami Beach, Greg tried calling his former drug dealer.
Talking about his struggles with addiction is an important part of Greg’s latest challenge: to run 3,000 miles across the United States, from New York to Seattle, and create a documentary film to raise awareness of America’s addiction epidemic, and to boost mental health support. Greg (MPhil Management 2011) will share his story this Thursday in Fresh Thinking at Fitz – click to register.
“The 7-7-7 was the culmination of all of these years of training, and goal setting. I felt like this was like the final frontier for me, if I could just do this,” says Greg, of the World Marathon Challenge, which saw him run 26.2 miles on Antarctica, Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, South America, and concluding in Florida, in consecutive days.
“I actually felt very lonely on that finish line, even though I was surrounded by dozens of friends. My body and my brain were hurting, both from the rigors of this, and also life circumstances around it, including a relationship break-up, big business challenges … all of that really sunk in on that finish line.
“That night in my little hotel in Miami Beach, for the first time in over seven years, I tried to procure opiate painkillers, which I used to abuse when I was a teenager. It had been years since I had thought about it, and now I was calling up my old dealer, trying to score. That was scary.
“I woke up the next morning thinking it was a nightmare, looked at my phone log, and it wasn’t a nightmare – it happened. I had to work through it, confront it.”
Greg wanted a new challenge, and it was one which had long been in his mind.
The 32-year-old adds: “This dream I had since training in my days at Fitz, running up Castle Hill, was to run across the US, from New York to Seattle. But I know I will only be able to do this if I’m staying sober and clean, off drugs and alcohol.”
Post-Olympic depression is a phenomenon among athletes who have achieved their life goal, and then think ‘was that it? What’s next?’ Michael Phelps, the USA swimmer who won eight gold medals at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, and 23 Games gold medals in all, has spoken of his own struggles.
Greg adds: “I have a feeling I’ll get to Seattle after a 3,000-mile run and the same question will come. What’s next?
“I had the post triumph blues. So many others have their stories, but we all have these common links, and challenges too.
“I’m not alone – 40 million Americans have addiction issues. Our system is failing in America, failing 40 million people and their families and their communities. We criminalise addiction, we stigmatise addiction, and we need a new dialogue.
“My hope is this run can be part of it. My purpose is to shine a light on the addiction epidemic and spotlight ways to boost mental health.”
Greg hopes Phelps, now championing mental health awareness in his retirement, will contribute to the documentary of his run. Greg plans to run 45 miles a day, for 70 days, in a challenge which is as much psychological as it is physical.
He adds: “I think it’s going to be brutal, like a hamster wheel. It’s all about how you keep your mind focused on what’s ahead.
“I’m going to share my location through a live tracker and I’ll be posting on Instagram, so folks can come out to find me. My hope is people will join on foot, or bicycle, and share their stories. That will help me remember the mission and the purpose behind this.”
He is well aware of the Forrest Gump comparisons – “it’s one of my favourite movies!” – but the serious message is what will keep him going.
Greg’s own spiral into drink and drugs followed two family tragedies in quick succession – the death of the elder cousin he idolised, and a stroke suffered by the grandfather who was his best friend – and he sought solace in substance abuse.
He wants to use his experiences to help others, as he continues to help himself. The 3,000-mile run is symbolic, celebrating his now more than 3,000 days sober.
When he reflects back less than two years to that Miami Beach hotel room, he says: “The scary part about that was ‘oh my gosh, I’m going back to the peak of addiction, aged 22, 23’, instead of working through it.
“The entire two years since then has been doing self-work.”
The coronavirus pandemic has helped to reiterate what is important to Greg.
He said: “I’ve felt very small and powerless in the face of all of this. It’s been a great life lesson in what actually is important. I’ve been able to spend a lot more time with family, learning more, worked on building my faith.
“It’s been very, very tough, but focusing on these small habits and life priorities has been really powerful for me.”
As for advice for anyone struggling, Greg’s is to “follow your smile”, which he admits is a little corny.
“Figure out what actually makes you happy, what makes you feel alive, and how to spend more time doing that,” he says.
Running is one of those things for Greg – and he will be spending plenty of time doing that, come next spring, when he sets off from New York on his odyssey across America.