Jeremy Durick, running toward life

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Jeremy Durick running on a pedestrian trail along Lake Michigan in Kenosha, Wis.

Photos and story by Erin Andersen, NewsNetNebraska

Eighteen years elapsed since Jeremy Durick, 35, ran his last 5k race sporting Bradford High School’s cardinal red and black Rowdy the Red Devil cross country uniform. In the fall of 1994, he left his running shoes untouched and Kenosha, Wis. behind. He vowed never to return to his industrial, crime-ridden hometown.

Durick’s first stop on almost a decade detour was 60 miles northwest at University of Wisconsin’s Whitewater campus. Four years into pursuing a dual degree in Business Marketing and Computer Programming, his plans abruptly changed.

Early one morning during winter break 1998, he awoke to the smell of smoke filling his apartment. Durick crawled through his first floor living room window unscathed. Only the clothes on his body and unlaundered ones in the trunk of his Pontiac Sunbird were salvageable from the electrical fire.

Hotel living quickly lost its allure. Durick used the temporary housing situation as an impetus for transferring to the university’s Milwaukee extension, where he later earned his diploma.

In the early Internet Age, Durick played a part in expanding broadband residential access in Boston, Tampa and Chicago.

The final on-site assignment in Milwaukee with Internet service provider Road Runner edged him closer to the southeastern corner of Wisconsin he swore off. A computer consultant job with the County of Kenosha’s Department of Aging and Disability Services lured him homeward.

He returned in the fall of 2002, but not without reluctance.

After enduring a daily 80-mile round trip Wisconsin winter commute, he moved back to Kenosha in the spring and purchased his first home.

The downtown area Durick once knew had been revitalized since he left. In 1994, the city purchased nearly 70 waterfront acres from Chrysler for $1. With $2.5 million in supplemental state and federal funding, the city spent $18.5 million cleaning up Chrysler’s contamination from assembly plants, turning a brownfield into usable space. Kenosha’s HarborPark along Lake Michigan now features upscale townhomes and restaurants, a marina, museums, and a pedestrian trail.

Durick returned to a transformed town, but he was not yet a changed man. His running hiatus continued.

“Life got in the way,” Durick said.

The County contract ended early. Durick launched his own buy-fix-rent home company with his severance money. Pre-2008, business was booming and cash in results were almost instantaneous.

In 2004, he owned and rented 13 local properties. Seven years later, he manages five houses through Southport Properties and Treetop Enterprises

And in the middle of it all – during the summer of 2009 – Durick became a father. His life changed forever. Major transformation, however, remained almost a year away.

Spring signals new beginnings. In April 2010 Durick realized he was “striving for a life of mediocrity, heading to a dead end, and spiraling down quickly.”

“I was sitting at home absolutely miserable, doing nothing productive, felt like I was losing my business, wasn’t in love with the woman I was living with and had enough,” he said.

Durick emerged from his sedentary routine of sitting on the couch and drinking an occasional beer or mixed drink after work and returned to running. He is not slow to take action once his mind is made up. The next morning he joined the YMCA and completed one lap around an elevated track. An eighth of a mile into his run, he was too winded to continue.

To build endurance and lung capacity, he rode a stationary bike everyday for two months while reading James Patterson’s thriller novel collection. He cut fast food from his diet and stopped drinking alcohol.

Jeremy Durick in Kenosha’s HarborPark.

Three months into his new workout regimen, Durick became a member of the Kenosha Running Club.

After the relationship with his girlfriend was over, he lived with her and his son for four additional months. Durick moved out in August.

That fall he scaled Oregon’s 9,495-foot Mt. McLoughlin and hiked 14 miles in northern California’s Redwood National Forest. While visiting his friend in the Pacific Northwest, they and two professional biker acquaintances tackled a 17-mile downhill mountain biking course.

“They didn’t realize it was my first time mountain biking,” he said.

Durick’s running distance steadily increased. In the summer of 2011, he was race-ready. Even though his runs already reached the double-digit mileage mark, he joined a couch to 5k group though Great Lakes Church. The program incrementally prepares inactive individuals for 3.1 miles of running by gradually increasing running time and distance during a nine-week period.

“I could have gone out there and blasted everyone away and said, ‘Hey, look at me! How come you can’t run this quick?’” he said.

Motivating beginners, not finishing first, was one of his purposes in participating. He frequently exercised at 5:00 a.m. and repeated his workout later that night with the 13 other runners.

“He’s very much a watching out for other people person. Folks like Jeremy never do things so that at the end of it they can get all of the accolades; they do it because there’s that inner understanding that we’re here to take care of each other,” Durick’s business partner and friend Dale Stearman said.

Durick’s selfless character is enduring. The same 35-year-old who encouraged fellow runners rescued a middle-aged, drowning man who was trapped in the cabin of a sinking truck. He was 17 then. He did not recall the incident or mayoral Medal of Honor he received until strolling past the Lake Michigan Kenosha harbor site.

Jumping in the frigid April water was “instinct,” he said. After winter snowmelt, Lake Michigan’s undertow is strong. Durick averted further discussion of his courageousness by swiftly proceeding to the next topic.

New experiences characterize the past 18 months of his life.

On Aug. 13, Durick ran his first race since 1993. Nerve-induced post-run vomiting was the norm then.

He crossed the Hank Aaron State Trail 5k finish line in Milwaukee 20:54 after the gun sounded. He ranked fourth in his age division and 63rd among 1,447 runners at a 6:44 per mile pace. This time, Durick’s newfound confidence kept his nerves in check and breakfast repressed.

For the first time since he biked to his grade school friend’s catechism class, this summer Durick drove his 1990 Ford F150 into the parking lot of church with his son, Jesse, in the passenger seat. He accepted an invitation from Kenosha Running Club friends to attend. He was baptized four months later, symbolizing death and burial of the old self and resurrection to new life.

“This is the time; I want to have this new beginning. I made a commitment to God now. I’m ready for it,” he said.

“I’ve always in the past said, well, I can’t do this until I have enough knowledge about it and I feel like I’m not ready for it because of some of the negative things in my life. No, it’s OK for me to have those. I will work on them after the baptism. I’ll end up working on this my whole life,” he said.

Durick, the only one of 50 baptized in black biking shorts and a blue Lycra shirt, celebrated his spiritual rebirth Oct. 2.

Six days later, he completed the ultimate physical challenge: Durick ran 26.2 miles of northern Illinois’ Des Plaines River Trail.

Marathon training paralleled the regimen members of his running club followed. He typically logs 30 to 50 miles of 5:00 a.m. running per week while singlehandedly renovating his company’s homes by day.

The 8:00 a.m. marathon began with 65-degree weather, but as the sun climbed the temperature rose 15 degrees. At mile 15.5, Durick thought he might not be able to keep his pace. At mile 17, Omar Flores, a runner of 14 years, slowed down and encouraged Durick to run ahead. At mile 19, he hit what runners call ‘the wall.’

“It’s the most tiring feeling you’ve ever felt in your life and you think you can’t go on,” Durick said.

He persevered and popped Jelly Belly’s electrolyte-infused sport beans along the way. Flores dropped out.

He has no recollection of mile 25, when a runner passed out beside him; the last stretch, when Ryan Bailey beat him by 16 seconds to a third place division medal; or mile 26.2, when he finished 26th with a 3:35:03 time.

“A marathon changes you in a way words can’t describe.” Durick said after joining the ranks of marathon runners that day.

“No matter what’s happening with his life – good, bad, crappy or almost unbelievable – he still believes he can change everything,” his decade-long friend Kim McCormick said.

Next May, Durick intends to qualify for the elite Boston Marathon.

If he finishes the Wisconsin Marathon gripping a big cheese medal in his hand, his next goal will be fulfilled.