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Denali Foldager is running on the road to recovery

Doyle Woody
Denali Foldager, second from left, with other top finishers after the Run for Women on Saturday, June 7, 2014. Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News

Denali Foldager gets a little better every day, and that’s enough.

There are occasional moments when gloom creeps in, but she knows she can fight her way out and summon the light again, as she has before. She can tap the fighter in her, the pure will she has so often called upon in the hardest moments of a footrace, and channel it into healing.

Besides, those dim moments are nothing like the darkness that shrouded her three years ago, when injury halted her running, her confidence and self-esteem slipped away, and alcohol and drug addiction became a torment that seemed unbearable.

Foldager considers her life these days and smiles. She has a fiance, Eric Strabel, who adores her, and a family that comforts her. She has a full-time job registering firearms at Cabela’s in Anchorage. She says she is sober. She has generated some strong race results this summer – second at the Turnagain Arm Trail Run, third in the Run for Women -- and she’s finding joy in training again, already musing about the 2015 Mount Marathon race in her hometown of Seward.

Slowly, she believes, she’s emerging, escaping the gloom, headed toward the light.

“I did it to myself," Foldager, 24, said over coffee recently. “Now, it’s like, ‘Let’s try it again.’ I have unfinished business. One day, I hope to be winning races again."

People who know her best and love her most recognize of late the signs of the old Denali. That’s the one her mother Patti calls “spirited, full of life,’’ and her father, Flip, calls the “bubbly’’ one the family always referred to as “Malibu Barbie."

“I see it in her eyes," Patti said.

Denali Foldager was a teenage champion, and so was her twin sister, Rubye.

Denali won the junior race halfway up 3,022-foot Mount Marathon and back down to town three straight times from 2005-2007, and that’s a very big deal for a Seward athlete. She won a state cross-country running championship -- Rubye seized two such titles, sandwiching Denali’s 2005 win -- and was a state track champion too.

The twins come from a well-known running family. Patti has twice won Mount Marathon, Flip was once a contender, and both parents have raced the storied Fourth of July event more than 30 times. They also helped coach high school runners in Seward and helped runners of all ages train on Mount Marathon.

The sisters went to Division II Cal State-Stanislaus, where Denali reached all-conference in cross country and also as a 3,000-meter steeplechase runner, an event in which she qualified for the national championships as a sophomore in 2010.

In the spring track season of 2011, though, a injury to her right knee prevented Denali Foldager from even training, much less competing. That left her with the kind of free time she’d never had. She began partying, drinking and taking drugs, blowing off school.

In the last year, she’s outlined some of the depths of her dark times in a blog -- Princess Denali – Life After the Party -- and she closed her first post by noting that in October of 2011, “I finally became completely sober from cocaine and meth and began the long, long stressful journey of living a sober life and trying to gain back everything I lost."

 “I tried everything that was given to me," Foldager said in an interview. “And I found out I have an addictive personality. Before I knew it, I was waking up to a glass of wine."

Foldager said her partying led to denial, which gave way to depression and thoughts of suicide. She said she felt empty, a failure.

“I think Denali felt very alone," said her mother. “As a family, there’s nothing worse than knowing your child is suffering."

Finally, Denali Foldager said, she recognized she suffered from addiction. Flip Foldager doesn’t think his daughter truly “hit rock bottom, necessarily, but it was for her." Patti Foldager said her daughter found “even a little is too much for her."

A family intervention occurred. The Foldagers are a tight group -- most days, Patti talks or texts with her three kids. Flip said the girls grew up looking at older brother Trent, who owns a fishing tender and, like Rubye, is fishing in Bristol Bay this summer, as the “solid rock they’ve always clung to."

Flip and Patti Foldager said they told Denali how much they loved her -- how they would “never stop loving her," Patti said -- and how much they would support her recovery.

“Nothing can be solved until that person decides it can be solved," Flip said. “She knew she needed help. She said, ‘OK, am I going to stay in this dark mess I’m in or do what I know I can do if I put my mind to it?’ "

Denali Foldager says she would never have begun to recover without that support from her family and also that of her college coach, Diljeet Dosanjh Taylor, a mentor she says never gave up on her and remained positive and encouraging.

Denali Foldager says she still is trying to fully understand the time she calls “all a blur." She said she’s undergone some therapy, though no conventional rehab. She has used her blog, which she calls “a great release," as a way to remember experiences and feelings she buried, and to show others with similar histories that they are not alone. Writing the blog also reminds Foldager she’s not alone, that she still is on the mend.

“Maybe I can help other lives," she said. “People who have read it told me they were inspired to run again. I found out the more vocal about it I was, it helped out other people."

When Denali Foldager was a fifth-year senior running her final season of track eligibility in 2013 -- she graduated that spring with a degree in medical anthropology -- she was sober and hopeful of returning to the Division II nationals.

But she struggled early in the season. She trained fine, but froze in races, consumed by anxiety and the pressure she put on herself.

“Every race just broke me," Foldager recalled. “And I had never been a crier. But I cried after every race."

Still, in the last qualifying race for nationals, she met the ‘B’ standard, and advanced to nationals for the second time in her career. Foldager was eliminated in her heat, but she felt redeemed, felt she’d honored her coach and her teammates, who had been unflagging in their support.

By that point, Foldager and Strabel were a long-distance couple. They had been introduced at Mount Marathon in 2011, renewed acquaintances in 2012 and begun to date.

In August, Strabel proposed, on bended knee, at the start of the Lost Lake Run outside Seward -- after asking Flip for his daughter’s hand. The couple will wed June 2015 at Arctic Valley.

Denali Foldager and her parents all point to Strabel, 32, a ski coach with Alaska Pacific University’s Nordic Ski Center, and the three-time Mount Marathon champion and race record-holder, as a steadying influence.

“Even compared to a year ago, (Denali’s) doing so much better," Patti Foldager said. “I want to thank Eric for that. He’s a stable person, a little older, a little wiser."

Strabel said he’s amazed by the strength his fiancee has shown.

“It’s pretty awesome to see how she’s recovered, and every day she gets better and better," he said.

After Denali Foldager finished 12th at Mount Marathon this summer and found herself disappointed -- she has finished as high as fifth in the senior race -- she said she quickly got over it and began thinking about next year’s race.

Foldager plans to devote herself more to mountain racing than road racing next spring and summer. She should prosper with coaching from Strabel and course knowledge from her mom and dad, who know Mount Marathon as well as anyone.

“I want to take the strength I used to get sober and use it for racing," Foldager said.

Strabel said he sees better times ahead for his fiancee, both in her recovery and her racing.

“In the end," he said, “as long as you keep trying, good things will happen." 

Find reporter Doyle Woody at dwoody@adn.com