The 16 miles that racers will complete Sunday in the Gold Nugget Triathlon represent an incredible journey for many of the girls and women in the race. Each year, the event inspires women to revamp their lives so they can participate -- some by shedding dozens of pounds, some by learning to swim, others by adding exercise to their daily routine for the first time in their lives.
Among those who have come the furthest to reach the starting line is 31-year-old Andraya LaFleur.
LaFleur is the triathlon's first racer whose path to the Gold Nugget started at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, where she was a participant in the prison's Running Free Alaska running program until her release in 2013.
"I could not even fathom when I was in prison thinking I was going to complete a triathlon," LaFleur said, recalling her days at Hiland Mountain, where she ran on a gravel oval while wearing a prison-issued yellow uniform and flimsy shoes not made for running.
"I have a powerful testimony of going in and out of prison, of repeatedly drinking and repeating the same behavior," she said. "But I've gone from running on a dirt track in prison to doing a triathlon. And that didn't come overnight. It's taken a long time."
LaFleur, who grew up in Soldotna, landed at Hiland in 2011 after a felony DUI conviction. She has a string of DUIs in her past, an addiction that she battles every day and a determination -- recently and dramatically reinforced -- to maintain a healthy, productive post-prison life.
In late April, LaFleur relapsed. After a couple of years of sobriety, she had a drink, and then another and another and another. She didn't get behind the wheel of a car but was nevertheless busted for violating parole and found herself back at Hiland, 12 days before the triathlon.
LaFleur started drinking in high school. Things escalated when she was in her early 20s, when her mother and brother died within six months of each other in 2006.
"I stopped caring at the time," she said. "I let my life spiral out of control. ... Part of me just was scared to get sober because that'd mean I'd have to deal with those things.
"... I'm not perfect. I'm a big carrier of guilt, and that guilt beats me into a dark place."
She is grateful she never caused physical harm to anyone when she was drunk, although she freely admits to causing heartache. The most damaging consequence of her drinking has been the loss of a relationship with her 7-year-old daughter, who lives in Kenai and isn't part of her life. LaFleur remains hopeful she and her daughter will be together again and recently filed for custody.
LaFleur's first effort to stop drinking came in 2009. "I tried doing it on my own, and that didn't work," she said. Then she tried Akeela House, and that didn't work either.
Then, after being transferred from Kenai to Hiland Mountain in late 2011, she joined the prison's Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program.
Around the same time, Tim Alderson of Anchorage started the Running Free Alaska program at the prison. LaFleur joined the program and rediscovered a love for running, something she did in high school.
She learned how to train, how to eat more nutritiously and how to set goals.
"She really connects to running," said Lisa Keller, a coach for the Running Free program who helped LaFleur train for the Gold Nugget Triathlon. "I was drawn to her right away when we first started the program because I could see that spark in her.
"There are lots of good people at Hiland who have this (addiction) demon on their back. We all make mistakes and some are obviously more devastating than others especially when there are victims involved, but we're more than just those mistakes. That's what she shows -- you can have this flaw that you're gonna have to fight the rest of your life, but that doesn't mean you're a bad person.
"…It just makes me sad, so sad, that she has to deal with this other piece of herself."
Finding faith, and a job
LaFleur took advantage of other programs at Hiland, including faith-based ones.
"I never grew up with any religion but when I was in Hiland I had a spiritual counselor there and she was really persistent with me," LaFleur said. "She's still my good friend and spiritual counselor today. She introduced me to a Christian lifestyle."
After she was released from prison late in 2013, LaFleur moved into a faith-based transitional living facility in Anchorage, where she became the residential manager. She joined a group called Acts 247 Ministries, a pastor-led group for recovering addicts that meets every Sunday night.
She got a job in a doctor's office, went back to college and earned a bachelor's degree in business administration, which helped her land a new job as the officer manager for Signature Land Services. She bought a condo, using money inherited from her mother for a down payment.
"I blessed enough to get approved for a home loan," LaFleur said. "I really didn't honestly think I'd get approved because I'm a single female (with) a somewhat unstable background. I just prayed about it and prayed about it and it started to emerge and happen."
Id rather be running
As she rebuilt her life after being released from prison, LaFleur kept running. She connected with Keller and continued to train.
Earlier this year, Keller got a call from Bill Fleming of Chain Reaction Cycles, who as a major sponsor of the Gold Nugget Triathlon received a free entry into the triathlon. He was looking for someone to give it to and figured Keller, who owns MultiSport Training of Alaska. Keller immediately thought of LaFleur.
LaFleur jumped at the chance and started swimming and biking.
Swimming has required the most effort and is the part of the race she is most nervous about. During her final swimming session last week at the West High pool, she paused to catch her breath after completing a few laps.
"I need a swimsuit that says 'I'd rather be running,' '' she said with a laugh.
A relapse, and another chance
Life was treating LaFleur well as the Gold Nugget Triathlon drew near. In a year's time, she had finished college, bought a condo, found a good job and met a good man.
All of which is why she still can't say why she got drunk April 27.
"I was doing well for so long," she said. "I thought I kinda had it all together -- 'I got this.'
"… Maybe I was starting to take it for granted. As sad as that is."
With less than two weeks to go before the triathlon, she was back at Hiland on a parole violation, wearing a yellow uniform and flimsy shoes. Keller feared LaFleur would be kept in prison for three or four months.
LaFleur's hearing was set for the afternoon of May 8, nine days before the triathlon. Coincidentally, Running Free Alaska's winter session was winding down, and on the morning of May 8 it held its end-of-session 5-kilometer and 10-kilometer races on the outdoor oval, a mixture of gravel and grass.
LaFleur won the 5-K, slicing a minute off the course record with her time of 24 minutes, 56 seconds.
That afternoon, officials released her.
If I can do it, anyone can
Among those in LaFleur's corner was her boyfriend, who knew she was an alcoholic but had never seen her drink until her relapse last month. "He has stuck by me," she said.
Also sticking by her are her employers, Tim and Jennifer Schrage, who wrote a letter to the parole board on her behalf.
Tim told LaFleur that he would hold her job if she wasn't immediately released. When she got out, Jennifer provided sage counsel.
"Jennifer told me, 'It's not necessarily what we did to make ourselves fall, it's how we get up," LaFleur said. "My boss told me that. It struck home with me. Yeah, I messed up, but I'm not gonna let it keep me down."
LaFleur said that every day she makes a conscious decision to preserve the life she is building -- to not return to the dark place that makes her seek alcohol, to not believe she has exorcized her demons so it's OK to take a drink, to not abandon the support systems that have helped her.
"I think this is just the starting point," she said. "I'm capable of a lot. A number of years ago I was drinking alone and ruining my life. I've gone from that to being a college graduate and owning a home and completing a triathlon. All in a year. If can do it, anyone can."
Reach Beth Bragg at 257-4335 or email@example.com