Addicts-Turned-Athletes in One Town's Fight Against America's Opiate Epidemic

Rob Archuleta saved himself from a life of drug addiction. Now he's trying to help others do the same through exercise.

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Jun 28 2015, 2:35pm

It's a Saturday morning at Rob Archuleta's gym. In-Zone Fitness is located in a half-abandoned 1970s-era concrete strip mall, nestled between a bowling alley and auto parts store in Pueblo, Colorado. About fifty addicts sit in a circle against cinder block walls and on weight benches.

Though some are in their teens and twenties, many older people are present, too: male and female, white, and Hispanic; a reflection of the town. Many are heavily tattooed. Some are dressed to work out; others are in baggy jeans or pajama pants. Some have come voluntarily, others have been sent by their probation officers, and others are there by judicial order.

"Hey, anyone who's on probation, make sure you sign in," Archuleta yells out.

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His daily miles on his bike, in the pool, and on the road have left no trace of excess on him. What you can see is mostly tattooed.

"We come in for what?" he asks, standing under a pull-up bar in front of the group. "To get off paper; to comply. But this is more than that; it's about turning your life around. I don't give a shit whether you pass your UA's. I want you to live longer.

"Sure, our old ways are fun; they're exciting," he continues.

All eyes are on him.

"There's ups and downs, a lot of drama and euphoria that go with drug addiction. But the question is, do you have the conviction to let go and make that change in your life, to give it up? Even when you're on probation or parole, a lot of you guys aren't committed. Why jump through hoops if you're not ready? You're just delaying the inevitable, which you've heard before: jails, institutions, death. Or as you've heard me say: jails, institutions, death, and your mom's house."

Everyone bursts out laughing, including Archuleta.

"I know when I was 32 and recovering, Sheena and I lived with my mom and dad," he says. "And if you're 30 and you look up at night and see Darth Vader is your wallpaper, your life is in trouble. But seriously, you know I think your mom's house is a step in the right direction. What I want to know though is how many of you guys have the conviction to change? How many of you want to be done?"

A hand goes up. Then another. The addicts tell stories of of heroin overdoses in empty houses, of being found nearly dead by a grandmother, of being handcuffed in front of their children, of losing their children to social services.

Archuleta, who is the recovery coordinator for the area's largest drug treatment center and also works at Pueblo's Parkview Hospital, sees the addict's fight for sobriety as a daily battle.

"Intense exercise works," he says. We need it. I believe that to stay clean we have to have that and the support from others who understand what it's like. That's why I'm here, doing this work."

Rob Archuleta and his wife Sheena. Photo courtesy Jill Rothenberg

At one point in his life, Archuleta used non-stop meth binges to fuel a 24/7 party lifestyle in Las Vegas during the 1990s. Now, at 42, he's taking the start line at Sunday's Ironman in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, in his fourth Ironman, with only Gatorade and gel shots to get him through a course that's expected to be run in temperatures over a hundred degrees.

But Archuleta, sober for ten years, isn't just a former addict turned extreme athlete looking for some publicity. Instead, he has a bigger mission: to save his hometown of Pueblo, Colorado, from the growing number of heroin and pill overdoses and deaths threatening to take it down.

Like many struggling former industrial towns across the country with high unemployment and poverty rates, Pueblo is the poster child for a state in the throes of opiate addiction. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fatal heroin overdoses nationally have risen by thirty-nine percent from 2012 to 2013. In Colorado, since 2008, there has been a twenty-seven percent increase among eighteen to twenty-four year-olds using heroin, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.

The Pueblo Police reported that in 2013 they seized 348.2 grams of heroin, up from 26.9 grams seized in 2012. In the first three months of 2014, they had already seized over 76 grams, and projected the number would continue to rise.

To help combat this epidemic, Archuleta in 2009 founded Addict2Athlete, which uses a 12-Step recovery method, a two-month curriculum of classes focused on addressing criminogenic behaviors and coping skills, and a heavy dose of exercise to treat addiction.

"You're in a fight for your life with addiction and you want to use anything you can to kick it," he says. "As addicts, we did anything we could to get high. So we need to do anything we can to stay sober. We're sparking dopamine levels when we're high. As addicts, we want that instant gratification. With exercise, we're teaching people to use that dopamine in a constructive way; to work toward a goal in the gym and outside it, to see that we can use that primitive urge as energy to create a healthy life."

Archuleta knows just how hard that can be.

The highs had been high: first as a drug dealer in Vegas and then closer to home, in Denver, his pager in the mid 1990s blinked nonstop"057," street code for LSD.

A good kid who swam and played soccer in high school, Archuleta says he discovered acid on his 21st birthday. "I didn't like alcohol and was scared of other drugs at that point," he says now.

But soon he wanted acid all the time.

"Finally, I went up to Denver and bought a sheet and started selling it," he says. "I never struggled with anxiety until then, but I was also trying to come to terms with my sexuality and with being molested when I was younger," he says. "But acid is really self-limiting, so I started looking for something else. I thought cocaine was glamorous, and I started to drink, which helped me come down and be level."

"I was playing middleman—always meth and ecstasy and Special K, which is horse tranquilizer," he says.

Years later, he and a girlfriend sold her mom's homemade meth for a good profit.

Drug binges in small-town basements and sex parties in tricked-out Vegas condos fueled a cocaine and meth habit that lasted for six years. A short jail stint after a charge of domestic violence in early 2000 brought him back full circle to the one place that addicts of all kinds often find themselves: their parents' basement.

"Enough was enough," said his mother, Patty, a longtime nurse for the Colorado Department of Corrections, who drove out to Vegas with her sister to bring her son back after he got out of jail. "My sister used to tell me he was doing drugs, but I didn't see it. You don't see it when it's your own kids. I was used to the drug addicts I saw in prison, but I thought, my son doesn't look like that."

Archuleta scored meth for the ride back to Pueblo.

But soon after, visiting his grandmother dying in the hospital—he had a life-changing moment.

"There I was with my grandma, who I loved so much I got her name tattooed on my arm, saying that she wanted more than anything for me to be sober—and I was high at the time. When she died, I was high at her funeral," he says. "But it dawned on me that something had to give, or I would be dead."

Meanwhile, his best friend from childhood, Sheena, who would later become his wife, was battling her own addiction to crack.

"I prostituted for drugs for years," she says. "I got to a point where I couldn't get out of bed without it."

Like her husband, she got clean in 2005 and is an ultra runner and Ironman, now training for Ironman Boulder in August. "My mom kicked me out and I didn't want to live with my dad. I wanted to use, even if it meant living on the streets."

Her rehab and sobriety came soon after her dad shot and killed himself in front of her.

They were at the same low point as the addicts they work with in Addict2Athlete.

"There we are," Archuleta recalls. "My grandma died and I have no game, no fight left. I don't want to hustle anymore. Sheena's dad shoots himself right before we get sober. Sheena uses two hundred bucks of the money her dad left her to buy me a mountain bike, since I had conveniently forgotten about my domestic violence conviction. There I was trying to make restitution, going to anger management classes, going to NA with Sheena, and my lawyer calls and says not to drive.

"So this bike is out of some old guy's garage and I thought it said "iron man" on the side," he says. "Nope, it was "iron horse," when I looked at it closely. "It weighs a ton; a real piece of shit, but it got me around."

That was the beginning of Archuleta's road back to fitness, from bike rides on Pueblo's pot-holed streets, to sixteen-mile round trip runs to the local Golden Corral restaurant.

Now he shares his experiences with the hope that it can spark change in other addicts.

Archuleta, who has himself battled cross-addicting to food—he ballooned after kicking his meth addiction—is aware of the ability addicts have to become addicted to "people, places, and things" as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous. It comes with the territory. To prevent that, he is strict about planning workouts and goals.

Many of the addict turned athletes regularly compete with Archuleta and in races of their own, including last month's Ironman Sprint in Boulder, Colorado, where a few newbies completed the race.

"Ironman (a 2.4 mile open swim; 112 bike ride and 26.2 marathon run) shows that you can take the impossible and make it possible—it's their slogan," Archuleta says. "That said, there's really no reason to run twenty-five miles a day, unless you're training for an ultra, and even then it's short-term. My clients do everything with a purpose to prevent exercise bulimia or anything toxic. I help them make sure everything is in check."

Addict2Athlete, which began in a room at a local middle school, now receives a $116,000 yearly Justice Assistance Grant, through the city probation department. Archuleta estimates upwards of eight hundred people have walked through Addict2Athlete's doors.

But he realizes that sobriety is fragile.

"We're seeing a high rate of death from opiates and alcohol like we've never seen before," Archuleta told one of his Addict2Athlete classes recently. "And these aren't old people. They're seventeen to thirty or forty. We need to learn from these deaths and move forward in a positive way."

He told the group that they were needed to join in a run that will start from their counterpart Addict2Athlete group in Utah that spans their states, and will end in Pueblo.

"We're calling it the Run for Recovery," he said. "That's a lot of miles, and we're going to need you guys to step up. Some of those guys in Utah are badass and will run fifty or sixty miles at a time. Some us will do twenty or thirty; Sheena said she would do forty or fifty. But we need runners for two, three, five, ten miles: this could be a great part of your sobriety.

"Stay sober and be part of that."