BEMIDJI - Dick Beardsley was within a day or two of never waking up again. Fortunately, he got caught.
After retiring from running, the man best known for finishing the 1982 Boston Marathon two seconds behind winner Alberto Salazar in a famous race, had a series of near-fatal accidents that left him addicted to pain medication.
With each hospital stay, Beardsley was prescribed more pain medications. At one point, Beardsley illegally wrote prescriptions for more than 3,000 pills from nearly a half-dozen pharmacies in one month, which caught the attention of federal drug enforcement agents.
"I knew I was in a lot of trouble, but I was also so thankful and blessed that I was still alive," he said Thursday morning at Calvary Lutheran Church in Bemidji. "I knew the only chance to get better was to be 100 percent truthful and take responsibility for my actions."
After nine days in a Fargo, N.D., psychiatric unit and undergoing intense inpatient, outpatient and aftercare treatment, Beardsley emerged free of drugs in February 1997.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life," he said, referring to overcoming his addiction. "The last 15 years I've had sobriety have been the best years of my life."
In the last three years, Beardsley has had both of his knees replaced. While recovering from those surgeries, Beardsley admitted he had to be on narcotic pain medication for a short period of time.
"But this time there was a plan," he said. "This time honesty came first."
Beardsley's experiences led him to create the nonprofit Dick Beardsley Foundation, which educates about chemical dependence and helps addicts find treatment. He's been a motivational speaker since 1998 and was the keynote speaker Thursday at Evergreen Youth & Family Services' annual conference, which continues today at Calvary Lutheran Church.
Rebecca May-Waukey, a case worker with Leech Lake Family Preservation, attended this year's conference partly to learn more about prescription drug abuse.
"I want to learn all about prescription drug abuse because I think it's a big problem in some communities," she said. "People aren't going to bars and getting drunk anymore. They're staying home and making prescription drug cocktails. So how do you help families and kids stay safe?"
The Leech Lake Family Preservation Program offers short-term services to families referred through the Leech Lake Child Protection Program or that live within the Leech Lake Reservation boundaries that need assistance.
Ann Lindquist, a case manager who also works at Leech Lake Family Preservation, said she has seen many people deal with addictions in her line of work.
"Addiction is so widespread that often people don't have hope that there's another way of life or that there's a way out," she said.
Beardsley encouraged conference attendees to go back to their homes or professions and give people hope.
"If you tell someone you have cancer or heart disease, people will jump through hoops for you," he said. "If you tell them you're a drunk or a drug addict, they look at you like a piece of dirt. I know we've all been there in one form or another and that has to change. You're giving people hope they desperately need. Sometimes it can be a thankless job, but don't ever give up on them."
His advice inspired May-Waukey.
"I think what's beautiful about his story is a message of hope," she said. "That's what I hope to bring back to the people I work with - to give them some hope."
Becky Schueller, Evergreen's executive director, said the attendance of this year's conference was overwhelming to her, with 280 attendees who registered.
"It's the biggest conference we've had in seven years," she said.
Evergreen Youth & Family Services is a private, non-profit youth and family service provider that strives to keep youth safe and provides support to parents and caregivers. Each year, the organization hosts a conference intended for parents, youth organization staff, tribal staff, teachers, social workers and more to network and learn new information.
Schueller speculated the high attendance was due to the wide variety of topics and speakers being offered.
This year's conference focuses on drug and alcohol prevention and intervention and other topics like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, bullying, childhood trauma and low high school graduation rates.
Drug and alcohol abuse, in particular, is an issue that largely impacts children and families in the region, Schueller said.
"They are really an equal opportunity threat to communities, but the reality is they disproportionally affect communities of poverty," she added. "In this region of the state, there is significant poverty. This region has the highest childhood poverty rate in the entire state."
For details about Evergreen or the conference, visit www.evergreenhouse.org/.