INDIANAPOLIS — There was a time when Grey Chandler had to run.
It wasn’t a question of whether he enjoyed it, the rhythm of his feet striking the pavement, the feel of putting the miles behind him.
The hours of training, the aching muscles and inevitable, nagging injuries were a necessity.
It was that, or surrender to a crushing reality that hurt far more than his overworked body. After four years, Chandler’s wife had left him. His marriage, and the life he had built along with it, was over.
Chandler, then 30, held out hope until the day the judge signed his divorce papers.
That was in October of 2009.
It would have been their five-year anniversary.
A Hancock County deputy prosecutor, Chandler found himself on the losing end of a battle he couldn’t leave at the office.
He took up smoking – again – and like anyone, spent the next few months trying to decide what to do next in between drinks at his local bar.
Today, Chandler feebly jokes that even his friends went to his ex-wife in the divorce settlement. He was lonely, and his house never felt so big.
And so, Chandler was met with the decision everyone faces when life grinds to a halt.
Sink deeper into depression or pull himself up and do something to make life worth living.
He chose the latter, and the path led him to an unlikely spot that changed his outlook on life.
A great escape
Change never comes easily, of course, and for Chandler, it was no exception.
That bar was within walking distance of his Indianapolis home, and in those first few months after the divorce was finalized, he took full advantage of the geographic convenience – perhaps more often than he’d like to admit.
His new hangout resulted in more than a few awkward run-ins. Actually, he recalls with a sheepish smile, he ran into a defendant in one of his criminal cases more than once.
“I’m sitting on a bar stool, and they’re like, ‘Hey, can I get a felony reduced?’”
Chandler knew he needed a sense of purpose. That November, he signed up for an Ironman Triathlon, an extreme endurance competition that challenges participants to complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.
It wasn’t that he was new to running altogether. As his marriage had started to fall apart, he’d trained like crazy.
It hadn’t been easy.
His first bike ride, just a lap around the subdivision he estimates at a half mile, left him huffing.
The training that ensued exhausted his mind and body alike and kept the thoughts of his foundering marriage at bay.
He was never tempted to quit. Not once.
“It was so much better than thinking about my life,” he said. “That whole situation wrecked me.”
Chandler completed his first Ironman Triathlon in August, just two months before his marriage ended for good.
He knew if he did it once, he could do it again. And he did.
More than a year later, Chandler finished his second Ironman triathlon and last month, his third.
Moved to action
With each finish line he crosses, Chandler finds himself further removed from the events in his life that drove him to test the limits of his endurance.
After the divorce, he joined a new church and found a group of friends with whom he connected. He’s now been dating a member of his Bible study for almost a year.
Anne Peckinpaugh, 34, of Indianapolis, was drawn to Chandler’s kind spirit and the resilience with which he approaches life.
They discovered they had much in common, including a love of the outdoors and a flair for swing dancing.
They were the only singles in a group of married friends, so a romance between them seemed almost inevitable, Peckinpaugh said.
Volunteering together was also a passion they shared.
Last spring, Chandler and Peckinpaugh joined a group of their church friends for a trip to Henryville, where they donated their time helping victims rebuild their homes and lives after a tornado tore through the southern Indiana town on March 2.
It was an experience that touched them both.
Peckinpaugh remembers being overwhelmed by the faith of the community and the positive outlook of the woman whose property they helped clear of debris.
A backyard tree had fallen and destroyed the woman’s house, leaving nothing behind but the front porch.
“You could just tell that it hadn’t destroyed her, that she was going to keep working to make things better and to get life back to the way it used to be,” Peckinpaugh said.
They were so moved by the experience that they returned a second time a few weeks later.
And then, Chandler got an idea.
His next race would be dedicated to something bigger than himself, his own struggles to run faster, swim harder and endure longer.
This weekend, Chandler will participate in his first double iron triathlon in honor of the March 2 tornado survivors and their families.
As its name suggests, a double iron triathlon multiplies each distance in an iron race by two. That comes to a 4.8-mile swim, followed by a 224-mile bike ride and finally, a 52.4-mile run. The race is being held in Lake Ana State Park, Virginia.
Chandler had kicked around the idea of a doubling the distances in his most ambitious race to date, and having a purpose set the wheels in motion.
He signed up in June and began a training regimen like none he had attempted before.
His intense schedule did not go unnoticed and drummed up all kind of interest from friends and acquaintances. When they asked what the training for such a race entails, Chandler recalled his toughest weekend – a Friday that included a 4-mile swim and 60-mile bike ride, followed by an 80-mile bike ride that Saturday and a 47-mile run that Sunday.
Chandler got used to the open-mouthed stares in response.
In fact, that’s usually right around the time he asked for donations. By Saturday, he hopes to have raised $5,000 for March2Recovery.
As of Wednesday, he was more than three-quarters of the way there.
Mary Sullivan, vice chair of the March2Recovery steering committee, remembers her dual reaction to the email she received from Chandler about his fundraising idea.
“What a wonderful idea – and a crazy person,” she said with a laugh.
While fundraising continues to support the Henryville area, Chandler’s effort has reinvigorated the interest for donors, said Sullivan, who posted Chandler’s story on the March2Recovery website.
“It’s one thing to turn around and write a check,” she said. “To train for a triathlon? I just can’t even imagine. He’s spending all this time, training, and raising money for people that he doesn’t even know.”
Tuesday marked the seven-month anniversary of the storms that devastated southern Indiana, and there is renewed hope with the completion of each construction project, Sullivan said.
“Now, there are visual signs of rebuilding,” she said. “Lives are moving on.”
Despite having accomplished feats of athleticism most would never try, Chandler’s demeanor is marked by a kind of quiet modesty.
Racing, he argues, isn’t about being athletic at all – just determined.
“It’s just about having two legs and … making a commitment,” he said. “It’s about mental stamina. You have to want to do it. That’s where everybody fails.”
His triathlon Facebook page, posted to raise awareness of his fundraising, notes he is “attempting” a double iron triathlon.
But he has no plans of quitting early.
“I just want to finish,” he said.
Participants must complete the triathlon in 40 hours.
His goal? Do it in 35.
‘A lot of healing’
Some, in the face of crisis, discover something about themselves, about their ability to pick themselves up and find a new sort of normal.
And that’s not untrue for Chandler.
He found himself capable of pushing himself, mentally and physically, further than he ever thought possible.
But the end of the story is not of the cliché variety. Chandler admits he enjoys a challenge, always taking on the next bigger race, but he isn’t about to make double ironman events a lifelong hobby.
Quite the contrary.
Chandler’s happy ending is more subtle.
Quite simply, he won’t have to run anymore.
In fact, after Saturday’s race, he doesn’t plan to – not in races of that magnitude, anyway.
The exercise that once turned off his mind during the hardest emotional struggle of his life now just feels lonely.
And that’s OK.
“What motivated me before to feel the pain doesn’t motivate anymore,” he said. “I feel like I’ve had a lot of healing.”
For months, Chandler’s every spare minute has been filled with training, whether recovering from the last session or planning for the next one.
After he crosses that finish line, he hardly knows what awaits him.
“It’s a big question mark,” he said. “As soon as this race is over, I’ll address the rest of my life.”