How Trails Helped One Runner Cope with Drug Addiction

If you know Kim Bessler, you probably know her as Half Pint. And if you know Half Pint, you know the name can only apply to her stature, not the size of her spirit.

At that point in young adulthood when a person blinks awake and discovers they are an individual beyond the product of their parenting, Kim found herself a frizzy-haired, half pint-sized flyer on a varsity cheerleading team with a punk rock playlist to keep her sane and more than a few thoughts of leaving town. The runaway plans started brewing before she dropped out of college, before the 13-year drug habit wormed its way into her life. You can trace those plans back to age 11 when her father left, and from there, the downward spiral just grew steeper.

But as all runners know, it’s the climbs that make you stronger, and life, like racing, is a test of endurance. Kim’s story is one of both perseverance and climbing out of the pit—of drug addiction, shattered self-esteem, and anger so thick it took the jagged ridges of the Rocky Mountains to shear it away.

Everything about Kim—from strong limbs wrapped in bright tattoo ink to dark brows furrowed in either gritty determination or laughter—is in constant motion. Juggling a full engineering scholarship at the Colorado School of Mines, an Instagram following that would make any marketing professional drool, and an impressive adventure resume that includes bagging 57 of  Colorado’s 58 14,000-foot peaks, Kim is hard to pin down. The trajectory of her life has been much the same, following a pinball track from New York to Pennsylvania to the dark, drug-ridden underbelly of ski towns to the hilly, wind-ruffled trails around Lakewood (just southeast of Golden, Colorado), where she now lives.

Between classes and training runs, she tells her story.

Kim Bessler

You’ve always loved the outdoors. Who instilled that love in you?  

My dad did. We would go skiing, fishing, camping, hiking. He taught me how to live off the land. We made a go cart out of a snowmobile engine. He allowed me to be the tomboy that I am in a way no one else did.

What was growing up like for you?

There was no love in my family. I got along with my dad, but my mom wanted a prom queen cheerleader and forced me into a lot of things I didn’t want to do. I never felt good enough. She wanted so badly for me to fit in, but I didn’t. I never had anyone tell me it was okay to be different.

Then when I was 11, my dad left. He’d been living in the guest room for four years and then he moved away to live with another woman who was 27 or 28. I didn’t want to stay with my mom. I wanted to go with him, but he said no. He fell out of my life in a way. That new woman became priority number one, and I didn’t have my dad to walk around in the woods around our house or fix things or build things or go to the dump to root around like we used to.

After that, I was in a constant battle with my mom. I didn’t have any sense of myself whatsoever. I was just a conglomerate mess of my parents’ divorce. As soon as I was 18, I was out.

Where did you go from there?

I went to college for about three weeks before I dropped out. I ran away to Philly with a guy I had met. All we did was smoke and drink. My family had no idea where I was. I didn’t tell them—I was so angry. I had felt so unloved by everyone in my life, and my entire existence was driven by anger.

I started using Ecstasy, which is now called MDMA or Molly. Those drugs suck all the serotonin out of your brain, and you can’t get it back and you need more and more to get high. I started doing acid. I did coke. I was always, always on something or a combination. I’d take any pill anyone would give me.

I had done exactly what I wanted to do. I numbed myself out to everything.

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When did things start to change?

I moved to Breckenridge with a guy. There are a lot of drugs in Summit County. I lived there for seven years, and I knew five people who died of overdose, suicide, or alcohol poisoning. I broke bones snowboarding while I was there, and they gave me prescription painkillers. I was fully addicted after three weeks.

Rock bottom was Thanksgiving. I was 31 years old and in the bathroom at a friend’s house, snorting pills. I looked at myself in the mirror and I was so repulsed by the person I’d become. Tears started pouring down my face. I went outside and I told my boyfriend I was leaving. I was moving to Denver where I knew he wouldn’t follow.

What was most challenging?

I was ready to quit, but I wasn’t ready for the amount of depression, anxiety, or hallucinations that came with getting sober. It took me six months to even feel like I was a human being again. But besides that, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had no skills. I was starting from scratch.

I slowly started finding enjoyment in doing things by myself, but I cried myself to sleep every night for about a year. Growth and change don’t come without pain and anguish, but that side of it was beautiful, too. It led to this blooming flower of a life I created, and I did it by myself.

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When did you discover running?

The first time I ran was in the Grand Canyon. My then-boyfriend and I didn’t have enough time for the 10-mile hike, so we ran it. We were wearing backpacks and tennis shoes, but I loved it more than anything I’d ever done. I came home, bought a pair of trail runners and a map of Golden, and that was it. I was 100 percent hooked.

How was running instrumental to your recovery?

I’d started going to school, and for the first time in my life, no one was telling me that I wasn’t smart. I was taking algebra. Then calculus. That was a breakthrough, but I still didn’t feel complete. There was something missing.

When I started running, the mountains seemed so big. I started feeling connected to the earth and my surroundings, and this whole ego-centric world I’d built started to fall off me. It was like a snake shedding its skin. All of the sudden, I started to see myself, not as a victim, but as part of something bigger. Suddenly everything I faced wasn’t such a big deal anymore. I could deal with my emotions and didn’t fall apart every time something went wrong. Pretty soon I went on a running road trip, and by the time I came back, I was a completely different person.

May 2015: the beginning of a four-month solo road trip, Guadalupe National Park | Photo courtesy of Kim Bessler

Did you think of your dad at all? Was spending time outdoors part of the healing process in repairing your relationship with your father?

On that road trip, I was on Guadalupe Mountain, the highest point in Texas, and I realized that I didn’t need to have an idyllic, loving family as part of my story to be happy. I realized I had hurt my family as much as they had hurt me.

I spent all summer writing letters to my family members, apologizing. My dad called me on the phone. He doesn’t cry, but he was crying. He said, “I thought I’d lost you forever. I thought you’d be dead by the time you were 35.” And now he’s come out to visit me, and we hiked and skied and reconnected. My mom and I talk regularly now too. For the first time, it’s not just superficial conversation. We talk about real things. 

Has overcoming so much adversity in your life made you a better runner? 

Sometimes I think about how much stronger I would be physically if I hadn’t put my body and lungs and brain through so much. But when I’m in a dark place on a long run or on a mountain and by myself and scared, I can stop and breathe and remember the darkest times of my life. I look around where I am and say, “This is not the darkest time of your life. If I could get out of that, which was worse than any run, I can figure out how to get myself off this mountain in one piece.”

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And in a way, running fills me up and drives me in the same way addiction did. Once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict. You just need to find something else to feed that energy or you’ll fall back to where you started.

Every time I’m out there, I’m not drinking. I’m not doing drugs. I’m giving myself time to think and process my emotions. I’m not doing 26-mile runs because I’m training for something. I’m doing it to save my life.

Do you have any advice for someone who’s in a tough place in life and trying to make a change?

You’re never stuck. For more than 10 years, I thought I was stuck, but I never was. It’s never too late. I’ll be 37 when I finish my degree. Don’t let anyone tell you your life needs to follow a neat little track.

If you’re at a point where you’re looking in the mirror and aware you need to change, then you need to dive in head-first. It’ll be the hardest thing you ever do and the most rewarding and the most beautiful. You’ll have to work every single day, but no matter who you are, you have it in you.

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What about people who are starting running for the first time?

When I first started running, I could do the 0.2 miles around my apartment and I’d be dying. I have no natural talent whatsoever. It’s taken me years to build the endurance I have now. Don’t be afraid to progress at your own pace. The trick is not to compare yourself to other people. Trail running is about finding yourself, not chasing somebody else.

What’s your proudest running accomplishment to date?

I came in fourth place in my first 50-miler at the Indian Creek Fifties this year, but it’s the big days out I’m most proud of. I’ve done the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim. I’ve climbed 57 of the 58 Colorado fourteeners by nonstandard routes, most of them solo and quite a few in the winter. I’m going to finish this summer on Pikes Peak running the Pikes Peak Marathon.

When I first started, I never thought I’d have the strength, patience, or independence to do all of them, but here I am. When you can navigate your way up and down a mountain by yourself, that’s a sense of confidence nothing else can give you. It gives you a different perspective. It saves your life.