“You damn well better be grateful, cause you have no reason whatsoever not to be.” -Joe Turcotte, in a Boston accent, thick as clam chowder.
Joe Turcotte sits in a corner of a coffee shop, sipping his namesake. He’s been nominated by our Achilles Pikes Peak board as the first Summit Spotlight honoree of the month and I am eager to listen to his story. For the next 90 minutes, fueled on caffeine and a unique enthusiasm for life, Joe regales me with tales of his youth, how and why he ventured to Colorado, a wake up call that completely altered his life path, and all the in-between that has him preparing to run across the United States next month. Enjoy the words and wisdom of Joe:
Joe Turcotte was raised by a single mother in Boston in a house surrounded by three sisters, cousins, and his aunt. He was the only male in a home with eleven women. On his upbringing, Joe describes it as:
“Years of getting arrested and breaking into cars and stores. No discipline. I managed to stay out of jail but got into booze and drugs.”
“I was 17 and moved to LA and thought, ‘Alright I’m staying here.’ I had a back pack and a pound of weed. A thousand hits of acid. But I was sleeping in parks. But I didn’t feel like I was uncomfortable then. I’ve got a lot of Vietnam Vet friends and you know, I’ve had a cushy life. I may not have money. I don’t have a career. I’ve still got a pretty cushy life.”
“When I first moved out here (Colorado Springs) in ’82 I weighed 260 pounds. I got away from Boston to get away from the drugs and drinking. Geographical cures don’t work and so I was right back into it here.”
“I kind of knew people but I didn’t have any place to live so I was living in my tent on Pikes Peak. The Incline was running back then and so I’d hike up the Incline a little less than halfway and just head north and found a clearing and set up my tent. I walked downtown and they were remodeling a hotel. I said, ‘Do you guys need any laborers?’ and they said ‘Yeah.’ I went to vocational school for carpentry. I was 22 or 23. I didn’t have any tools, nothing.”
“I was framing houses and every day was, ‘You’re done, you drink, you get high,’ and my employer, who was also a really good friend, who was also my roommate off and on went up to our attic and killed himself. And in hindsight, that’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Seeing that happen, it’s like, you’re next. You know, get your shit together.”
A Change of Pace
“I saw people running on the Peak. I knew nothing about running. I lived in Boston but all I knew was on Boston Marathon day, you don’t have school and you go get drunk. When my roommate killed himself, I thought I need to channel my obsessions to something else. And I thought, well I’m gonna run that Pikes Peak Marathon. And that was in October of ’83. I know how obsessive compulsive I am. I’m kind of like Rain Man. I thought, maybe running the Pikes Peak Marathon is better than cocaine?”
“I walked into Runners’ Roost and I remember freaking out that I was spending $20 for a pair of Nike Equators. They’re freaking sneakers! I bought the Nike Equators and a Runner’s World Magazine and thought, OK, I’ve got 10 months. This was October of 1983. I was living right at Cascade St. and Fontanero St. They still had the Nielson Challenge mile markers and it was a mile from there to the Bijou bridge. It took me almost a month before I could run non-stop that one mile. But I just kept at it, back and forth.
“I signed up for the Triple Crown and it was the Garden 10 mile, and the Pepsi 10k, and then the Pikes Peak Marathon. That was it. Those were the first three races I did in my life. By that time, I had already lost over 80 pounds.”Even though I was obsessed with getting messed up, I loved the outdoors. I did my first Pikes Peak Marathon in ’84 so I would’ve been 25. 5:31 (hours:minutes). I fell in love with it! I think when I did my first Pikes Peak Marathon, I thought, you know I can be disciplined when I want to. I’ve just never wanted to. And it’s like, well, you gotta have a goal. You have to have a goal.”
“All through the 80’s up to 94, I think I did 7 more Pikes Peak Marathons and 2-3 Ascents. No Double until 2016. And then I got away from it. ’94 was the last time I did the marathon and didn’t do it for 21 years until 2015.”
Though he went through a trail running hiatus, after getting a photography job at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, he stumbled into the world of triathlons.
“So the Ironman, that whole swim, bike, run thing…I didn’t really know about it. It’s the 2nd year Kona goes digital. And he says “I understand you’re a photographer.” I said, ‘Well I’m a medical research photographer, I work in a lab and photograph eyes and lips and stuff like that.’ And he goes, ‘Well, the jobs yours if you want, it only pays $10/hour.’ I thought, ‘It’ll be 10 days in Kona.’ So I said, ‘Well yeah, I’ll take the job!'”
“We shot 36,000 photos during the race and the next morning, we had 2,000 athletes saying, “Where are my pictures?’ We had no clue what we were doing. Maybe 200-300 athletes got there prints. They rest of them, we said, ‘We’ll mail them to you.’ We come back to Denver and I was getting emails in French, German, Italian… ‘Where are my g..d…. pictures?!’ But the pictures were so good, we mailed them to people and we got an equal number of emails saying ‘Thank you, these are awesome!”’
“Sitting at that finish line until midnight, it was the most emotional, amazing thing I’d ever seen. So I came off the island thinking yeah I’m gonna do one of these. That was October of ’03.”
“I joined the rec center and thought ‘Ok, i’ve got to learn how to swim. How tough could it be?’ And I couldn’t swim from one end to the other. I took a couple of swimming lessons and just kept at it.”
“In June, there was a triathlon at the Briargate YMCA, the Triple Trekker. I signed up for that and I had to walk the swim. I was dead last. I was the last one in the pool. The timing lady said, ‘Joe, just get out of here, go get on your bike!'”
On Iron Puppy, A Fundraiser for Canine Companions for Independence
Not one for moderation, Joe’s triathlon prowess grew and he completed a campaign of 5 Ironman triathlons within 6 months. Not only that, but he ultimately turned the feat it into a fundraiser that donated $30,000 for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). He’d later win entry to the Kona World Championships via lottery and added another $20,000 for the fundraiser. Self funded, Joe’s fundraiser donated over $50,000 to charity but sent him $35,000 in debt over the endeavor.
“The greatest feeling in my life, you know, in addition to finishing big races, was standing up on stage at a CCI graduation…and handing them a check. There’s 900 people in the audience, and they introduce me as having done the 5 Ironmans. They’ve been doing these graduations for 30 years and the director said its the first time anyone has gotten a standing ovation. People ask me, ‘What inspired you to do 5 ironman in 6 months?’ and I just said ‘You guys. Those dogs, you kids. You guys did it.’ In my heart, I’m a billionaire philathropist but in my wallet, I’m kind of like ‘Will run for food!'”
“There’s a big ego thing about it. You know, people think it’s awesome that I’ve done an Ironman. It’s like, well for years, people thought “loser” for being a drug addict. It’s nice to say, you know what, there’s another side of me.”
On Hearing Loss and Life Changes
“For 12 years I did medical research photography and I saw myself being replaced by technology. I wanted to get back in the health club industry. Every good thing in my life comes from that, people, friends.”
With a degenerative hearing loss, Joe, struggled with the social atmosphere of his job.
“My hearing started to go 15 years ago. I just assumed, ‘Where’s the music?’ You know, I’ve seen The Who ten times from the front thee rows. But audiologists assured him it wasn’t from years of loud music. “It’s genetic. People with traumatic hearing loss are easier to deal with. With genetic hearing loss, when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Hearing loss led Joe to switch careers to a home-based data processing job.
“Honestly, it’s so funny cause for most people, I would be in the ultimate comfort zone. I’ve got a great job, I pick my own hours. But It’s sucking the life out of me. All my years being in a public environment, I thought this was what I wanted (working from home) but it’s a classic “be careful what you wish for.” Within the first month of getting this job I was like, “What the hell have I done?'”
“Diane was telling me, ‘You need to get out of here.’ I became reclusive. I still ran, always by myself. Even as president of the Pikes Peak Triathlon club, I would set up group rides and runs but would never go. I wouldn’t go to bars or parties. I wouldn’t say embarrassed, but I got self conscious of either telling people to repeat themselves or just pretending that I understood the conversation. I’m not that patient. Between the drugs, I’ve had the depression, self pity shit. I mean I’ve come close. I said to Diane, “If I don’t get out, I’m gonna become like Robin Williams.”
“Diane was talking to me about volunteering and she goes, ‘You have lots of opportunities.’ Diane started saying ‘Get out!,’ and I knew I needed to get the hell out of the house and be with people.”
On 6 Million Steps of Gratitude:
“The whole running across America thing, even though it had been in the back of my mind since hitchhiking in the 70s, it would come back to me and then disappear.”
Joe and his partner and muse for 13 years, Diane, attend the Center for Spiritual Living and that’s where the idea began.
“It’s a ‘best of,’ they’re quoting the Bible, the Quran, Torah, Buddhism, Hinduism. The pastor asked ‘So what thing have you wanted to do in your life but you’ve always been afraid of?’ I said, ‘Well it’s run across America.’ And she (Diane) goes ‘Where the hell did that come from? I’ve known you 20 years and you’ve never said that.’ And I said ‘Well that’s because I’ve been afraid to do it.’ She goes, ‘You know, you’re gonna be 60 soon, what are you waiting for?’ And so literally, from the time that question was asked, which was July a year and a half ago, I knew that moment I was going to do it.”
“Hooking up with someone to share my life with, that is 100% behind whatever I say. I mean I say, ‘Hey Diane, I’m gonna do 5 Ironmans.’ ‘Oh, that’s nice, what can I do to help?!’ Being the one to look at me when I want to run across America and saying, ‘Well what are you waiting for, you ain’t getting any younger!’ There are a lot of couples who would be, ‘Like hell you are!'”
“My mom despises this whole concept (running across America). She goes ‘I don’t even know why you told me this. I’ve been saying 10 Hail Mary’s a day for 18 months now. And now you’re actually going to do it!”’
“I am more intimidated by doing a faceplant onto my keyboard after having a stroke when I’m 68 years old than being out on a highway in Illinois. That freaks me out more.”
“People ask, ‘Are you retired?’ No! I’m making 10 bucks an hour so I can have lunch next week. But I’m cool with that. I’ve got Wheelson (his running stroller) and a sleeping bag and I’m happy as hell! I’m not leaving my comfort zone, I’m re-entering it by quitting the best job I’ve ever had.
“I know I’m gonna be sitting in freaking Kansas and its gonna be 110 degrees and I’m gonna be thinking, ‘What in god’s name were you thinking?’ and then Ill wake up the next day and there’ll be this awesome sunrise and I’ll be like, ‘Yeah baby, this is it!’ I want to put myself in uncomfortable positions and I want to see what happens when the lightning is coming down and I’m in the middle of nowhere. How am I gonna deal with it?”
On mantras, something Joe tells me Diane has been asking him for 20 years, he claims that nothing is sincere enough. But in the moment’s reflection, Joe finally told me “You chose to be here, you know. I chose to be here.”
On Achilles Pikes Peak
Joe first learned about Achilles Pikes Peak at the 2017 Super Half Marathon.
“I finally said to Diane, well, I’m gonna run across America, and I want to do something for someone local, but I need to check it out. This Achilles thing, it seems like it’s something up my alley.
At his first Achilles Pikes Peak workout, he recalled speaking with Anne Fleming and connecting over shared contacts at The Challenged Athlete Foundation. He told her he wanted to volunteer but neglected to mention his deafness. “That wasn’t the reason I was there. I said, “Well next April I’m running across America and want to do it for you guys”. She’s like, ‘Well okay!’ Then I just started coming on Monday nights. After a month, Diane said, ‘Are these the people you’re going to do the fundraiser with?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’ I thought, ‘This is a cool group. This is what I’m meant to do.'”
“You say, ‘Well if you could do it all over again, the drugs and all, wouldn’t you do it all the same?’ No. There isn’t a damn thing I’d do the same. I’d never have smoked the first joint. I’d never have had the first beer. Having said that, I wouldn’t trade what I have now, which is a direct product of that type of behavior. If I was 17 again, I’d do it differently, but in hindsight, OK, I like where I’m at.”