Every mile changed Neal Collick, who found joy in it after a rocky transition back to civilian life.
Neal Collick looks out the front window of his home, on a street where runners, walkers and cyclists tour a five-mile loop that circles his hometown of Negaunee, Mich., and runs along Teal Lake, currently peeking out from between his neighbor’s houses across the street. The slight and soft-spoken runner lives just two blocks from his childhood home. He has a gentle smile and the flat-voweled lilt of a Northern Michigan accent as he talks about finding peace on the trails of nearby Marquette.
“Running on trails gets me away from thinking about anything,” says Collick. “You have to watch each step, each hill, each rock and root. You can run fast and not think about anything other than where you’re placing your next footstep.”
There’s solace in the escape for the former Marine sergeant, who served four years active duty that included a tour in Iraq in 2003 to load bombs and fix munitions systems as an Aviation Ordanceman.
Looking at the lean muscles of the marathoner, it’s hard to believe that during his time in the Marines, Collick only ran to train for the three-mile time trial that was part of the mandatory physical fitness test. And he only did that to snag a promotion or rank. It wasn’t until he ended active duty Marines in August 2005 and began inactive reserve that he stopped running, started riding motorbikes and faltered in the transition back to civilian life.
Gone was his position of authority, job security, paycheck and health benefits. Collick had no idea how to communicate with people that didn’t involve giving orders. He was also returning to a three-year-old son, Chase, who he didn’t know because the boy was born 10 days before Collick left for Iraq. He was overwhelmed.
“In the Marines, you’re so focused on these four-year periods,” says Collick. “Four years until I’m out. Four years until my next enlistment. After I got out, I didn’t think any further than the next day, the next week.”
And that got him into trouble. Collick used the GI Bill to go back to college for a little while. Then he began lifting weights and joined a motorcycle club, where he drank, smoked, chewed tobacco and went to jail twice in one month for drinking-related charges. His dream to become a U.S. Marshall vanished the moment the DUI charge landed on his rap sheet. In the meantime, he was taking 16 to 20 pills a day to manage self-inflicted flare-ups of colitis. His intestines were attacking themselves and breaking down and Collick didn’t really care.
“I’m not ashamed of those days,” says Collick, who went from 190 pounds in 2011 to 140 pounds today. “It’s almost funny to look back at them.”
That’s because his life changed the day his stepdad challenged him to a triathlon in 2011. Collick was intrigued and headed out for his first run. He didn’t get far: his muscles cramped in the first 20 yards. Ego bruised, Collick discovered a new drive. A month later, he took on a friend’s challenge to run a half marathon. He ran seven miles a couple of days before just to see if he could cover the half distance. Managing that, he lined up two days later.
“I finished the half marathon and it hurt so good I couldn’t walk,” says Collick, laughing. “But you know, there’s so much pride in that pain.”
Collick went from racing local 5Ks and 10Ks to running the Detroit Marathon that year, where he felt the true pain of being undertrained. So he found Hal Higdon and the other online gods of training plans, and Collick began to tweak the plans for himself, discovering that he loved creating his own plans. In 2013 he became a certified running coach through Road Runners Club of America and is now volunteering his time to help others succeed, whether it’s a runner who needs a last-minute training plan or a young Marine who needs to get in shape. He also changed his diet and the multiple colitis pills are a thing of the past. Next up, Collick is considering the Marquette Trail 50, his intro to ultras.
“Running makes me think back and reflect to how I got where I am,” says Collick. “I notice that on the trails. You’re not thinking about worries or stresses or jobs. You’re thinking about how you’ve become better.”