On the surface, just about anyone would be envious of Greg Nance.
He grew up in a loving family and attended Bainbridge High School, where he was a three-time class president, a multi-sport athlete and a state champion and All-American debater. He earned a scholarship to the University of Chicago and then a Gates Scholarship to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
His resume as an adult is also impressive. His successful entrepreneurship hase drawn acclaim from all over the globe. In his spare time, he has completed numerous physical challenges — reaching the summit of peaks worldwide, swimming some of the Earth’s major rivers and completing the World Marathon Challenge in which he ran seven in seven days on seven continents.
But today Nance faces his greatest challenge — sharing the darkest moments of his life with the hope of helping the world. A deeper look reveals a time marked with drug addiction and mental health issues. He plans to share that story on a cross country run from New York to Seattle.
But first, on Aug. 18, Nance will run all 53 miles around the Bainbridge Island shoreline in one tidal cycle. A film crew will follow him on his journey to create what’s known as a “proof of concept” to pitch to Netflix. The end result would be a documentary that raises awareness about the addiction epidemic gripping the U.S. and finding better ways to support people in need of help. As part of that film, Nance would undertake a 3,000 mile run from coast to coast.
Why 3,000 miles? Well, it’s one mile for every day he has been sober.
A tragedy hits home
Nance reached a crossroads in his life at age 16. His grandfather, Charlie, a veteran who served in the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, was his hero. He had only a 10th-grade education, but went on to become a business leader and devoted family man. He had incredible stories of courage and leadership, which enthralled his grandson.
But when Charlie suffered a debilitating stroke, Nance’s world crashed down around him. He saw his hero, still physically strong and mentally sharp in his later years, suddenly become powerless.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Nance said.
Teenagers occasionally engaging in casual drinking is not unusual, and Nance, popular and ubiquitous, had been to a few parties in his young life. But after his crisis of faith, his alcohol use accelerated quickly. He went from drinking with friends on weekends, to drinking after class. He eventually graduated to drinking before class as well. Not long after, he got access to opiates through a friend.
The alcohol helped Nance self-medicate and mask his anxiety and depression. He was in deep denial, and worse, feared the social stigma he believed would follow being branded as an addict or mentally ill. He isolated himself and his pain instead of seeking help.
“I always felt like I was alone on that journey,” Nance said.
He attributed his accomplishments to his relentless, goal-oriented personality. He tackled his athletic and academic pursuits with vigor and verve, taking countless swings off the batting tee and practicing and researching his debate arguments each night. Unfortunately, he followed his addiction with the same spirit. He worked hard and played hard.
And when his friends noticed he’d done too much “playing,” he pivoted to another social group.
He wasn’t able to keep it entirely buttoned up. When he began blowing off math class in favor of malt liquor and refused to turn in homework, Nance was suspended from the tennis team. But he was eventually welcomed back with open arms by coach Mike Anderson, who provided him with guidance during this difficult time.
Nance credits Anderson and debate coach Jeff Gans with helping him get back on his feet and reaching his potential. But despite receiving great support, he wasn’t able to quit. He still felt the external pressure many teens experience to excel, especially when surrounded by similarly high-achieving peers. Nance estimated that he tried to quit over 100 times, but ended up bouncing back and forth between full-blown addiction and temporary sobriety.
“You don’t feel like you can get help,” Nance said. “What will people think? It’s a really vicious cycle. You’re alienated from the pain you’re feeling.”
Hitting Rock Bottom
Nance’s time at the University of Chicago foreshadowed the success he would have as an adult. He, along with several other students, established the American Investment Fellows Club, which sent members to local inner-city schools on the south side of Chicago to teach personal finance. It was eventually turned into Moneythink, which is still in operation today as a nonprofit.
While he and his co-founders were winning plaudits in the entrepreneurial and political world for their initiative, Nance’s addiction continued. And they didn’t stop at Cambridge, either, where he founded another successful initiative, Dyad.com.
But for all of his accomplishments, he could not escape the hold of his addiction. He’d had three emergency room visits he didn’t even remember; he’d woken up in Mexico with stitches in his hand and had no idea how that happened;but it wasn’t until the day he was summoned to the provost’s office at Cambridge that he’d reached another crossroads.
Having squandered his Gates Scholarship stipend and missed his rent payment, the provost looked him in the eye and called him a “disgrace.”
“That was the moment I really had nowhere to go,” Nance said.
Embarrassed, and attempting to process simultaneously his feeling of guilt and shame, he took off to the rainy English countryside to face up to his addiction once and for all. It was time to quit. He had his last drink on Dec. 28, 2011.
Honoring a Milestone
On March 16 of this year, Nance celebrated his 3,000th day sober. He wanted to find a way to celebrate, to take on something big to honor his greatest personal triumph.
But what does a man who has finished ultramarathons in 10 countries and has run 250 kilometers across the Gobi Desert with a knee injury do that could possibly top that?
Inspired by the number 3,000, Nance decided on a cross-country run. And along the way he’d tell his story of coming to terms with his challenges and connect with people who have similar difficulties along the way.
“I’m terrified of this, and that’s exactly why I need to do it,” Nance said.
Nance plans to average 40 miles per day over 75 days. He wants to put together a team of producers to set up community events to connect folks battling their own addictions and then follow up with them, all with the goal of reducing the shame and stigma surrounding mental health — the overarching theme being that overcoming addiction is a marathon, not a sprint.
He had initially planned to begin his run in October, but given the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will most likely be delayed until spring or whenever he can begin safely.
For now, he’ll settle for a jaunt around his home island. Nance plans to begin at 7 a.m. underneath the ferry dock. He’ll begin with trekking poles until the tide is out far enough that he can run without them.
Well-wishers are encouraged to head to the beach. You can connect with him on Instagram @GregRunsFar. There will be a link to a live-tracker to mark his progress. He’s got about eight hours to accomplish the feat, which essentially means he’ll run back-to-back four-hour marathons. He’s prepared by running a marathon every Monday morning since April.
Nance’s ultimate hope is that his story can be the spark that inspires everyone to share their struggles and get the help they need.