How Charlie Ledford raced his way to recovery and a better life.
It was a cold day in the mountains in November of 2012, when I gathered up all of the drugs and alcohol I had grown dependent on, and literally threw them in the trash. I was so mad that I couldn’t seem to live without them. They had become such a part of my life that I didn’t really know who I was or what to do if I wasn’t numb. After that day, one of my best friends started driving from Atlanta every weekend to help, by picking me up and going backpacking every weekend for probably a year or more. I’ve always loved nature, but these weekend adventures in the peaceful setting of the NC mountains were exactly what I needed.
After a while, walking the trails on the backpacking trips just wasn’t challenging enough anymore. I started trail running everyday. I was slowly converting all the energy I had once used towards my addiction, into something productive and positive. During this time I also went back to school and got a degree in Wildlife Management.
One day I decided that I wanted to take my running to the next level, so I enlisted the help of a Coach. I had heard about a coach in Franklin who was helping the top runners get better and faster. I got his number through a friend, and gave him a ring. I told him that I wanted to train for The Naturalist, a super-tough 50K in Franklin, NC put on by Outdoor 76. I also told him that I didn’t just want to run it, I wanted to win it. On the other end of the phone, Coach Byrd kind of chuckled and said “So, you want to be a runner, huh?”. He also told me that before he would agree to train me, he wanted to see if I was serious, and also to see where I was physically. He told me to go to the local high school track, which happened to be the high school I graduated from, and run a 5k and call him with the time when I was done.
The next day, I went to Franklin High School and ran the fastest 5K I could. I called Coach Byrd back with my time of 18 minutes or so, and he agreed to start coaching me. After that day, I started talking to him almost everyday and we started going on runs together. Our relationship quickly grew into more than just Coach-Athlete. He became not only my Coach, but my mentor and father figure.
I competed in The Naturalist 50K that year, and finished in second place. Coach Byrd kept training me, and through a lot of hours on the track and trails, I became on the top runners in the area. After a few years of focusing on running, I was feeling a little unsatisfied. In the back of my mind, I had always thought that the ultimate goal for an athlete was to compete in an Ironman race, and eventually make it to the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Talk about an ultra- endurance race. Swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and finishing it out with a 26.2 mile run. I had a problem though…I didn’t know how to swim. And more than not knowing how to swim, it was something I was deathly afraid of.
After months of contemplation about learning a new sport, I finally bit the bullet and went to the Highlands Recreation pool to give it shot. That first day in the 25-yard pool, I didn’t even make it half-way across without having to stop tread water. I felt like I was drowning the whole time. I was super frustrated, but determined.
Swimming was my nemesis, but I wanted to get better. During those first few months, I went every day of the week. I was focused on just learning how to breathe and not feel like I was in a constant state of struggle. It was the hardest thing I had ever tried to do.
During the spring of 2017, I decided it was time to sign up for my first triathlon. It was an International distance: 1500-meter swim, 24-mile bike, and 6.2-mile run. When the gun went off at Lake Logan that morning to start the race, it was an experience like none other I had gone through. Arms were flailing, feet were kicking alarmingly close to my face, and I was trying to do something that was still completely foreign to me. I made it about 200-yards before I had to flip over on my back and just try to stay afloat. I was already exhausted and out of breath. I wanted to quit. Maybe I should just stick to land sports I thought. This wasn’t even fun.
But, my frustration turned into determination, and I finished that swim. I was in 107th place coming out of the water that day. I was more than just tired after 38-minutes of swimming, but now I got to do the things I loved. I got on my bike and sped through the course, passing more than half the people in front of me . Then, I passed a slew of people on the run, where I felt most comfortable. I crossed the finish line in 29th place that day. I was officially a triathlete, but I knew I could be better.
After that race, I got more focused in the training, but specifically on the swim. One of the swim coaches at the Highlands Rec Pool started to notice that I was coming around a lot. He would watch me from afar and tell me one or two things to focus on after every swim. As I would implement his suggestions, he would give me a couple more. I think he knew that too much at once would overwhelm me at that point.
I slowly got better. I could make it across the pool with little problem, and even started practicing in open water at the nearby lakes on a weekly basis. If I could keep making progress, I knew I could eventually finish an Ironman. I increased my mileage in the swim, bike, and run to prepare. Later that year I competed in an Ironman 70.3 event in Raleigh, and won first place at the Lake Logan Half Ironman in Canton, NC.
One summer afternoon in 2018, I headed out on what started as a normal training ride. I was riding off the mountain towards Cashiers on my road bike. I was on a pretty steep downhill section when all of a sudden a truck slammed on it’s brakes to make a left hand turn, but failed to give a signal. I couldn’t stop in time to avoid smashing into the back of the tailgate. I sailed off the road toward the guardrail, narrowly missing it.
As I laid on the side of the road, still clicked into my pedals, I did a quick scan of my body to make sure I wasn’t injured. My adrenaline was through the roof from the incident, but I was pretty sure I was okay. I jumped up to check with the driver of the truck to make sure everything with him was okay, but he was gone.
After my heart stopped pounding in my ears, and my adrenaline came down to a semi-normal range, I hesitantly got back on my bike and headed home. I was scared. How had I been so lucky to have not gotten hurt? I could’ve easily gotten a serious injury from what had just happened. In fact, one of my best friends hadn’t been so lucky. A few years ago, a vehicle hit him while he was on a ride and it shattered his leg. Although he is now able to ride, he has so many pins and rods in his leg from the accident, he was advised not to run anymore. That could’ve been me, I thought.
Fear can be so baffling. In the back of my mind, I knew that if I didn’t get back in the saddle pretty quickly, it would be even more difficult later. But, I just couldn’t make myself do it. I was
grateful I hadn’t been hurt, but so fearful that if I got back on the bike, my whole life could instantly change. One day passed without riding. Then another. And, pretty soon I sold my bikes and decided I was done. It was too dangerous. I would just stick to an occasional run.
After a few months of barely training, I found myself in a funk. I didn’t fully feel like myself. I wasn’t as happy. My fiancé at the time, and now wife Jessica, suggested that maybe I should start training again. In fact, she told me that I was driving her nuts because of all the unharnessed energy I was carrying around, and lovingly nudged me to find a better way. After all, I was not a quitter. So, together, we decided that maybe off-road sports were a better alternative. I immediately started training again after a 6-month hiatus.
The moment on the bike that day could’ve gone a lot of different ways. Luckily, I’m still here to tell about it, and am extremely grateful that I walked away unscathed. Although at the time I thought it was a negative, today I see the positivity in that encounter. It took me back to my roots, and my true love, which is being in the woods and immersed by nature.
Which brings us to April 2019 when I competed in my first Xterra Off-Road Triathlon in Myrtle Beach, SC. I finished third overall, and first in my age group. During my first off-road race I knew that this was it. I absolutely loved racing through the woods on bike and on foot. I will admit that swimming is still not my favorite, but I do enjoy it now, and am continuing to make improvements.
On May 18th, I competed in the Xterra Triathlon at Oak Mountain in Pelham, Alabama. This was a National Championship race in which top competitors from all around the country competed for a “golden ticket” to the World Championships in Kapalua, Hawaii in October 2019. Going into the race, I really had no idea where I would stack up, but I felt if I could put together a solid day, I would have a shot at qualifying.
I came out of water in 44th place, but with my best competitive swim to date. The mountain bike course was extremely technical and hilly, but was so much fun. It reminded me of the trails here in WNC, so I made up some ground during the 1 hour 45 minute ride. The run was 6.2 miles on the rocky trails around the lake. With over 400 people competing in the race, including 15 or so professional racers, I really had no idea what place I was in coming down the home stretch. I needed to finish in the top-3 of my age group, or overall, to secure a spot.
As I entered the last couple of miles of the run, the temperature had reached 87 degrees, and I was starting to “bonk” (a term for hitting the wall). I crossed the finish line in 2:50:28 and knew I had given it my all, physically, mentally, emotionally.
I made my way to the closest shaded area to catch my breath as Jessica checked the leaderboard to see where I stood in the rankings. I was sitting under a stream of cold mist with some other athletes who had just finished when Jessica came to the tent and said “You did it babe! You finished first in your age group and second amateur!”. I’d like to say it was sweat, but I’ll admit it was tears that came streaming down my face as I tried to fully grasp what had just happened.
A couple hours after I crossed the finish line, I was called to the podium to receive a medal or finishing 1st in my age group, and 2nd overall amateur (12th including professionals) and claimed a qualifying spot for the Xterra World Championships. Although my energy tank was on empty, my heart was full of gratitude.
I can’t even describe in words what it means to me to have the opportunity to turn my dream into reality. Through this journey thus far, as mine is far from over, I have been
helped by so many people in so many ways. I have met competitors that have become best friends, and have had Coaches who have become family.
Coming from rock bottom to where I am today has been beyond my wildest dreams. But, what continues to inspire and motivate me is to be an inspiration to others who may be struggling with some aspect of their life, whether it be addiction or something else. Everyone has their own battles, and if I can help someone else beat this thing or improve their life, every obstacle I have and will encounter is worth it. I want to show people if I can do it, they can too.
I am truly overwhelmed with joy and excitement to have the opportunity to compete in a World Championship competition in which 46 countries will be represented. I am honored to be able to pursue this dream of mine, as well as represent Macon County, NC.