Heed the tale of the tenacious Dick Beardsley: Jerry Nelson

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum
Jerry Nelson

My wife and I always enjoy attending the South Dakota Festival of Books. I like to hobnob with other authors and my wife likes to buy books. Everybody wins.

This year we went to see an old friend and fellow former dairyman, Dick Beardsley, and hear him discuss his book, “Staying The Course: A Runner’s Toughest Race.”

Dick Beardsley, 66, is a former long-distance runner who tied for first place in the inaugural London Marathon, came second in the 1982 Boston Marathon, and later recovered from an opiate addiction stemming from a series of minor and major leg injuries.

I met Dick when I was a young dairy farmer and he was a feed salesman. During our chats, I learned that Dick had participated in some sort of major footraces. Dick had an easy chuckle, a quick smile and was a deeply decent man.

It was profoundly shocking when I heard some years later that Dick had been charged with felony possession of controlled substances.

Many more details were revealed during Dick’s talk at a local library. It turned out that those footraces had included tying for first place in the inaugural London Marathon and a heartbreaking second place finish in the 1982 Boston Marathon.

Dick still has the lanky frame and stick-like limbs of a long-distance runner. Time has grayed and thinned his hair, but his easy laugh and quick smile remain unchanged.  

Describing himself as anything but a natural athlete, Dick said that he first tried out for cross country as a high school junior, hoping to earn a letter jacket that would lead to meeting girls. He finally lettered in his senior year, but it didn’t help him regarding girls.

Dick ran for a couple of different college teams, perpetually driving himself to improve. Seven years after graduating from high school, Dick ran the Boston Marathon, finishing two seconds behind winner Alberto Salazar.

After showing a video of his heart-wrenching Boston Marathon finish, Dick quipped, “Nobody has gotten more bang for the buck for finishing in second place than I have. I’ve watched that tape thousands of times and I always think, ‘Maybe this time I’ll win!’”

While training for the 1984 Olympics, Dick injured his Achilles tendon. Shortly after the tendon was surgically repaired, he blew it out again.

Dick moved back to Minnesota in 1988 and began dairy farming with his then-wife, Mary. One cold November morning, Dick was rushing to unload a wagonload of corn when his left leg became entangled in a whirring PTO shaft.

“My leg wrapped around the shaft like a strand of spaghetti,” Dick said. “When the shaft ran out of leg, it began to spin the rest of me. My head hit the frozen ground every time I went around.”

After somehow managing to disengage the PTO, Dick crawled toward his farmhouse. His left leg was nearly torn off, all of the ribs on his right side and his right arm were broken.

Later that morning in the hospital, Dick had his first experience with an opioid.

“I’ll never forget that warm and fuzzy feeling that I got from Demerol,” he said.

Dick recovered from his farm accident. But over the next few years he fell victim to several other accidents that resulted in serious injuries. This included being hit by a truck and thrown into a snowbank when he was out running.

Each hospitalization meant more pain and more painkillers. It wasn’t long before he became addicted.

“At the height of my addiction, I was taking upwards of 80 pills per day,” Dick said. “I was forging prescriptions to feed my habit.”

Dick’s activities eventually led to an interview with federal DEA agents, who thought that he was reselling the pills.

“I immediately took full responsibility,” Dick said. “I knew that I finally had to face my problems.”

Dick was placed in a hospital psych ward and given methadone to wean him off the opioids. He quickly became addicted to methadone.

Drawing on the tenacity that helped him become a world-class runner, Dick slowly fought his way back to sobriety.

“Every day, I would pray to God to help me feel better,” he said. “Some days it was a struggle just to get dressed, but I never missed any of my group sessions. I’ve been sober for 26 years, and they’ve been some of the best years of my life.”

“No matter how big your problems might seem, you have to keep faith that tomorrow will bring a new day. And after that, there will be another new day. You can make it if you don’t let anyone get in the way of your goals, least of all yourself.”

I remarked to Dick that his leg must have vast constellations of scars.

“It’s funny that water doesn’t spray out all over when I take a drink,” he chortled.

And there again was that easy chuckle and quick grin.

If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.