Ben Pepper runs from the bottom to the top

Ben Pepper stood in the kitchen, looking out the window.

It was time for breakfast. His meal would be the same as it was for years: alcohol. Though bourbon was his favorite, he wasn’t picky. He wanted whatever and as much as he could get.

Children playing in the backyard caught his eye.

“It would be nice to have kids one day,” he remembers thinking.

Something snapped. Guys who, at that time, don’t have a GED, are homeless if not for the kindness of friends, have been arrested at least six times, drink too much and smoke a lot of marijuana may not be the best candidates for fatherhood.

As he continued to watch the children, Pepper’s realization hit its next gear.

“I can’t have a family if I keep doing this,” he thought.

It was June 17, 2013. He was 21 years old, young enough to make changes, but old enough to not be able to fix some of his mistakes, such as dropping out of high school.

Pepper stopped smoking cigarettes and marijuana. He occasionally will drink, but he knows when to stop.

He stopped indulging the self-destructive lows that started as the class clown who hated the structure and inability to express himself at an orthodox Jewish school in Toco Hills and eventually avalanched into arrests for everything from public intoxication to criminal damage when he was a teenager.

But he needed a new outlet for those energies. He needed a new high.

A few weeks before his epiphany, he turned to an uncle, Larry Pepper, for advice. The uncle, a triathlete with at least 80 races finished, advised him to find a passion, something he could pour his energy into.

Perhaps with that thought echoing in his head, Ben Pepper ran four miles the day after his kitchen realization.

“I ran from cops before,” he said. “I’ve always been athletic. But it was the ugliest run you’ve ever seen, those four miles.”

He got better. So much so that he will be seeded in this year’s The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race on Monday.

As he tells his story, Pepper will sometimes stop and laugh after saying something that sounds surreal such as: “I didn’t have the work ethic to deal (drugs anymore) because I was drinking a lot,” or “having the law over you, it wears you down and stresses you out.”

Running was the start of his recovery, but triathlons became the focus of his attentions.

Pepper’s problems started early. Larry Pepper said Ben wasn’t a bad kid. Very silly, very bright, very polite, very independent. But Ben’s anger and the apathy dragged him down. His parents, both teachers, pulled him from the orthodox school, which was fine with him, but put him in a local public school where he said he was the only white kid in his class. Because he hated that situation, he and a best friend would concoct ways to receive in-school suspensions. That way, he didn’t have to study, but his parents wouldn’t know. He eventually quit school.

He already was smoking marijuana. He then started dealing marijuana to some of the kids in the neighborhood, making as much as $500 per week. Police raided the house when he was 16 years old, but the charges were reduced because all he had on him was marijuana, and no baggies that indicate someone is dealing.

He quit dealing, but that was replaced with drinking a fifth of bourbon every night when he was 17 years old. He said the only time he didn’t drink was when he was in jail.

More and more episodes followed until his parents, fearing for their other children, make the tough decision to kick him out of the house when he was 20 years old. It was winter. He was cold. All of the money that he earned either working at a local butcher shop or selling drugs was spent on alcohol. He had no education with which to find a job that could pay enough to live.

He slept in bathrooms — really anywhere warm that he could find — until a friend offered to put him up at her house. That’s where he had his epiphany and eventually found running, cycling and swimming, and help from the Atlanta Triathlon Club and its members.

The pain of training — the cramps, the jelly legs, the numbness — energize him.

“Just the feeling of pushing your body past what it’s used to, getting on the edge and feeling so bad when you are racing and training … it’s an amazing feeling,” he said.

The 10K he will run the morning of the Fourth of July is just an appetizer for the brutal training that he puts himself through weekly: 400 miles on the bike, 40 miles running, seven miles swimming.

The training takes 30 hours. He also works at the Spicy Peach. He would like to spend some time taking college classes — he has earned a few credits at Georgia Perimeter College — but the finances of a shelf-stocker can carry him only so far, and hours run short in a week. He wants to become a teacher or counselor, something where he can work with kids and try to steer them away from the trouble that he put himself into. He expresses interesting in receiving a scholarship offer because he is a strong cyclist.

Pepper’s goal is to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. To do that, he said he needs to finish among the leaders in his age group at a qualifying race. He is confident that he can. He needs money. Training and competing in just one triathlon costs thousands of dollars. He has competed in four so far, sometimes with varying degrees of help from the Atlanta Triathlon Club.

His uncle said Pepper also has trouble with throttling back. He has thrown himself into the sport with the same energy he used to spend looking for trouble. He doesn’t like to take off days and has yet to understand that slowing down to rest can eventually make an athlete faster.

It’s part of the maturation process that Pepper is undergoing after years of living the life of someone who had a difficult time understanding accountability and responsibility.

All of his legal problems are now over.

That was another date that he remembers: March 25, 2016.

“I’ll never get to that bottom (again),” he said.

He said he has no regrets because without his past experiences he wouldn’t be looking toward what he thinks will be a bright future.

“I don’t know if I would have found triathlon without experiencing everything I’ve been through,” he said.