Ryan Navales’ first arrest happened when he was 13 years old. He recalls running through Bishop City Park in his Chuck Taylors after convincing a homeless man to buy he and his friends alcohol. He was chased and tackled to the ground by the police. They found him with a 12-pack of beer and a fifth of tequila.
Now 52, Navales has always been running; at first, he was running from his life. Now he runs for it.
Navales spoke at the most recent Winter Adventure Series Talk organized by the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center on January 27.
He opened his presentation with a school photo of himself from elementary school. Bright-eyed, Navales explained that, “there was a lot happening inside that head that wasn’t yet to come out, and I wasn’t really sure about it.”
Born and raised in Bishop, the photo of Navales was taken after he witnessed the murder of both his parents as a child.
After the horrific event, he moved in with his aunt, uncle and younger cousin, who he considers to be his parents and little sister. He described himself during his teenage years as “angry, cocky and popular.”
The next photo was of him at the Bishop High School prom at 16; he stands proudly in an all-white suit, sporting a cane, a top hat, and a mischievous grin.
He smiled at the photo. “I would end up losing that coat, that hat. I lost the cane, I lost the shoes, I had to pay a lot of extra money because I never saw any of that stuff again,” he said.
Like a lot of young people in America, Navales loved to party.
Though self-assured and confident, beneath Navales’ carefree exterior was a restlessness and rage towards the world.
“Growing up, a lot of what I heard about my parents’ death was that, ‘they’re in a better place,’” he explained. “That, ‘it’s God’s plan’ and all these types of things. So, naturally, I hated God. And I hated all the people that said that; truthfully, it was because I couldn’t articulate the right words I had towards it all. But when I heard people tell me that it was going to be okay, I knew that it wasn’t going to be okay, probably ever – or at least not until I said it was, not when they said it was,” he said.
But he maintained the persona that hid his inner turmoil; he got good grades, was the quarterback of the football team, dated cheerleaders, threw parties and led a vibrant social life.
“I did everything I could so that people would leave me alone. And I don’t think that is too uncommon,” said Navales, reflecting back on his youth.
“One thing it taught me how to do was be able to lie really well. I learned how to put up a front that nobody could truly get through,” he said.
By the time he was a teen, he had already been arrested for possession of drugs and alcohol as well as the possession of a deadly weapon.
“So much of my life had already passed before my eyes that I was jaded. I never grew up wanting to be anything. I never thought I would get out of my teens,” he recounted.
He graduated from Bishop High School and moved to Southern California shortly afterward. He failed out of college several times because of excessive partying.
“At some point in my twenties, I crossed this line where everything changed. What I was willing to do to stay drunk versus sober changed. Anything that drugs and alcohol wanted from me, I started to slide across the bar. My education? Slid across the bar. And that bar got lower and lower and lower.”
Nonetheless, Navales finally made his way through college and became a Microsoft Engineer. However, his drinking became more and more frequent. He eventually started showing up to work drunk.
His life slowly started to unravel; during the next few years, he lost his job, his house, his car, and his relationships.
“My head was going 100 miles per hour and all I knew to stop it was to pour more and more on it,” he explained.
By 29, Navales was homeless and unemployed. He slept in the local Community College’s parking garage where he would park his mountain bike.
“There was this lie I kept telling myself that this was just how I was. This was who I was. And so I started to slide my character and my integrity across the bar,” said Navales. This included committing crimes in order to get his hands on more alcohol and amphetamines.
Exhausted and broke, he eventually moved back to Bishop to live with his family. During this time he also began dating a woman and welcomed his daughter Isabella to the world. She is now 16.
“I thought having a family would’ve changed me. I thought I would be set straight,” he said.
But it didn’t.
By the time his daughter was 4, he began spending time in and out of jail and rehab, breaking his sobriety as soon as he got out just to be sent back again.
He picked up jobs he could stay drunk at, like mowing the Bishop golf course, where he filled a liter bottle full of vodka and would sip it while he worked. “Everybody is drunk at the golf course, so nobody could tell I was absolutely hammered,” he said.
“At this time I was just dreaming and drinking and dying,” he said. “I lived just to dream about the stuff I would do once I stopped drinking. But I had to drink first, because at this point I was physically addicted.”
Yellow with jaundice and a suffering liver, Navales spent his free time wandering the streets of Bishop and often spent his nights sleeping outside.
He eventually wasn’t allowed to see his daughter.
In a last-ditch effort to save him,, Navales’s aunt reached out to a cousin in Santa Monica who was 18 years sober, asking if there were any progams they knew of. The cousin made a call to Midnight Mission, a homelessness service located in Skid Row Los Angeles that focuses on drug rehabilitation.
Navales knew that Midnight Mission was his last chance to get sober. He agreed to go.
“It became clear to me at some point that I was going to die if I didn’t get sober. And somehow the knowledge that I wanted to live more than I wanted to die became stronger than the fear of living sober. That knowledge changed everything,” he said. “I became willing to do something different.”
By a stroke of luck, Navales met Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell soon after arriving at Midnight Mission. Mitchell had started a running club for the recovering addicts enrolled through the organization.
Navales’s rehab friend Ben, a 6’5” face-tattooed heavy metal bass guitarist who opened in arenas for Metallica before becoming addicted to heroin, decided he was in on the running. Navales decided at that point that he was too.
“I started running the way I knew how to drink,” said Navales. “So I started running like a mad man.”
Ben and Navales woke up early, chain smoked cigarettes, and then met to run with Judge Mitchell.
“This judge didn’t wait for anyone; whoever fell off, fell off. But we just kept pushing, because we wanted to keep up with this goddamn judge. It was a whole thing,” he said.
A year into his sobriety, Navales was running consistently. Things were slowly changing for him as well as the other members of the running group.
“We had this group of people trying to stay sober, and this man [Judge Mitchell] showing up donating his time two times a week at 6 a.m. every Monday and Thursday, and I began to feel a part of something. I was embracing life actively instead of passively for probably the first time in my life,” said Nevales.
The running group was eclectic.
“You had this Irish-Filipino kid from the sticks [Navales], this heavy metal guitar player, this former crack addict from South Central who slept under a bridge for 15 years, and we’re running together. We’re running for our lives,” he said.
While still living in Skid Row, Navales finished his first marathon in under 4 hours.
The “Skid Row Running Club” started to gain notoriety and Navales started speaking on behalf of Midnight Mission. Through donations, the organization eventually was able to travel to Africa to run a marathon as a group.
Navales’s thirst to keep running and competing became his new purpose. He began traveling the world to compete in international marathons; this included competing in the Vatican, Florence, Jerusalem, and Ecuador. He has now run marathons on 5 continents.
But something was still missing in his life.
“I was living this inspired life with Beverly Hills fundraisers and big, exciting media appearances, but the most important thing to me wasn’t in it,” said Navales. “And that was my daughter. She wasn’t part of my life and I couldn’t reconcile that.”
So, Navales left Los Angeles and came back home to Bishop.
“I got to do the Tri-County Fair with her, Halloween, Christmas Parades, Valentine’s Day, and I got to be a dad. It’s the happiest part of my life so far,” said Navales.
Due to recent knee injuries, Navales has taken up climbing as an alternative means of exercise. He and his daughter, an avid climber herself, frequently go climbing together.
He says that watching her climb is his favorite thing in the world.
“Nothing inspires me more thanwatching the world come alive through her eyes, watching her struggle, face the adversity and grind through it.”
The last photo of his slideshow was a picture of his daughter summiting a large rock in Yosemite this past summer during a climbing trip she did with a local group. Proudly smiling at the top of the rock, Navales’s daughter had the same bright look in her eyes that he had in his elementary school photo.
Navales now works for the Bishop Unified School District as well as the Inyo County Search and Rescue Team – he serves as president. He plans to spend as much time as possible being a dad and watching his daughter grow.
He ended with: “I was using alcohol and drugs to thin a veil of self-centeredness for so long because all I ever really wanted was to connect with other people, but I didn’t know how to. I’ve had a really charmed life, and not one that I necessarily deserve. I just got out of my own way,” he said.
The Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association’s Winter Adventure Series continues on February 10, featuring Ronda Kauk of the Mono Lake Kutzadika Paiute tribe at 7 p.m. The talk is titled, “A Changing Homeland” and will describe growing up in the Eastern Sierra and remaining connected with Native American traditions while living in this modern world.