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Grand Forks man struggles through disability to get GED, run marathon

Andy Cunningham, 32, of Grand Forks is sceduled to receive his diploma from the Grand Forks Adult Learning Center May 15. Darren Gibbins, special to the Herald

For most of his life, Grand Forks native Andy Cunningham never thought about graduating from high school.

After a history of drug use, countless odd jobs and a motorcycle accident that nearly cost him his life, he didn’t think school was in the cards.


But today, at age 32, he’ll be one of 43 adult-education graduates who will receive their General Educational Development degree from the Grand Forks Adult Learning Center. They’re also the first class here to take the new and, some say, more difficult version of the high-school-equivalency exam.

Cunningham, a featured speaker at the ceremony, said he wouldn’t take any of his past experience back, no matter how painful.

“Everything that I’ve done, I wouldn’t change a thing, because I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said.

Cunningham’s now finishing up his first semester at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks with the goal of becoming a journeyman lineman. He said he wants to help build and maintain electrical power systems.

His GED was the starting point, he said.

Lowest point

At age 20, when many have already started college, Cunningham was simply trying to rise from bed.

After his accident near Grand Forks in 2001, he’d suffered a serious concussion, the last in a series of 15 he’d received from various accidents and plain bad luck, he said.

By then, he had also recovered from heavy drug use. As a teenager, he’d been addicted to heroin for a short time and tried anything else he could get his hands on, he said.

The last concussion would affect him in a major way nearly a decade later. One day, while he working in the bakery department at Hugo’s, he slipped on some water and hit his head on the concrete floor. A week later, he woke up and couldn’t move his legs, he said.  

This was a turning point in his life, he said.

For the next three or four months, Cunningham couldn’t walk and likewise couldn’t work. He applied for Social Security and disability pay while he recuperated at home.

But around the same time, he’d met a woman who inspired him by conquering struggles of her own, so he decided to push himself more — for the next few years, he began a transformation that gave him a newfound confidence, he said.

Cunningham slowly attempted to walk, despite the intense pain, and after many months of progress with the help of a gym, he brought himself to what he thought would be the impossible — join a running event. His first race was a 5K for McCain Endres, a 16-year-old high school student who died after a motorcycle accident last year.

After that, Cunningham started to sign up for more events and eventually got involved in the online group I Run 4, where runners are matched with special needs children.

Pushing himself

Cunningham said he began to wonder what else he could do. “I’m not going to be OK with just OK.”

He entertained getting his GED because of the opportunities that it carries, he said. Never one to stay at a job for long, he’d spent most of his life hopscotching from business to business in North Dakota, Utah and Arizona, picking up whatever odd jobs he could. He estimates that he worked at 64 jobs, including the ones he’d quit and reapplied to, but not once did he think a degree was necessary, he said.

Considering his health-related struggles, he thought a career as an electrician would suit him, he said.

“I’ve always had a curiosity for electricity, I knew how to wire stuff, take electronics apart and put them back together,” he said.

So, for the third time, Cunningham enrolled in adult education classes held at Community High School in Grand Forks. Within four weeks, he had his GED.

His decision to start running helped push him in that direction, he said.

In his interview last week, he said he was preparing to run a full marathon in Fargo to qualify for the Chicago Marathon in October. On Saturday, the man who once couldn’t move his legs ran 26.5 miles in five hours, 54 minutes and 33 seconds.

“I wouldn’t be able to get my GED if things didn’t happen the way they did,” he said.