Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness (2015)

Suzy Favor Hamilton

Many athletes have a hard time retiring….This was not the case for me.  I had hated competing for decades, since high school really, and had been looking forward to retiring for years.  –SFH

I devoured Ms Hamilton’s memoir in three days.  Most running books — think Born to Run — glorify the thrill and natural beauty of running.  Since we’re high on Star Wars at the moment, we can think of this as the ‘light side’ of running.  The endorphins, the alpine forests, the satisfaction of laying out a challenge for oneself and completing it.  Far fewer books foray in the dark side of running.

The dark side of running isn’t the pain, or exhaustion, or the daily trudge of training.  Those are difficult, yes, and at times unpleasant.  But the dark side is what resides within the mind.  The gnawing self-doubt, the suffocating weight of performance expectations, and the terrifying loss of control over one’s own body.  And the feeling of entrapment, that you don’t want to let your family down, or your team, your coach, and everyone else.  Suzy Favor Hamilton suffered from crippling pre-race anxiety.  In one episode she recalls wishing her leg would break.  Child sports stars often feel like passive spectators in their own circus.  Like many other young athletes, bulimia was Suzy Hamilton’s way of exerting a measure of control over her teenage years.  Her longterm eating disorder was a clear sign of larger psychological problems, including what eventually manifested as bipolar depression.  Suzy was certain that members of her family knew but never addressed her bulimia.  After all, she was winning.

Some professional athletes have admitted to how much they hated competing (Andre Agassi is a prime example).  But public exposure of Ms Hamilton’s post-career foray into Las Vegas sex work compelled her to be unusually candid about her mental illness, including the roles of compulsion and mania in driving her success as a runner.

Being bipolar means being insatiable.  The high of the mania is never high enough.  There is always a desire — a need — to push the high to the next level, in the same way that a drug addict constantly requires more and stronger drugs. — SFH

According to the book, Ms Hamilton’s slip into prostitution was simply a different outlet for the same manic drive that took her to three Olympics and a record 9 NCAA titles.  Only after intentionally throwing herself to the track during the 1500m finals at the Sydney Olympics did she finally say enough and retire from the sport.  However, bipolar is a demanding mistress, and ultimately she only ended up substituting one compulsion on the track for another in Vegas.

An interesting foil to Hamilton’s experience is her best friend Mary Hartzheim, who joined the University of Wisconsin’s running program with Suzy as an equally talented freshman.  Mary is the paragon to which Suzy aspires — a balanced, charismatic girl who ran hard but was never consumed by it.  After running four years at Wisconsin, Mary calmly walked away from the sport.

~            ~            ~

I never had a mental illness.  Or an eating disorder.  But that doesn’t mean I never tangoed with the dark side of running.  That I didn’t regularly wish the bus would break down on the way to a track meet.  That the smell of icyhot doesn’t still give me a jolt of panic decades later.  That I couldn’t relate to everything Suzy Favor Hamilton experienced as a runner (no, not the sex worker part….).  The dread.  The wish that it would all just go away.  The trapped feeling of not wanting to run, but also not wanting to let everyone down.

It took me a decade to cease hating running.  To learn how to run and compete in a healthy, sustainable way.  It took a lot of friends along the way.  It took Aaron.  It took pine needles and pileated woodpeckers.  The Cook Street Track Club, the Nittany Valley Running Club, and WUS.  The Teton Crest Trail.  My mom.  I had to claw my way from the dark into the light side of running, over years and years.  Starting with a particular summer 15 years ago in New Mexico.

~            ~            ~

The August sun in New Mexico will punish you for sleeping in on a Sunday.  But the possibility of rising before 9am never even occurs to a 20-year old kid.  So I affixed my anti-solar armaments: a $10 pair of sunglasses, a Boston Red Sox hat, and a pair of old biking gloves I had borrowed.  I can remember so many details about the man who lent me those biking gloves, but after a decade and a half I can no longer recall his name.  On my first day in the Albuquerque sun I had managed to slather SPF 50 sunblock everywhere except for the backs of my hands, and now I put on the biking gloves religiously each time I left the house.  I wore them driving the 1992 4-runner (lent to me by the same man who’d lent the gloves), going for runs, and riding the neighbor’s black Tennessee Walker.  Within ten minutes of heading out the door, I could feel the sun’s noontime rays cooking the backs of my hands, even through the gloves.

Twenty-year olds also don’t carry water on runs, and my mouth was fully parched after two miles.  But the dryness hardly registered.  My mind was too busy churning over a single question, which rolled over and over  inside my skull like waves tapping on the shore.  To run or not to run…..

My soccer season had been a bust.  I didn’t like the Amherst dining hall’s offerings and had lost too much weight at the start of the fall.  Under-strength, I injured my Achilles and never really bounced back.  But just a couple weeks after the soccer season ended, I came roaring out onto the indoor track, winning the opening pre-Christmas mile and ending up 10th at the NCAA National meet in the 1500m, despite some rookie mistakes.

The question boiled down to: should I do something I’m mediocre at but love (soccer), or something I’m talented at but detest (running)?  Should I be happy?  Or should I be good?  In all my (rather expensive) Stanford/Amherst education, from Plato to the Buddha to Tolstoy, none of it seemed to offer any kind of insight into this simple but life-defining question.

If you were looking for a sign of where my athletic loyalties lay, you had to look no further than my clothes. Sweating through the New Mexico desert, it’s appealing to imagine me in some slick little running outfit, maybe one of those Oiselle tank tops and some Sonja-style spandex over my sleek 110-lb frame.  I can guarantee this was not the case.  My thighs were most certainly swimming in baggy Lanzera soccer shorts.  You could have fit three of me inside one of my billowing cotton tees from an old soccer tournament.  If running was stupid, running clothes were even stupider.  Except for long running tights that were absolutely necessary to survive the New England winter, I didn’t own a single piece of running apparel.

I had given running the slip before.  That was the whole point of escaping to Stanford, the one university that hadn’t recruited me to run.  I didn’t have Suzy Hamilton’s kind of manic drive propelling me to run.   In junior year of high school, when I started throwing races, my parents sent me to a sports psychologist.

‘So, why are you here today, Martha?’

‘I haven’t been running very well.  I dropped out of a race.’

‘How do you feel when you run?’

‘Like I’m going through the motions.  I hate running.  I’ve always hated it.  I don’t want to do it anymore.’

The point of going to the therapist was to identify and treat the mental blocks that were preventing me from performing.  I walked out of there with a carte blanche to never run a step again if I didn’t want to.  As far as I was concerned, therapy rocked.

But choosing a university because it’s track program is too elite to notice you wasn’t exactly sharp decision-making, and transferring to Amherst after freshman year had been, far and away, the toughest and best decision I’d ever made.  At Stanford I wasn’t good enough (or committed enough) to do anything.  Doors swung wide open in the Pioneer Valley.  I could study biology — and Russian — and creative writing.  I could play varsity soccer — and compete on the equestrian team (pony jumping!) — and something even lured me back to the good ole track.

The problem with running wasn’t the pain.  I played soccer through broken bones, bloody noses, heat strokes, etc.  One year in Cocoa Beach, FL we played through a raging hurricane that pelleted our faces so hard the opposing team forfeited at half time.  Even when I got benched in 7th grade for being small (I was 4th percentile for weight), my love of soccer never flickered.  The problem was that running felt like something I was forced to do, simply because I was good at winning races.  On Sundays when I was supposed to do a long run I would delay all day.  Finally, just before it started to get dark I’d shove two or three cupcakes in my mouth and try to get myself out the door.  I ran all my runs the same: slow and miserable at the beginning, and then at some point I’d realize I was only a mile or two from home and I’d dash home with such delight that I was done.  And not have to run again, at least for another day.

The desert has a way of distilling complex issues, melting them down to their essence.  Something deep in my bones wanted to run, and I could feel it out in the open sands.  The desert is so still, you can hear voices you’ve never heard before.  Prophesies whispering through the sage.  Not promising victories or crowns.  The glow of victory lasts two weeks, tops.  No, I was promised something sweeter: ownership.

There was a different kind of running out there.  Not the circles around the track.  No smell of icyhot.  I was not beholden to Ned, my track coach, or even my teammates or parents.  I’d have to follow my own nose, but there was a different kind of running out there, and it would lead me to everything that would be important to me in life, everything that I would love and hold sacred.

This New Mexico adventure had been my first night spent alone in a hotel room.  My first solo road trip.  I had ordered my first beer (they didn’t seem to card out here) and sat at the bar drinking alone, just like in the movies.  I called from pay phones to let my family know I was still alive.

That day I made a deal with the desert.  I would run.

I ran cross country that fall, but fiercely on my own terms.  That made for tense coach-athlete relations, and Ned suspended me from the team in the heart of the season, from mid-September to mid-October.  I trotted around on my own, and returned for the last meets.  I PRed by 30 seconds at Nationals (17:44 for 5k) on a cold November day in Wisconsin, earning All-America with a 19th place finish, and propelled Amherst women to a best-ever 7th place team finish.  And then I walked away and never competed for Amherst again.  Everyone thought I was burned out.  But I was just beginning.



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