Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness - Suzy Favor Hamilton (2015)

Chapter 2. PERFECT

When I discovered running, I loved that it was so pure, just my body and me. I was in charge of the outcome, no one else. I didn’t have to worry about letting my teammates down like I’d done when I tried basketball, where my legs were too fast for my limited coordination. Or in gymnastics, where my body just wouldn’t bend like the other girls’, and I couldn’t seem to keep up.

Every year, we had an elementary school track meet that included all of the schools in the region. I was running the 400-meter race when I had probably the best running moment of my entire life. As on that day in the woods, I found myself running effortlessly, faster with each stride. As I rounded the final corner in our school’s 400-meter track, I found myself leading the pack of young runners by at least seventy-five meters.

The bleachers were crammed with kids from nearby schools, and with the last hundred meters to go, I passed the section of the stands where my schoolmates were seated together. When they realized that I was winning, and by such a big lead, they went wild. “Suzy! Suzy! Suzy!” they chanted as I ran by them.

Soon, all of the students in the stands joined in. A feeling of pride and joy swelled up inside of me. I crossed the finish line, feeling the triumphant sensation of the tape hitting my chest, far before anybody else on the cinder track. As I slowed to a stop, I looked up at the stands, where everyone was beaming down at me, shouting and clapping. Oh my gosh, all of these people are cheering me on. In an instant, my triumph turned to self-consciousness. They’re all staring at me.

I’d found my thing, what I was meant to do. I ran as much as I could after that, not just in school, but on my own, too. Now, my need for perpetual motion was met not as much by frenzied cleaning of our house for my mom, or hours of active absorption in an art project, but by going for a run.

When I joined our middle school’s track squad in seventh grade, I was introduced to the concept of training. Everything changed. I was so much faster than the other girls that our coach had me run with the boys’ team, so I’d have a more challenging workout. This only went so far, as I was already faster than most of the boys, too. I didn’t like being singled out like this, and track practice became anxiety inducing. While I still loved to run, I now found myself unsure about continuing. I’d always tried hard to keep up with my dad and brother, but this was different. Competing against my peers was more complicated. I wanted to win, but I could also tell that my talent made me different. Being different means you are treated differently. I hated not being able to blend in. Thankfully, my sister Kris was already on the track team, and while she wasn’t as fast as me—or as obsessed with winning—she was also a gifted runner. We were still very close, and she helped to make practice fun. We would goof around with our teammates, playing pranks on each other and pulling down each other’s track shorts, which always made us laugh so much.

My parents were immediately very supportive of my running. They attended all my meets, no matter where they were. My dad borrowed a van from his company and drove my team across the country to meets in other states. The praise and accolades that came with track made my parents proud. I saw that I could distract them from their stress and fears about Dan. But their attention made me feel more pressure to win; there was no way I could let them down, not when I was making them so happy. Kris was generous enough to make sacrifices for me, but I never thought of doing so for her because I couldn’t focus on anything but crossing the finish line first. During one cross-country race we ran together, my glasses fogged up, impeding my visibility and slowing my pace. Kris stayed by my side, leading me through the course, until the last two hundred meters. With the finish line just ahead, I lost sight of sisterly solidarity and sped ahead of her, winning the race. At the time, I thought nothing of such behavior. As long as I won, nothing else mattered. Of course, looking back, I can see how selfless her act was.

I was completely focused on my running, and how it made me feel. Running was my answer to everything. The more tension-filled the situation with Dan became at home, the harder I trained. The harder I trained, the more I won, and the more I was taken away from home by practice and meets, which also took me away from the family drama. Unfortunately, this didn’t bring me any relief, though. My anxiety and the added drive it caused within me led me to pull up into myself. This became the pattern of my life, and it fit. We didn’t share our emotions in my family anyway, and by training constantly and pushing myself on the track, I could deny I had any. As I got older, I became even more focused, and winning became even more complicated. In my freshman year at Stevens Point Area Senior High, I won every race, and all of the local and regional races too. Then, at the statewide meet, I won for the mile, and in cross-country for the two-mile, or 3,200-meter, race. My parents, and my hometown, were overjoyed, but I became instantly miserable.

Sure, I wanted to win. I liked to win. But, in truth, I needed to win. Even as I stood with my teammates, receiving my medal, the wheels in my head were turning. Now I have to win every state meet I ever run. There’s no choice. If I were to lose, I’d let everyone down—my parents, my coach, my community—and that can’t happen.

And thus began a cruel cycle in my life. The more obsessed I became, the faster I ran; the faster I ran, the more notoriety I received; and the more notoriety I received, the more obsessed I became. Soon, even winning wasn’t enough.

AT THE END OF MY sophomore year, the ’84 Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles. From the moment I started running competitively, the Olympics were in my sights. Becoming an Olympian now became my obsession.

I’d just won the 1,500 meters in a record time of 4:19 at the U.S. Junior Nationals. That year, the Junior Nationals were held in conjunction with the Olympic trials in order to give us student athletes a feel for international competition. International competition meant larger crowds, more intense scrutiny, and that I’d be running alongside Olympians.

Before my race, my coach brought me to the warm-up track where the Olympic runners were all stretching. I stood beside him, watching uncertainly.

“Okay, Suzy, go warm up,” he said, nodding toward the runners.

I froze. These were the great Olympians I’d always idolized. Who was I to warm up with them?

“I can’t go in there,” I said, ducking my head in shame.

“Of course you can, Suzy,” he said. “You’re the Junior National Champion.”

I shook off his words and stepped away from the grass near the track. My coach didn’t understand. No one could. I knew that I was in constant danger of failing at any moment. I knew that I was never good enough. But my coach was confused and frustrated, though he finally let me warm up where I felt like I really belonged: in the parking lot.

Even so, when I saw the runners I most admired fly around that track, being cheered on by the whole world, I knew I had to be an Olympian. I decided I was willing to do anything it took to make this happen. School, relationships, family, anything that didn’t directly support that goal would have to be put aside.

For an overwhelming majority of my cross-country races during my junior and senior years, I beat all my competitors by a substantial distance. Given that, I should have been flush with confidence. Instead, meets became a source of dread. My mind began to go to very dark places before each and every race. As the hours before a meet ticked away, my stomach became a fist of nerves, and I had one thought: If I could just break my legI wouldn’t have to run this race.

I wasn’t alone in these feelings. In 1986, during my senior year in high school, one of the top college runners in the country, twenty-one-year-old junior Kathy Ormsby, was running the 10,000-meter race in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s outdoor track-and-field championships when she found herself in fourth place. She suddenly veered off the track and jumped from a bridge in a suicide attempt that left her paralyzed. This was obviously big news in the running world, shocking many. I was too young and, frankly, too consumed to see the connection between Kathy and myself. I just kept my head down and trained harder, convinced I would never let myself fall to fourth place in any race.

I took it upon myself to do extra miles in the morning before school, but that quickly proved too difficult, as it meant waking up at 6 A.M. to run, doing a full school day, and then training with my team afterward. So I began running at lunch during the week, usually after eating only an apple, while my friends in the cafeteria flirted with boys and planned the next party or night of drinking and hanging out. Kris didn’t feel compelled to put in extra training, and so we didn’t spend as much time together as we once had. My dad began asking if he could run with me, but the idea of having him get involved with my training so directly felt like more added pressure, so I didn’t let him. Instead I sought his praise in other ways, continuing to take on extra chores around the house, such as the laundry and ironing, and mastering skills I knew my dad admired. I already loved art, so it was easy for me to throw myself into art projects at school, in hopes he’d appreciate my work. He built stilts for us kids to use, and I was the one who used them the most. I was also the one who mastered the unicycle he brought home, sometimes riding it to school. My family didn’t have to be on my runs with me to see how hard I was pushing myself. Eventually my mother stopped me in our kitchen, with concern in her eyes.

“Just take a day off,” she said.

Not an option, I thought as I shrugged and went out for a ten-mile run. As I ran, my worries ricocheted through my head: I’m not fast enough. I’m not thin enough. My body has to be stronger and tighter. I can’t let anyone beat me because I’ll let my family down. I’ll let my coach down. I’ll let my community down.

ONE NIGHT IN HIGH SCHOOL, I was babysitting for a single mom who lived nearly two miles from me. She was friends with my older sister Carrie, and the two of them were out together that night. The baby was little, and soon after I arrived he fell asleep.

The mother had assured me that she would be home by ten, which was important to me because I had a big regional race the next day. My dad was the meet promoter, and the event was a huge deal in our small community of twenty-eight thousand people. It was my hometown. My dad was hosting the race. I had to win. Around nine thirty, I stretched out on the couch. The next time I looked at my watch it was ten thirty, and the woman wasn’t home yet. My brain went to the dark place. Why aren’t you here? I’m going to lose tomorrow because you said you would be home at ten, and I’m not going to be able to get my sleep, and I’m going to lose. My father will be mortified. My whole town will be angry. I forced my eyes shut. I felt guilty, because I knew I shouldn’t go to sleep when I was supposed to be caring for a child. But I needed my rest for my race in the morning. I must have finally drifted into sleep. Somehow, while I was sleeping, I got off the couch, went to the door, and opened it; I had a very clear vision of my hand on the knob.

The next thing I knew, I was running. It was like I woke up, and my legs were already flying beneath me. The night was dark and hazy, with the shadows from the streetlamps suddenly coming up on me, then falling away behind me, as I ran faster and faster. I felt like I was sprinting through a nightmare. I was washed in waves of panic, but I couldn’t stop my legs. They were moving of their own will. Oh my god, what did I just do? I left that baby all alone.

I wanted to stop. I wanted to turn back. All I could do was run. By this time, I was about half a mile from my house and nearly hysterical. I ran in the door and burst into my parents’ bedroom. I leaned down over my mom, in tears, and woke her up.

“Mom, I left the baby,” I said, crying hard.

She sat up, surprised.

By this point, my mom and dad were both fully awake. My dad got dressed and led me to the kitchen. He told me to get into his car so he could drive me back to the woman’s house. I was petrified that we’d discover that something terrible had happened to the baby. As soon as we parked, I raced into the house, my dad close behind me. I opened the door as gently as I possibly could, my hand shaking, and peeked in: the baby was asleep in his crib, just as I’d left him earlier in the night. My dad then left me sitting on the couch, placing a book and a glass of water near me. The baby was safe, but I couldn’t calm down. I felt terrible about what I’d done, and my heart was pounding. When the mother came home a few moments later, she was concerned when I confessed to what had happened, but relieved that her son was safe. Needless to say, that was the end of my babysitting for a while.

Finally, I made it home and climbed into bed. I got up the next day, and I won the race.

Feeling out of control, I found one thing I did have power over: what I ate, or more accurately, how little I ate. If my parents pushed, I ate even less. Between the minuscule amount of food I was eating and the excessive training, my body was starving itself. But I didn’t think about that. I was running faster by eating less. I liked the results.

At this point, my biggest goal was to get into a college with a great running program. The college-level runners I saw were far thinner than I was. They all looked anorexic, and I wanted that for myself. I tried to starve myself completely, but with all my training it just wasn’t sustainable, so I became bulimic instead. I worked out a complicated system, where I binged on a whole tray of brownies or a bunch of pasta—I think my body craved sugar—and then I purged. Right afterward, I felt awful, worse than before I had stuffed myself. It was a vicious, terrible cycle, and one that I hid completely. I’m sure my parents suspected, but if they had ever confronted me I would have become furious. My parents stayed silent, true to the culture of our family. They never wanted to do anything that might upset me—the one in the family who made them the most proud.

I became friends during this time with a fellow runner from Colorado. We had met at several national meets, and somehow we realized that we shared a secret. We confided in each other at meets and in the letters we exchanged about bingeing and purging. But she was the only one who knew, or at least the only person who acknowledged my behavior. Our friendship was incredibly reassuring for me because it made me feel like what I was doing was safe, good for me even. She was a great runner, and she threw up after she ate, so clearly there was nothing wrong with me doing it. It became our bond, a bond in sickness and obsession.

While I was considering colleges, I originally dreamed of going to school in California. I wanted to live a life completely different than the one I’d always known in Wisconsin, where I could train under the palm trees and spend weekends at the beach. Stanford was among the many schools to recruit me because of my national standing as a runner, but my top choice was UCLA. My parents didn’t really understand what it would mean for me to attend a prestigious school like Stanford, and my dad suggested I go to a small school in Stevens Point, so I could be close to home. I knew I could never compete at the level I dreamed of unless I went to a school with a top track program. But when I began the application process, it became clear that my poor grades would make it difficult for me to get into many of the schools, even with my gift for running. I barely squeaked into UCLA, but as much as they wanted me for their running program, they made it clear that it wasn’t going to be easy for me to maintain my place there.

And then I met with Peter Tegen, who coached the women’s running team at the University of Wisconsin. Originally from East Germany, he had an aura of greatness about him, and he was known as one of the best coaches in the country. The university had a summer running camp for the best high school runners in the state, which I had attended, so I had met Peter and he had seen me run. My sister Kris was a freshman at the university and on the running team, so I continued to see Peter at her events. When I visited on my recruiting trip, it was clear that all the runners on his team had a huge amount of respect for him. During the practice I sat in on, I watched with interest as Peter walked into the room and the entire team immediately stopped talking or goofing around. As he spoke, they hung on his every word. I was so impressed with him and what seemed like his drive to get his athletes to succeed. I even liked that he didn’t recruit me as aggressively as other programs. It just wasn’t in his nature to be pushy or flamboyant, and this made me even more convinced that his priorities were in the right place and that he was the ideal coach for me. The University of Wisconsin had just won the national championships in cross-country, so becoming part of the best running program in the country was also very enticing. How could I not attend the university in my home state, which was so proud of me and had done so much to support my running? Peter also told me during my recruiting trip that another Wisconsin runner I’d also become friends with during state meets, Mary Hartzheim, was attending Wisconsin on a full scholarship, and that clinched the deal for me. “Where do I sign?” I asked, in my mind already decorating the dorm room I would share with Mary.

I, too, was granted a full scholarship to the university. Madison was two hours from Stevens Point, so I could still visit home often, while enjoying the kind of freedom most kids crave when they go off to college.

By choosing my family and running for Wisconsin over UCLA, I focused all of my attention on the two things that mattered to me the most without realizing how much I was limiting my horizons. Wisconsin in the 1980s still maintained much of the small-town innocence and charm of the ’50s. No one locked their doors and everybody looked out for each other. Most people focused on their family, their church, and their hometown pride, which was why college and even high school athletics were followed with such fervor. There wasn’t much else to get excited about.

There was still a stigma at this time about people who were mentally ill; in fact, the term we used was crazy, and crazy people belonged in a loony bin. I’m not proud of it, but I sometimes felt that way about Dan. When my parents asked me if I wanted to go see a psychiatrist, probably to discuss my food issues and maybe how Dan’s illness was affecting me, I was appalled.

“Absolutely not,” I said. “I will never go to a psychiatrist.”

When I was growing up, in the 1970s, mental illness was rarely discussed. Remember, we were not too many years away from the time when mentally ill patients were shuttered away, sent to live in asylums forever, separated from and even forgotten by their families. Some were subjected to horrific treatments like lobotomies, which today seem barbaric, the stuff of horror films. And while that practice had fallen out of favor by the time I came of age, there remained a horrible stigma attached to being mentally ill. It wasn’t just my family who avoided this topic. There was fear, of course, but also a lack of knowledge about the kinds of mental illness that exist, their symptoms, and the courses of action that might be taken by parents, school systems, and government. Today depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are as commonly discussed as other ailments like diabetes and cancer. Everyone knows that these conditions exist, and most everyone knows there is treatment available.

With all the knowledge and experience I have now, it is plain to me that my brother suffered from mental illness at a very young age. But even after he was diagnosed, we never acknowledged it or discussed it as a family. My parents loved Dan and did what they could to help him, but they just didn’t understand him or his illness. It became easier for them to let him fade into the background and focus instead on my sisters and me, and especially my running and the great sense of pride it inspired in them. Perhaps it was just the culture, or perhaps it was our own culture of denial, but I do believe if we’d had the tools, the knowledge, and the bravery to openly face that truth, the history of my family could have been altered. I think that more than mental illness, however, the most serious issue that plagued our family was silence.