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

Chapter 3. GO BADGERS

Mary and I pretty much commanded the track team from the first practice of our freshman year, and it was no shock how the older team members felt about that. We weren’t surprised that the seniors didn’t like a couple of freshmen coming in and commanding attention, but we couldn’t believe just how catty they were at times. One of the girls even pulled Coach Peter aside to air her grievances.

“They’re running too fast,” she said.

Obviously, that’s not a concern that holds much weight with a track coach. And their complaints only made Mary and me more determined to be the stars of the team. We knew we were talented, and we weren’t going to take that kind of attitude from anyone. We got even by running even faster in practice. My devotion to running dovetailed perfectly with the training philosophy of my new coach. He proudly displayed many of the stereotypes of his German background—stoic, disciplined, and tough. Over the years, he had attracted many critics for his cold demeanor and his drive to win. None of that bothered me. He had a favorite saying back then: “I don’t produce sissy runners.” This made perfect sense as far as I was concerned. What he did produce was the best collegiate female runners, and that was all I needed to know.

Peter was definitely a father figure to all of his girls, but Mary and I saw him as nothing short of God. He trained us to race in the European style, which meant being prepared to take a little abuse, a spike in the shin or an elbow in the ribs, and still keep running as fast as possible. He also trained us to be more aggressive ourselves, a new concept to me. I was a rhythm runner: I did best when I trained to get into peak physical shape, set a pace just at the top of what I could do, and stuck with it for the entire race. So, some of what Peter pushed me to do was outside of my comfort zone, but I also knew that a strategic move or show of aggression could help me in races where I was pitted against a woman who was actually faster.

My first big track race as a college athlete was the indoor mile. I felt like the eyes of the entire state were on me. I was a local, and I had chosen to attend a state school rather than head off to seek glory (and sunshine) in California. While most would have seen this as a tick in the win column out of the gate, of course I didn’t. For me it meant I had no choice but to win. As usual. I did exactly what Peter told me to do, always, and I did win that first race. In fact, when I stuck to his plan, I always won. I did have one setback in the fall of my freshman year, when I came in second in my race at the cross-country nationals. I wasn’t used to losing, and I didn’t like it one bit, but cross-country was not my specialty, so it wasn’t the end of the world. Also, the runner who won was Canadian, which meant I was still the best American female runner in that event. I had lost, but as a freshman in college I was already holding my own against the best.

Peter praised the runners who he felt earned that attention, and I came to crave his approval, just as I had with my dad. Determined to make Peter proud, I made sure to never let him down. I was golden, and determined to stay that way. Unsurprisingly, Peter’s attention inspired jealousy from some of my teammates. This didn’t feel good, but I honestly didn’t care. I only cared about what Peter cared about, and Peter cared about winning.

Peter had good intentions, but he was strict, and not just about his training regimen and how he expected us to behave during races. Peter recruited the most driven runners he could find, runners who, like me, were willing to do absolutely anything to be the best, and many of the girls he trained over the years developed eating disorders. I don’t think that there is a direct link, or blame to be placed. The 1980s were a different time in sports, and we were much less sophisticated in our knowledge of nutrition and how it could impact performance. There were no perfectly calibrated dietary guidelines for athletes, no protein shakes or energy bars. We were also teenage girls, having our first experience away from home. We didn’t think about balancing what was on our plates. We’d eat an entire bag of cookies, or whatever junk food was salty, fatty, or sweet, and then do what we had to do to get rid of the excess in our bodies. None of the coaches or trainers thought to address anorexia and bulimia as mental health disorders that required intervention and treatment.

The bulimia I had developed in high school was full blown by the time I started college. I didn’t think I could change my behavior around food if I was going to keep winning, and I knew I couldn’t stop winning.

So, I devised a method to manage my bulimia. Every day, I brought two bags to the dining hall—one plastic, one paper. I stuffed the plastic bag with large quantities of the kinds of comfort foods that were popular in the Midwest—casseroles, mashed potatoes, and brownies—and then put the plastic bag inside the paper bag, so no one could see what was inside. I then went back to my room at a time when I knew Mary had class, so I’d be alone, and I binged on my stash. Then, I purged right into the plastic bag, still inside the paper bag, and carried it out to the trash can in the hallway. There were plenty of girls who threw up in the bathroom of my dorm so everyone could hear. But I never wanted anyone to know the measures I was taking to stay lean and fast. I needed to maintain my façade of perfection.

I liked the feeling of control the bulimia gave me. Right after I threw up, I felt physically terrible, worse than I had before I’d eaten all of that garbage. But soon after, I felt clean and orderly, which was a relief compared to how I usually felt. As much as I bent under the will of my father, first, and then Peter to determine what my priorities would be and what I needed to do to achieve them, sometimes I did pine to have my own voice. But that desire was overshadowed by the anxiety that came with my quest to be perfect, all the time, and my fears around growing up, boyfriends and sex, and my family. The bulimia felt like one thing I could control.

No matter how skinny I was, I always felt heavy, especially because I didn’t have what I thought of as the perfect running body. I had big boobs, and they were noticeable when I ran. Deeply insecure, I felt it wasn’t enough to be a great runner; I had to look like a great runner, too, and I was constantly worried about the fact that I didn’t. I did everything to hide my large breasts, specifically ordering a team shirt that was too large for me and then cutting it apart and altering it to hang even more loosely on me. It didn’t work. One day my coach called me into his office and read me a letter he’d received from a female supporter of the team: “Tell Suzy it would be a good idea for her to wear two sports bras when she runs.”

As these words left his mouth, I slunk lower in my chair, unable to meet his eyes. I was mortified. I couldn’t understand why someone had sent this letter. What did this woman know about my body? What business was it of hers how many sports bras I wore? I was trying to be a serious athlete. I devoted nearly every waking moment to my training, and now I had to fight this judgmental voice in my head, too? I slunk out of his office, deeply ashamed. But I started wearing two sports bras when I ran.

My shame turned to rage later in my college track career, when I learned that one of the coaches of the men’s track team had filmed me while I was training and showed his team members a video of my breasts bouncing as I ran. A shot putter on the team, who happened to be my friend, told me. The coach was disciplined, but not before I’d been humiliated all over again. What the coach meant as sexist ogling, I took as a testament to what was wrong with me.

Soon after the video incident, I had a stress fracture to my femur, which is extremely hard to do and extremely painful. The injury could become serious, and it meant that I had to back off from my training. This pushed me to obsess about my weight that much more. To make matters worse, my injury wouldn’t heal. I gave myself a rest, but I wasn’t getting better. Before then, I’d never thought about what bulimia might be doing to my body other than keeping it thin. I wasn’t aware of how the lack of nutrients in my body might make me infertile or destroy my bone density. When I got injured, I began to observe other runners on the team and notice that the girls who were obviously anorexic became injured more frequently than those who weren’t. But I still wasn’t concerned enough to stop my bingeing and purging, which I felt I needed to do more than ever now in order to keep my weight down. It wasn’t until later, in a nutrition class, that I gained the kind of specific knowledge that meant I could no longer downplay the connection between eating disorders and injuries.

My health wasn’t the only thing that took a backseat to my running in college. When I entered the University of Wisconsin, my academic adviser was well aware of how poor my grades had been in high school and how difficult it had been for me to get into college, even with my obvious running talent. At the start of my freshman year, my classmates were given the opportunity to test out of our required math and English classes. Not only did I not qualify to skip the basic courses in these subjects, but my particularly low scores on the English portion revealed that I most likely had a learning disability. I had such myopic focus on my running that I didn’t take the time to really absorb what this might mean, and no one I encountered in the school’s administration or athletics department ever addressed my academic prospects: they simply wanted me to keep winning.

By the time of my first meeting with my adviser during freshman year, I was already having trouble with my classes. “I’m really struggling,” I said.

“You’re going to make it,” he said. “I guarantee you. We will get you through college. You will have no problem.”

My adviser arranged for me to have a tutor so my grades wouldn’t become so low that I was disqualified from competing. Then he pulled out the catalog and helped me schedule a course load of what the other athletes and I called the “blow-off” classes. It didn’t matter that college was supposed to prepare me for a future career, after running. I was going to enjoy the treatment of a star athlete, which meant easy classes and professors looking the other way if I didn’t do my work on time or well. I was not accountable for anything except how I did on the track. This suited me perfectly. The normal star athlete major was physical education, but I couldn’t pass kinesiology, and so I lucked out and got to fall back on a major that was actually something I loved almost as much as running: art. Even so, I still couldn’t make it through college on my own. I had a tutor who wrote a couple of my papers for me. I was not her only client, though, and she once wrote the exact same paper for twenty-five student athletes. This incident almost got me expelled, but I knew deep down that I would never get kicked out of school. I was too valuable as a runner for the school to make that move. Another time, I had a psychology final the day after I got back from the national cross-country meet where I’d just placed second. I hadn’t studied one bit. I hadn’t had time, and even if I had all the time in the world I didn’t have the ability to study. I never had and I didn’t know how. Mary and I were together in our room when I confessed.

“I’m going to fail,” I wailed. “What am I going to do?”

Mary was the kind of person who always pulled everything off at the last minute, with maximum grace, and she knew exactly what I should do.

“Call the professor,” she said.

I hated confrontation or drawing attention to myself in any way, and I was extremely nervous, but I gathered my courage. When I got the professor on the phone, I got right to the point.

“I know we have our final tomorrow,” I said. “And I didn’t study one bit. I just got second at the cross-country nationals.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “You don’t have to take it. We’ll just average your grades from your previous tests, a C and a D, and give you a C.”

“Thank you,” I said.

And that was that.

I was relieved and grateful. Now I could get away with not studying, without a single consequence. Sitting in a classroom was torture for me, and I hated anything I wasn’t good at, so I didn’t even try. As far as I was concerned, I was already good at something—so why bother with the rest?

Thankfully, I had Mary. She became like a sister to me. She was my best friend, and the only person in my life who ever made me feel like I could completely be myself. Mary was as serious about running as I was, but unlike me, she was incredibly bright and always did very well in school, even when she was putting papers off until the last minute because she was in the midst of some wild adventure.

I was in awe of Mary and so glad to be her friend. She was a total tomboy, but gorgeous even so. She had beautiful wavy brown hair, a huge smile, and a natural glow, so she never had to wear makeup. I used to have fun trying to make her more feminine—curling her hair and making up her face. But even without that, all of the boys had crushes on her, and it was obvious why. She was the life of every party. She didn’t need to be the center of attention, she simply was. People paid attention to Mary and wanted to be with her. She had a profound influence on me. Mary wanted to be a standout athlete, too, but she wasn’t obsessive like I was. She wasn’t plagued by anxiety. She was the one person who made me relax.

We couldn’t drink much, because we had to stay in top shape, but there were a few times, just after nationals, when we let loose. These are some of my fondest memories of college. Just before Christmas vacation during freshman year, we got all dolled up. I curled my hair and painted my face, then Mary let me do the same for her. We bundled up against the cold weather and hurried over to this bar called the Kollege Klub, known as the KK. As we walked up to the door, I took in deep gulps of the cold, damp air. Snow was on the way. I was nervous. I’d never been to a bar before and I was well aware that as freshmen, we looked like babies to the older students. I was afraid, too, of doing anything that might harm the image of perfection that I had worked so hard to create. But I wanted to be wherever Mary was. Plus, we’d been working hard all semester. We had made it through our first set of finals. I felt like we deserved a little fun. As we flung the door open, a gust of warm, beer-soaked air washed over us, along with an Aerosmith guitar lick and the shouts of some excited male students who had clearly been at it a while. A beefy older student in a letterman’s jacket stopped us short at the door, and my heart sank. Mary laughed. I looked more closely. He was on the track team, and he knew us, which also meant he knew we were freshmen. He let us in anyway.

I laughed, giddy with excitement and relief, and followed Mary into the bar, where our fellow athletes were already calling out her name and waving her over. As we shed our coats and threw them over the backs of chairs, I already felt at home. It didn’t take long for us to learn how to get guys to buy us drinks. Before I knew it, Mary and I were together in the area of the bar that had become an impromptu dance floor at some point in the night, drunk and happy, dancing so hard we called it our second workout of the day. We drank and danced until last call, soaking up every second of this freedom and abandon. Before I was ready, the lights came on, revealing the sticky floor and bleary college students, getting in every dance and flirtation. Only then did we force ourselves out into the winter night. Giggling madly, we fell into a cab together and rode back to our dorm room. In our pajamas, we both climbed into Mary’s bed and waited for the night’s final treat—a giant pizza from Uncle Jim’s, the best pizza on campus. When it was delivered, we ate every bite, breaking one last taboo before passing out in our little bunk beds. Those were the best times, in college, because we were actually living like normal students.

I wish there had been more moments like these. Even if that night off was bad for my running, it was good for my spirit.