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

Chapter 4. I’M GOING TO MARRY HIM

In January of my freshman year, a friend who I had gone to high school with set me up on a blind date with one of his baseball teammates. He had also come to the University of Wisconsin, and he wanted to introduce me to a freshman pitcher from California, Mark Hamilton. I found a way to spy on Mark beforehand. I know it was shallow of me, but if I was going to take the time to go on a blind date, I wanted to at least make sure I found the guy attractive. The day I checked him out, Mark was wearing white jeans and a blue shirt, and to me, he looked like Val Kilmer in Top Gun, with that same flattop. I thought he was gorgeous.

I went out and bought a cute pink sweater with a lace collar. I purposely wanted to look very sweet and innocent for the date. Not that it was an act. I hadn’t really dated much in college yet and I was still a virgin.

I was actually late for our first date because I was at a doctor’s appointment for my injured femur, so I called Mark to let him know. When he eventually came to pick me up, he brought me flowers. Oh, wow, I just meet this guy, and he’s already bringing me flowers. Nobody’s ever done that before.

Mark didn’t have a car, so we walked up Bascom Hill, which is the heart of the university, and then on to the restaurant. I was wearing these silly boots that were trendy but slippery. When my feet hit a patch of icy ground and started to fly out from under me, it gave me an excuse to grab him.

“Can I hold on to your arm?” I asked.

It really wasn’t like me to be so forward, but from the moment I met Mark, I felt like I knew him. He held out his arm, and I slid mine through his, and we walked the rest of the mile and a half to have pizza. Once we got to the pizzeria, we slid into a booth, grateful for the restaurant’s warmth.

We were both too nervous to eat that night, worried about getting food on our faces or spilling sauce on our shirts. But everything else between us was relaxed and the conversation flowed easily. I knew he was at school on a baseball scholarship, and he knew I was a runner, but we didn’t talk much about our sports. I was obsessed with Madonna at the time, and my friend had told me that Mark’s parents had recently moved near her in Malibu, so I asked him about that. We told each other stories and made each other laugh.

As we walked back to my dorm, my heart was fluttering with happiness and excitement. We stopped outside and Mark smiled at me.

“I have a baseball trip, but I’ll call you in a few days when I’m back,” he said.

I smiled up at him. He leaned in and kissed me on the lips. It was just a little kiss, a peck, really. But that was enough for me. I’m going to marry this guy, I thought, as I tore up the stairs to my room, so excited to tell Mary every detail about my night. All I could think of was whether or not he was going to call, and when the day of his return came and went without the call, I was so disappointed. I had been so sure about him. And then, the next day, my phone rang.

For our second date, we hung out in his dorm room. After that, I saw him every single day. Mark would later tell me that he’d gone out with me just to be able to say he’d done so, really—I was always in the school paper, and people on campus knew my name. He’d expected me to be just another arrogant athlete who could only talk and think about myself, and he’d been pleasantly surprised by how humble I was, how easy it was to talk to me, and how much fun we had together. I’d never met anyone like Mark. I was used to men from Wisconsin, who were good, strong, hard workers, but reserved to the point of silence. Mark was open-minded and stylish, and he wanted to talk about everything. He became my new obsession, second only to my running. Fortunately, because he was an accomplished pitcher, he understood what it took to be an athlete, and he understood that running had to come first for me. In fact, looking back, he was probably glad I had something else to focus on besides him.

I now created a new routine. Every day after classes, I went to track practice, then lifted weights with the rest of the runners. I always did my workout as fast as I could because I couldn’t wait to see Mark. I was always the first person out of the weight room and into the showers. I made sure I looked good, and then I hurried to wherever he was. Mark was taking night classes, and had a nutrition class that was taught by video, so there was no instructor in the room. I would literally go to his class and sit next to him while he watched. Mark didn’t take blow-off classes like I did. He was an A student, and he got his only B that semester, because of me. I gave him mono, too, but luckily neither of these turned him against me. And it was in Mark’s nutrition class that I finally learned the damage my bulimia was doing to my body and began to think about trying to stop my self-destructive behavior. But I couldn’t give up my belief that it helped me to win.

Once we started to spend all our time together, Mark’s influence began to rub off on me. Although Mark never asked me about my bulimia directly, he did gently urge me to eat when we were together, and he noticed when I’d skip a meal. Eventually, I opened up to him. Mark was concerned. I was, too, after my fractured femur had taken so long to heal. With Mark’s support, I stopped purging and adopted a more balanced diet. He also called me out when he met up with me at a party one night and found me wasted, having indulged in one of my very occasional nights of binge drinking. As he pointed out, it wasn’t good for me on any level, especially as I was so well known on campus.

Mark also helped me to address one of my greatest fears: sex. Here I was dating a man I was head over heels for, but I was still terrified of getting pregnant or doing something that might conflict with my image of perfection. Mark gently pushed, and I kept refusing, until finally, on his birthday, I agreed. Since we both had roommates, and because Mark wanted to make my first time special, he booked a hotel room for the night. But when the moment came, my nerves took over, and I couldn’t go through with it.

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”

Of course Mark was kind, and assured me we could wait until I was ready. Well, the next day, we were hanging out alone in his dorm room after class and started making out on his bed.

“Let’s have sex,” I said.

“Why did you wait until today?” he asked, laughing. “We had this great hotel room, privacy. I wanted to make it special.”

I didn’t need a hotel room to make it special for me. I knew that sex was the next stage in the relationship, and once it happened I wanted more. But with sex came the fear of pregnancy, and I couldn’t risk going on the pill and having my parents find out. I forced Mark to go with me to Planned Parenthood for extra spermicide.

A few months after we’d started sleeping together, Mark convinced me to take a shower with him in his dorm. It didn’t take long for word to spread that Mark was in the shower with Suzy Favor. A group of guys busted in and caught us together. I was horrified. Mark threw me a towel. I wrapped myself up completely and hurried back to Mark’s room, where I literally climbed into his closet to hide. Mark was close behind me, laughing, but he stopped when he saw how upset I was. He leaned into his closet to talk to me.

“Suzy, it’s not a big deal,” he said. “Really, it’s not.”

“I’m going to get kicked out of school. I’m going to lose my scholarship.”

“You’re not,” he said. “Seriously, trust me.”

There was nothing he could say to convince me until several weeks passed and nothing came of it. That’s how paranoid I was.

Mark was soon taking care of me and seeing to my every need, in the same way that Peter replaced my running shoes whenever I requested—something he didn’t do for any of the other runners. And in the same way that my father and mother had always done their best to shelter me from conflict or difficulty, especially my brother’s teasing. Whereas I’d once spent all of my time with Mary and my sister Kris, I now constantly hung out with Mark. Mary was extremely independent, and this shift in our friendship didn’t make her feel any less close to me. Kris had quit the track team during her sophomore year, and because I’d felt the need to train more than ever, we’d already reached a point where we rarely spent time together, and we were no longer as close as we had once been. Whereas Kris had always been my biggest ally within the family, she began to pull away from me and toward my other siblings, who were also being left out of the winner’s circle.

What little connection we’d maintained since she quit the track team began to dissolve over time.

Mark quickly saw how much I was struggling academically and did his best to help me, teaching me study techniques and encouraging me to see tutors. When we were in the library, I couldn’t sit still and often goofed around, trying to make him laugh. When we were in his dorm room, I tried to distract him and get him to make out with me. He insisted on studying, no matter what, because he was determined to keep his grades up. When Mark realized I wasn’t just being lazy but had a real learning difficulty, he started to help in more direct ways. While he never wrote papers for me, he did often read mine over for me and make corrections. When I took an architecture class the semester after him, I used Mark’s old exams to get through. The more I relied on Mark, the more I felt like I couldn’t live without him.

At the beginning of our sophomore year, when all of the students returned to campus, I was living in a house off campus with Mary and some of our running teammates. I’d been feeling distant from Mark, who had spent the summer at home in Malibu. When Mark returned in the fall, a friend I’d been spending most of my time with that summer seemed upset by the idea of no longer having me to herself and began putting pressure on me to break up with Mark. So I did. Always a pleaser, I wanted to make her happy, and I figured being single would be better for my running. I was okay for the first two weeks of our breakup, and then I got word that Mark was about to start dating someone else. Convinced it was actually over between us, I totally lost it. I stopped thinking clearly. I stopped thinking at all. I felt like my world was ending. I was in pain, and the pain had to end. I went into the bathroom, took a razor, and cut my wrists. It turns out, I was bad at killing myself. There was blood everywhere, but the cuts were very shallow and I was still very much alive. Desperate and scared, I did what came naturally to me. I called Mark. “You need to get over here,” I said.

“What are you talking about, Suzy?” he said, sounding annoyed.

“I did something bad,” I said.

He hung up and hurried over. When he saw me, he thought I’d hurt myself just to get his attention. He was used to thinking of me as happy and healthy, and so he wasn’t able to understand that I might be genuinely suicidal or even mentally ill. But he was certainly worried about me. He held me in his arms, and I started to cry.

“Please let’s get back together,” I begged him over and over again.

“We’ll talk about it,” he said, “and try to work things out.”

I was so relieved. I kept crying, but now they were tears of joy. And just a few days later, we did in fact get back together.

AFTER MARK AND I HAD been dating for several years, I began to relax and trust in our relationship. His love and support were good for me. When I first went away to college, I had thought I would visit my family often, but I found myself more and more absorbed by my new life with Mark. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t putting my family’s happiness before my own. But I still wanted, badly, to win for them, for my school, and for my home state. I’d begun to feel more confident in myself off the track, but I was still a wreck when it came time to race.

It also helped that I was working with Peter, the greatest coach I would ever have. I grew so much under his leadership, and trusted him completely. His style of coaching was different than that of his American counterparts. He knew it was important for his runners to learn to compete against international athletes as early in their competitive careers as possible, in order to have a shot at the Olympics. Because of this, he convinced the university to pay for the team to travel to Europe to race in the summer between school years. These experiences broadened my horizons and increased my confidence. When it came time to compete, Peter was all business. But when we first arrived in Europe and were simply training and acclimating ourselves to the different conditions, he relaxed and let his guard down considerably. He took us mountain climbing, and during a break in our hike, he pulled out his harmonica and played us a song. When he ran out of gas another day, he left us alone in a small village while he went off in search of fuel. Although we didn’t speak the language, we enjoyed exploring and interacting with the town’s residents. One night, he even dropped us off at a discotheque, so we could have some fun and soak up a little local culture. After a week, the other girls flew home, and I stayed behind with Peter to compete in several European races. When I saw that I could actually hold my own against the best runners in the world, it began to feel like all of my hard work was actually paying off. I continued to win at home, too, and not only regular track events, but every national track championship I entered during my college career—nine in all, at the time, the most NCAA championships for any athlete.

Now Mark and Peter had taken my dad’s place as the important men in my life, but my father remained devoted to my running. He traveled to campus for all of my home meets, and to most of my away meets as well, and expected me to call him after every race—even those in other countries—to tell him the outcome and details. Having to balance his demands with my devotion to my coach and my boyfriend was not easy. But I couldn’t break away. I still wanted to make him happy, and so I did as my father wished.

Luckily, this was a happy period in my family. Dan’s doctors had found a cocktail of medication that worked for him, and he was following their orders. He got sober around the age of twenty-seven, which also helped his overall well-being. He was employed, had a great girlfriend, and was living in a medium-size city about forty-five minutes from my parents. He maintained his creative energy, and he even used it to come to my rescue once in college. As usual, I had put off an assignment until the very last minute because I was too busy running, and now I needed to create a sculpture for an art class the next day. I was visiting my parents when Dan stopped by.

“Oh, I’ve got a great idea,” he said.

I couldn’t wait to see what he’d pull off on the fly. I knew it would be great. Dan found a piece of Styrofoam our dad had lying around and used an electric carving knife to carve a perfect three-dimensional fish. It was incredible. And my teacher thought so, too.

BY MY SENIOR YEAR, IT was clear that academics were not going to be a strong factor in my college career—believe it or not, my basketball theory class didn’t turn me into a great philosopher—but I was going to manage to graduate. And my life outside the classroom was better than ever before.

That winter I was taking a sports psychology class, which I could have benefited from had I been open to it. One night, Mark picked me up from class around nine thirty. By this point, we were living together in an apartment off campus, and he often treated me to our idea of a nice meal after class—pizza or Kentucky Fried Chicken. That evening, Mark wanted to go to Pizzeria Uno, which was a fancy dinner for us, since that’s where we’d had our first date. It was a thoughtful gesture, but Mark was always doing things like that for me.

The restaurant was nearly empty, and we relaxed into our booth and caught up on how our days had been. As usual, I was happy just to be with him.

The next thing I knew, Mark stood up for no apparent reason. I watched with curiosity as he got down on one knee by the booth. At that moment, I understood what was happening. I was already crying before he could pull out the ring.

“Suzy, will you marry me?” he said.

“Yes,” I said, kissing him with tears pouring down my face.

Our waiter came by, saw the ring and my tears, and congratulated us.

“I probably should have done something more elaborate,” Mark said as he got up.

“No, this was perfect.”

I wasn’t sure how Mom and Dad would feel about my getting married at this point in my life, but Mark had already called them and asked for their blessing, which blew me away. I didn’t even know that was a thing people did, but it was just another example of Mark’s thoughtfulness. We went home and took turns calling our parents, who were all overjoyed with the news. It was just this beautiful evening from beginning to end, and when we fell into bed together that night, we made love knowing that this was the start of our real life together. The next day, I had to catch a flight to Indianapolis for the national indoor track championships. I was tired, of course, from my exciting evening. I waited for the van to take me to the airport, getting drenched but still floating from the night before. When the van finally pulled up, I had the biggest smile on my face. My teammates started laughing when they saw me.

“You’re drenched! Why are you so happy?” one of my teammates called out.

I pulled my right hand out of my pocket and held it up. The van erupted into screams.

I was the favorite to win the indoor track nationals that year, and I did. After the race, a sportswriter interviewed me. “Were you nervous?” he asked.

Normally I would have been plagued by nerves, but not that day.

“You know what?” I said. “Nothing could have upset me or made me nervous today! I just got engaged.”

My training with Coach Peter was really paying off. That January, I signed a six-figure, five-year contract with Reebok, which meant I was now a professional runner and getting paid to do what I loved most. At the time, it was common for the big athletic companies to approach the coaches at the universities with the top student athletes, and Reebok had brought a deal to Peter for me. Because I didn’t have an agent at the time and Mark was studying American Institutions, in preparation for law school, he negotiated the terms for me in a pretty amazing deal. It was incredible for a runner just out of college and far surpassed the deal Nike had on the table for me. My father felt left out of the negotiation process, but I was desperate for independence from my dad and preferred to receive help from my future husband than my father. Still, I knew my family was extremely proud of me, as was Peter. But I felt that the size of my various endorsements meant that I was now expected to run even faster, and win even more, in order to prove that I was worth the value of the contracts.

A week after we graduated from college Mark and I got married in Madison. We’d planned every detail ourselves, and I loved that day so much because it was a total representation of who we were. The university let us get married in an alumni building right on Lake Mendota. Even though I had received the first installments from my Reebok contract, we were on a budget, especially because we’d invited 250 guests. The university gave us a great deal on food and went out of their way to make the day special. Mark made the wedding programs on his computer and printed them off at the local copy shop. I didn’t realize it was customary to order flowers for the church, so we didn’t have any, but it didn’t matter. All of our friends from the baseball and track teams were there, and the men in the wedding party wore Reebok high-tops, donated by the person who’d signed me to my contract, who was also there. It was casual, to say the least, but it was beautiful in its simplicity, and an amazing day.

Mark’s parents sent us to Hawaii for our honeymoon, and then we prepared to drive from Wisconsin out to Malibu. Mark would attend Pepperdine for law school, and I would train for my first Olympics the next year. I cried as we left Wisconsin, but as Mark predicted, my tears only lasted five minutes. It was time to go for the gold. I had wanted to leave Wisconsin before I’d even started college or met Mark, and now that my horizons had been expanded so much in the past four years, I was more than ready to go. I don’t think I realized at the time how much Peter did to help my running through our day-to-day training, and so I figured it would be fine for him to send me workouts via fax, as we’d planned when I decided to move away. Any anxiety I felt had to do with my running, and how well I would or wouldn’t live up to Reebok’s expectations and find my place within the professional running world. But, for the moment, I was excited to see what would come next.