U.S. News

02.03.14

Are Female Long-Distance Runners More Prone To Suicidal Depression?

For college cross-country champion Madison Holleran—like other female long-distance runners before her—the perfectionistic pressures of her sport may have pushed her to suicide.

At 7 PM on the evening of Friday, January 17th, University of Pennsylvania freshman Madison Holleran jumped off a Philadelphia parking garage to her death.

Less than seven months earlier, Madison—then a New Jersey high-school runner—had beat out the state’s top varsity runners in the 800 meters, running 2:08.87, the fastest New Jersey time that season. She earned all-State accolades in both soccer and track that year, and matriculated to Penn, where she became a scoring member of the cross-country squad. Her first-semester GPA was a 3.5. Madison was motivated, accomplished, beautiful, and talented. But, it seems, for the driven, ambitious girl, that wasn’t enough. “There was a lot more pressure in the classroom,” her father said of Madison’s transition to college.

Madison’s story is tragic and shocking. But what is most shocking about it is that in many ways it is not unprecedented. Madison is not the first high-achieving individual to become depressed. She is not the first woman to feel she has to succeed in every realm. Nor is she the first female distance runner to turn to suicide.

In June of 1986, Kathy Ormsby—a 21-year-old junior from North Carolina State and an American collegiate record holder —ran off the track with less than two laps to go in the NCAA championship race. She didn’t break stride. She just raced off the field, under a railing, up the stadium, across a softball diamond, over a seven-foot fence, down a main thoroughfare—and over the side of a bridge. She fell 35 feet. She survived, but was paralyzed from the waist down. Off the track, she had been a perfectionist pre-med student with a perfect GPA. She had planned to pursue a career as a medical missionary.

Four years earlier, high-school distance running phenomenon Mary Wazeter jumped off a railway bridge over the Susquehanna River. She, too, survived, but was paralyzed from the chest down. The former straight-A student was on a leave of absence from Georgetown, where severe anorexia had left her emaciated, disoriented, and depressed.

Fortunately, suicides among high-performing distance runners are rare. What are not rare are feelings of inadequacy and even suicidal despair. After Ormsby’s attempted suicide, the former director of Athletics West in Eugene, Oregon told the Los Angeles Times that he knew a number of female distance runners who had contemplated killing themselves, had prepared to do so, or had attempted to do so. The 1981-85 North Carolina cross-country coach reported a runner who overdosed on cold-remedy pills, and another who told her teammates about suicidal fantasies. The women who succumb to those impulses are consumed by the need to win a battle that simply cannot be won; a battle to be the best at everything, all at once.

Like the gymnast and the ballerina, the distance runner is often defined by drive and compulsion. She is an endurance athlete. As such, her days revolve around the demands of her sport: 50, 60, 70, 80-mile weeks, weights, cross-training—and, above all, a complete focus on her body, its abilities, and its inabilities. Hers is a sport without mercy. Every race has one, and only one, winner—often determined by a fraction of a second. In running, results are clearly defined and indelible. Unsurprisingly, the distance runner has a tendency towards obsessive-compulsive behavior. She is willing to spend every day fretting over the extra mile or half-mile, the quarter of a second, the extra hour of sleep, and the infinitesimal margin of victory. She is competitive, driven, and, sometimes, crazy. She is Captain Ahab, and victory is her white whale.

Perhaps even more than their male counterparts, female distance runners are perfectionists and control freaks. This is hardly unusual in a society where the woman is expected to do it all. But it is particularly apparent—and, often, destructive—among the already-driven and already high-achieving population of distance runners. Stories of eating disorders abound. In many cases, those are only the tip of the iceberg. For women like Holleran, Ormsby, and Wazeter, the obsession is not just about training. Nor is the compulsion solely about food. The drive for success—or, rather, victory—extends to the classroom, society, and every other aspect of life. In the same way that the woman on Wall Street is expected to be a perfect mother, the woman on the track is often expected to be a straight-A student, team leader, social role model, and everything in between. Kathy Ormsby was known for taking her class notes to workouts. Madison Holleran’s depression was apparently triggered by what she considered a sub-par 3.5 GPA.

Of course, there are expectations for men, too. But somehow, the male athlete can be just a varsity athlete. The woman has to make varsity in every realm. Little has changed since, in a 2007 New York Times article, Sara Rimer called girls’ drive for perfection “anorexia of the soul.” In the high-achieving Yale ecosystem, some label it the “Rory Gilmore syndrome.” A Brooklyn-based life coach said it best in an interview with Today: “Girls get the message…that they need to excel at everything, academically, professionally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and be in perfect balance…be a ‘perfect 10’ in every area.” Running appeals to exactly that sort of girl: The world is intense, the work taxing, and the success (when it comes) tangible.

Success in running is about toeing the edge. If the athlete is too fit, or trains too hard, injury becomes inevitable. One step too far, and ambition turns into unrealistic expectations, compulsion into craziness. Perfectionism becomes a sort of impossible perfectionism-plus.

The same line exists in all realms of high accomplishment, from John Nash in mathematics to Van Gogh and art to Nina and dance in Black Swan. There’s a thin line between total dedication and self-immolation. For Madison Holleran, Kathy Ormsby, and Mary Wazeter, it was an easy commute from ambition to unattainable expectation.

The precise backstory of Madison Holleran’s tragic death is still unknown. But what facts do exist fit seamlessly, if heart-wrenchingly, into the larger narrative. The distance runner is a good actor; the first lesson she learns is how to fool herself out of pain. Generally thin, rule-abiding, and responsible, she fits the mold of the golden girl. But that veneer hides an inner drive so powerful that it risks turning on itself. Her very strength is rooted in an Ahab-like quest that risks overwhelming her. In these three tragic cases, the definition of success—a particularly female definition of success, perhaps—leads her over the brink.