"There was an expectation that she had to perform at super-lady level," says Diane's father. "I don't know if I ever said that, but she might have gotten that from me. I am quite hard on myself."

Diane's violent drive also drew from deeper emotions. Part of it was sadness about her mother, a stunning beauty who was in and out of mental hospitals because of struggles with manic depression. Part of it was fear that if she wasn't good enough, wasn't smart enough, she'd be sent away like her older brother, Johnny, who'd been institutionalized at a young age because he was mentally retarded.

"Our family was kind of a perfect storm," says Robert today. "The message always was, 'It's great to be healthy, but to be a healthy boy is the best.'"

Diane Israel keeps her mother, a stroke victim, moving.
Jim J. Narcy
Diane Israel keeps her mother, a stroke victim, moving.

"I was supposed to be a boy," says Diane. Her confusion and shame over her gender only got worse when she was thirteen and raped by a stranger on a family trip to Mexico. "It totally changed my relationship with my body, my sexuality," she recalls. "What was fun and playful and celebrated and free became scary and traumatic and uptight and anxious and probing."

A year later, she started running road races. She ran because it felt like freedom, felt like the one thing in the world she could own and control. She ran to keep skinny, so that kids would never again call her "tomato on toothpicks," as they had in fourth grade when her mom was first hospitalized and Diane had turned to food for comfort. She ran because, as she saw it, "Competition equaled love" — and if she kept at it, she could end up the most loved person in the world.

She wasn't naturally speedy. Her fragile-boned body wasn't meant to be lean and mean, and her awkward, head-bobbing running form didn't impress anybody. But she more than made up for that with will and drive. Soon she was winning road races, taking home boys' trophies because they didn't yet have any for girls. At fifteen, she became the youngest member of the Greater New York Racing Team, one of the pre-eminent female running teams in the country.

"That was a beautiful time," she remembers. "It was the beginning of the whole running movement." And it didn't matter that at seventeen, she nearly died of dehydration during a 10K in Central Park. The payoffs were worth it. Pounding her blue-and-yellow Adidas through 1970s Harlem alongside legends like Nina Kusick and Kathrine Switzer. Placing third in her first marathon, in Helsinki. Getting invited to the first United States Olympic women's marathon trials in 1980 and coming in among the top 25 female runners in the world.

"To be in the birth of the development of women running is one of the great highlights of my life," she says now.

But the running was taking its toll. She struggled to get a degree through a series of college transfers. Her struggles showed in her ravaged feet. "I couldn't just run anymore," she explains. "I had to cross-train. It would be a lot more gentle on my body."


Diane had heard that training at altitude would do wonders for her endurance, so in 1981 she moved to Boulder, Colorado.

Soon after she arrived, she met Bill Frazier, a local runner who'd gotten into triathlons, extreme races combining swimming, biking and running that had been slowly gaining in popularity since the first American version of the race was introduced in Mission Bay, San Diego, in 1974. Frazier took one look at Diane and suggested she'd be a natural for an upcoming triathlon in Arizona. Diane and her boyfriend followed Frazier's advice, and both ended up winning that race, each scoring a $1,000 prize — a small fortune at the time.

Her boyfriend moved on from triathlons, but Diane was hooked. Here was an activity that melded running, swimming and biking in some of the world's most beautiful places and attracted scrappy, slightly nuts ultra-athletes — folks just like her. "I loved to move, I loved to be outside. What other kind of job would let me do what I wanted to do?" she says. "I said to myself, 'I need to figure out how to make this into a career.'"

Rather than move to northern California or San Diego, centers of the young sport, she decided to turn Boulder into its own hot spot. "I wanted to have people to train with," says Diane. "There were no professional hard-core triathletes in Boulder, so I was going to create that scene."

She turned the run-down bungalow where she was living near Chautauqua Park into "Hotel Boulder," inviting all the triathletes she could find to come hang out and train. The combination of high altitude, great weather, university facilities and diverse terrain convinced many of them to stay in Boulder. Diane lured in Scott Molina, who would go on to become a premier triathlete. Soon other triathletes and duathletes followed: Mark Allen, Ken Scott, Charley Graves, Kenny Souza — even Julie Moss, whose heart-wrenching performance in the 1982 Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, where she crawled across the finish line, helped catapult the sport into the mainstream. That, along with triathlon champion Dave Scott moving to Boulder in 1982, helped turned the town into "the world capital for endurance athletes," according to a USA Today article at the time.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help