Once addicted to running, a battered Diane Israel has sobered up from triathlons
"Go as hard as you possibly can for two minutes! Go! Go! Go!"
The spin-class instructor hollers instructions to the two dozen sweating bodies hunched over stationary bikes in a darkened room in the Flatiron Athletic Club. The darkness helps the industrial-strength floor fans keep the space slightly below sweltering, and also helps those working out to focus on their own internal drive, their bodies, their pain. As the instructor sprints around the room, moving from bike to bike and twisting the resistance levers tighter, a Bon Jovi power anthem booms from the sound system: I'm goin' dooown, in a blaze of glory!
Off to the side, a woman watches. At 51, she looks fit enough to participate, and she maintains a lifetime membership to the club — but she hasn't come here in over a year. The vibe is just too overwhelming these days, too extreme. After all, the Flatiron Athletic Club is the ever-pulsing heart of the ultra-athlete scene in Boulder, a town that churns out more Ironman and Olympic superstars than nearly anywhere else. Out back right now, swimmers are jammed six, seven, eight to a lane, like bumper-to-bumper cars on a New York City freeway, so that they can have their strokes picked apart by six-time Ironman champion Dave Scott, one of the most celebrated triathlon coaches in the world.
During a lull, the woman speaks up. "What are you here for?" she asks. But what she really wants to know is this: What is the lure of such pain and exertion? Why are ever more people flocking to ultra-athletics, with 1.2 million Americans participating in at least one triathlon in 2009? Why have some of these people become so obsessed that they're willing to risk their lives for it? So far this year, at least nine people have died in triathlons, including one in the Fort Collins triathlon in May.
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"To get fit!" responds one student. "I like to get my ass kicked," says another.
"It saved my life," says a gray-haired man. Last spring, a bout of pneumococcal pneumonia sent him into a month-long coma. If he hadn't been so fit because of this spinning class, doctors told him, he might never have recovered.
"You should try it," one suggests.
At that, the spin instructor laughs. "You don't know who this is?" she asks her class. Among a handful, there's a glimmer of recognition.
"Are you Diane Israel?" a student asks. The Diane Israel who was one of the original pro triathletes, the Diane Israel who helped launch Boulder's tri-craze? Even at this gym, where it wouldn't be unusual to spot such Olympic hot shots as Matt Reed and Greg Bennett, or Ironman winners like Craig Alexander, Diane Israel's name turns heads.
Diane just smiles. To gear up for this visit to the gym, she got dressed as though she was going for a job interview. And she's been anxiously biting her nails as she's watched the cyclists pump away, since the scene brings up memories she'd rather not recall.
As Jon Bon Jovi sings, she doesn't tell the class that she, too, went down in a blaze of glory — and in many ways is still trying to find her way back.
Diane Israel's tanned, lean body is a patchwork of scars, marks of half a life devoted to pushing that body to extremes. Her knees are marbled from the impact of pounding the pavement for thousands upon thousands of miles. "My head is a little fucked up from all the concussions," she notes in her typically salty language. And her right arm is banged up where her elbow used to be, thanks to a tumble she took in a 400-mile bike race back in 1984. She had tried to keep going after the fall, but an orthopedic surgeon riding by noticed the bloody bone sticking out of her arm and demanded that she go to the hospital.
And then there are her feet, dried and cracked and misshapen, displaying a sort of damage that Diane hasn't seen except maybe on the beat-up soles of the Peruvian Indians with whom she once ran the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. She doesn't know what, exactly, caused the destruction — maybe a combination of bad genes, fungus gone haywire and endless hours in sweaty shoes. Not too long ago, she went to a doctor who uses lasers to treat foot problems. He looked at her gnarled toes and said there was nothing he could do.
The scar that started it all is a jagged half moon below her left wrist. As a young girl, she was fighting with her younger brother, Robert, when she accidentally put her fist through a window. When Diane was growing up in the affluent suburb of Scarsdale, New York, savage fights with her siblings were common; sometimes scissors were involved. One of the reasons was that Diane was jealous of Robert's natural speed. Their father, an ambitious, self-made man, hammered home just how important athleticism was when he first started taking eight-year-old Diane and six-year-old Rob to the local track and timing them with his stopwatch.
"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.'"
"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.
Diane recently asked about a teenager she recalled crashing on her couch for a few nights. That, she was told, was a young Lance Armstrong.
"She was like the pied piper. She has always been like a pied piper," Robert, who never pursued a running career and founded the snack company Doc Popcorn, says of his sister.
"In those days, we used to think more was better," remembers Diane. "We were all maniacs." Training would begin early in the morning with a couple of sets of hour-long swimming drills at one of the public pools, with Dave Scott's sister training Diane and the others. Then they would bike, clocking 50 to 100 miles a day up and down the foothills, followed by a seven- to ten-mile run.
Diane won the Pikes Peak Ascent trail run, competed in the famously grueling Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii and was named Colorado Sports Monthly's Athlete of the Year. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. Triathlon Series ranked her the third-best female triathlete in the country.
But she was no cover girl.
She was never chosen for the cover of the triathlon magazines, because she never had time to consider what she looked like. "I was too raw, too dirty," Diane says. "Always drooling and cursing and shitting in my pants." She was perennially injured, never resting long enough to recover — and she wasn't starting out that strong. "I think my first reaction and response was she better eat some more food," says Dave Scott. Diane was an emaciated 89 pounds, and her weakened bones suffered seventeen stress fractures. As she was too busy to eat, she thrived on seeing how light she could be, how little she needed to get by.
She could have slowed down, but there was always this gnawing fear that someone — or something — was right on her tail. "I believe what separates the good from the great is that they work through their criticisms and self-doubts, and they convince themselves that they believe they are the best," says Diane. She was never able to do that, though, beating up on herself for never being good enough, lashing out at her colleagues as she'd done to her brother. Far from the leisurely cross-training she'd first envisioned, she recalls, her triathlons ended up being "three times the obsession."
"I think she had the internal makeup to make it all the way," says Scott. "But I think the downfall about her, and also what reined her in, was the seriousness with which she went about training. I never saw her let her guard down. That is a hard thing to maintain. It can be physically and emotionally destructive. I had won Ironman a few times, I was supposed to be the hot stuff on the block — but here was this woman who was more intense than me."
Eventually, Diane remembers, "I was running on empty, driven just by fumes and beliefs and self-hatred and fear."
In 1988, that last reservoir of fuel finally gave out. Like a drug addict who can't recall the specifics of the final, world-shaking OD, Diane doesn't know which particular race did her in. All she remembers is that she was running down the Diagonal Highway in Boulder, near the end of a race, when she realized that runner after runner was passing her by, as if she were frozen in place. And she knew, without a doubt, that she would never catch up.
"I finally got it," she says. "Something was terribly, terribly wrong."
Diane's running career was over. The 28-year-old didn't need the doctors who diagnosed her with chronic fatigue and exercise bulimia to tell her that. She could feel the finality of it in every inch of her wasted body. She didn't want to wake up anymore and feel like she had to do three sports that day to be a good person. She didn't want to be chased all the time; she didn't want to chase others. And deep down, she felt that if she ever again got lost in the mania and abandonment of her racing, she wouldn't find her way back.
In the months that followed, she began to recover physically — but the emotional recovery wasn't so easy. It wasn't just the triathlons and the marathons that were over for her; she'd also lost the world that went with them. For as long as she could remember, nearly every aspect of her life had revolved around racing. Now all that was gone. "Before, when people would look at me, I would think it was because I was a great athlete," she says. "Now I thought it was because there was something wrong with me."
Among the ultra-athletes who had long been her de facto family, she felt like an outsider, an outcast. "Nobody wanted to be around me because I was questioning so many things," she says. "I was still sick, and when you are sick, it's hard for athletes to stop and really look at you. It slows them down."
Without support, how could she get well? Although Diane had seen a therapist in college, he hadn't understood her relationship with racing, telling her she simply needed to cut back. A philosophy and psychology major during her checkered college career, Diane now thought that maybe she could become the therapist she'd always wanted, one who really understood athletics and addiction.
In 1989 she enrolled in a master's program in transpersonal counseling psychology, a discipline that blends psychology and spirituality, at Naropa University. For her, exercise had always been a method of avoidance, a way to run away from her troubles and numb herself from thoughts and feelings. At Naropa, she learned the importance of deeply embracing pain and joy alike, and how to make exercise embody exactly the opposite: wholeness.
With her master's, she started doing counseling — and discovered she was a good therapist. Maybe it was because of all the time she'd spent helping her troubled mother. Maybe it was because she went about her new vocation with the relentlessness with which she'd pursued her athletic career, working with abusive men, domestic-violence cases, women with violent pasts. "It was intense, raw and real, just like triathlons," she says.
But she also made time for athletes who needed help, since she figured she could understand them better than anybody else. In honor of John Matuszak, an American football star and World's Strongest Man competitor who'd died of a drug overdose, in 1990 she organized a local conference, "The Athlete's Journey Into Wholeness," dedicated to helping former pro athletes like herself find life after competition. "It was like a conference dealing with divorce," she says. "Learning a new identity divorced from athletics." There was even a talent show, to encourage the sort of playfulness and creativity that athletes like Diane had long ago left behind.
Creativity wasn't the only thing that Diane had suppressed. While at Naropa, she found herself attracted to women. As a tomboy who'd always wanted to hang with the guys, the revelation was surprising — but deep down, it made sense. "Of everything in my life, my sexuality has been the hardest for me to be comfortable with," she says. "Being raped definitely swung me more towards feeling safe around women."
In the span of a few short years, Diane had become a different person, one with a new career, a new circle of friends, a new sexual orientation. One day, she took all her running shirts out of her closet and donated them to a home for people with developmental disabilities. Later, she spotted a kid with Down syndrome walking around Boulder wearing one of her shirts. "World's Toughest Triathlete," it read.
On a beautiful summer morning, Diane Israel is sitting at a picnic table with a group of racing experts and filmmakers, making final preparations for an upcoming Ironman triathlon in Zurich. How, exactly, are they going to come up with the $600 needed to get a bike to Switzerland? What should they say to the Triathlon Magazine reporter who wants to do a story? How are they going to capture the chaos of the event for a documentary film they're working on? And what happens if something goes wrong — as it often does — in the middle of the race? In an Ironman, there are no guarantees.
The Diane of triathlons past would be a wreck of nerves. But she's not, because she's not the one racing. Since her collapse 23 years ago, she hasn't been in any professional races, though she still exercises regularly. In many ways, the person who participated in those races is gone. Here at the picnic table, for example, Diane is calm and collected as she works through the details of the race, flashing wide-eyed smiles and exclaiming, "Oh, wow!" with childlike wonder.
It's easy to see why she's been a successful therapist for two decades, easy to see why she's been a hit teaching transpersonal psychology classes at Naropa since 1997. One of her students called her "the most authentic, radiant teacher I've ever had."
Diane is here to support Karin Linnér, a 36-year-old Olympic distance swimmer and marathon runner who suffered a freak stroke a few years ago that left her temporarily unable to speak. Now Linnér's racing in triathlons and biking across the country with a film crew in tow to educate people about how they can prevent strokes from happening.
Diane, once again a pied piper, helped set up the project and is now an executive producer (she's using some of her family money to help finance it). Eight months earlier, Linnér was working as a massage therapist and trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. After hearing her story, Diane asked if she'd ever considered capturing it all on film.
Back in 2005, Diane had started work on her own documentary film about eating disorders and body image, titled Beauty Mark, drawing from the horror stories she'd heard as a therapist, stories about bodybuilders who couldn't bear the sight of their own bodies, about women who'd suffered miscarriages because of how they starved themselves. Partnering with filmmakers Carla Precht and Kathleen Man, she'd expanded the project to the country's obsession with being thin, moving from a Colorado factory that produces drastically unrealistic mannequins for store windows to the New York City fashion scene.
But her collaborators soon urged her to turn the camera on herself. "They told me, 'Your story is part of the film,'" remembers Diane. "'You are missing all your meals and working out every day that we work on this.'"
Reluctantly, she agreed, opening up about her continuing struggles with food and exercise, the demons from her childhood, and speaking, for the first time, about being raped at thirteen. "It turned my life upside down, inside out," says Diane. "It stripped away the layers of who I thought I was, and the personas I have worn as a therapist, and different roles I have played in my life. It really forced me to reflect on a lot of things."
The project didn't always go smoothly. Production took much longer than expected, and the three women often didn't see eye to eye. Diane, in particular, struggled. "It was a huge process, and it was very hard for her," says Julia Anderson, assistant producer on Beauty Mark. "She's hard on herself, for sure. She can build others up but can't do it for herself."
Still, the final product was well received, winning awards at a variety of film festivals in 2008. A version designed for classrooms was purchased by the Media Education Foundation, a documentary film company. The project's success inspired Diane to make more films — starting with one that focuses on Linnér but also has personal connections. "Karin's story reflects that of my mom," she says.
Thirteen years ago, Diane's mother, Joan — still beautiful and athletic, still manic-depressive — was nearly killed by a devastating stroke. "She was the last person in the world you would ever have imagined to have a stroke," says Diane.
Joan was left a shadow of her former self. Now largely paralyzed, with minimal ability to speak, she lives in a Boulder high-rise with a live-in caretaker. Diane stops by several times a week with an exercise program, shaking maracas with her mother to children's songs and helping her stand for a few minutes at a time as Joan grimaces through the pain. The work, though tiring, has helped Diane see a new, more positive side of athleticism. "My mom had a 1 percent chance of living, and she lived because she was a great athlete," she says. Watching her mother labor through the simplest of gestures now, she adds, "reminds me of the miracle of being able to move."
Diane still lives in the bungalow near Chautauqua, but she's since purchased it and turned it into a modern, rehabbed home. She shares the house with her partner, Lindsey Hansen-Sturm, a onetime competitive swimmer and triathlon competitor herself. "We met through movement," says Hansen-Sturm, who is six years younger than Diane; decades ago, Hansen-Sturm's mother ran in the New York City Marathon on the same team as Diane.
The scrappy triathlon scene that Diane helped create has also evolved, growing into a massive industry, one that "feels like a very different sport to me," Diane says. Today, Boulder is a "city of triathletes," where a single big race can draw upwards of 2,000 participants ranging from seventy-year-olds to three-year-olds competing in the "IronKid" division. When Diane competed, her triathlon equipment included a beat-up old aluminum bike and a stash of figs and avocados as energy food; nowadays, competitors spend several thousand dollars on triathlon bikes alone, not to mention hundreds more on triathlon-themed shoes, heart-rate monitors and aerodynamic outfits. As a racer, Diane was used to stripping naked out of her swimsuit and changing into her biking attire in full view of the public, not to mention taking bathroom breaks in suburban front yards. Now professional racers have crews armed with clothing changes and spray-on sunscreen that look like something out of NASCAR.
Diane is still very much connected to this scene, strange as it might seem to her — making films about athletes, writing about exercising at age 51, seeing triathletes in her classes and therapy sessions. Behind the ultra-athletic culture's modern, glitzy facade, many athletes still suffer the same demons she did.
"She is not an isolated case," says David Scott, one of the most celebrated triathletes in the world. "There are a whole handful of athletes who follow that destructive path. I have wrestled with it my entire life. I wish I could turn it off, have a moment where I could let my mind relax and feel I am not on the stopwatch."
Diane considers herself lucky to have gotten out before it was too late, before she became one more grisly statistic. But that's not to say she's completely healed. During the one race she's participated in since her collapse in 1988, the 2009 Komen Denver Race for the Cure, it didn't take long for the old, dark feelings to start creeping back. That's why there are no athletic trophies in her home; why Diane and her partner might exercise together, but make a point of never competing; why Diane maintains a Flatiron Athletic Club membership but hardly ever works up the nerve to go there.
Diane is still a racer, no doubt about it. She always seems to be going at top speed in several directions at once: teaching at Naropa, working as a therapist, making films, running a small exercise studio she co-owns with Hansen-Sturm, talking about starting an innovative new home for elders based on her experiences with her mom. "This is my mania," she says with a shrug.
"She is always talking about how important downtime is for her, but time always seems to slip away from her," says Diane's older sister, Lynn, who dances and works as an education consultant but was never "on the superstar track" like Diane.
"Stillness is a theme she wants to point towards," adds Lynn, "but I don't know if I've ever seen that in her. She is still working on herself big time. I don't know if she has that sense of 'I'm okay just as I am.' That would be the greatest gift I could hope for her — that she could love herself just how she is."
Four mornings a week, Diane walks up to Chautauqua and goes running in the foothills, hitting the trails alongside the pros. Then, after 45 minutes, she returns to the serene expanse of green outside of the Chautauqua Dining Hall and takes off her purple-laced running shoes.
She's been running without shoes for as long as she can remember, since long before the best-selling Born to Run made barefoot running the latest extreme-athlete craze. For Diane, it's not about showing off; it's about leaving all the technology, pressure and restrictions behind. As she pads around in the grass, she feels her legs loosen and her spine uncurl and she begins to run, like she did when she started racing, in her barely there blue-and-yellow Adidas, like she did as a little girl. She runs like she did before all the joy and sorrow, the elation and pain of competition, swallowed her up.
For a few turns, she feels utterly free. And the calm stays with her when she stops, puts on her shoes and makes her way home to get on with her day. But then, after an hour or two, the feeling of peace begins to drift away.
Diane remembers everything she's chasing — and everything chasing her. And she recalls what, for a brief period, she'd forgotten: She still hasn't reached the finish line.
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