Q & A with ELLEN HART: "You Can't Make This Stuff Up"
by Lee Gruenfeld
WRITER: I got this swell idea for a movie! You're gonna love it!
PRODUCER: I'm listening.
WRITER: It's about this girl. She's smart. She's athletic.
PRODUCER (rolling his eyes): Lemme guess: Drop-dead gorgeous?
WRITER: Absolutely! She goes to Harvard, just like four of her sisters and brothers. She's a star athlete, eight varsity letters in three different sports. Breaks records left and right.
PRODUCER (more eye-rolling): Uh-huh. Got it.
WRITER: Qualifies in the 10K for the 1980 Olympics, but the president decides we're gonna boycott the games. She runs the trials again in 1984, this time in the marathon. Meanwhile, she breaks the U.S. record in the 30K and the world record at 20K.
PRODUCER: Are you kidding me with this stuff?
WRITER: Oh, wait, I almost forgot: She goes to law school, see? And she gets hired by one of the best law firms in Denver!
PRODUCER: I think it's time for you to leave.
WRITER: No, no, there's more. She marries the mayor…
PRODUCER: I'm warning you…
WRITER: Listen'a me, will ya'? The guy goes on to be a cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration! Meanwhile, she's on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports! She's on the U.S. Olympic Committee!
PRODUCER: That's it. (picks up phone) I'm calling security.
WRITER: It gets better! While all this is going, on she's got this horribly debilitating eating disorder that nobody knows about!
PRODUCER: Get out! (Drops phone and pulls Ninja sword from display case behind his desk) Now!
WRITER: (running for his life) Wait! You don't understand…it's all true! Get it? It's a true story!
CUT TO: Visual of Ninja sword flying through the air headed for writer's head
LEE: All makes perfect sense to me. You were beautiful, smart, athletic, in school at the most prestigious university in the world…no wonder you developed an eating disorder.
ELLEN: So we’re done here?
LEE: Not quite. When did it start?
ELLEN: Senior year at Harvard. I played basketball and soccer, ran track and field, and did well in all of them. But I was packing around 135 pounds and my track coach decided to point that out to me. I lost about ten, but when I got back from Christmas break, he said it looked like I’d put some back on.
LEE: What was he doing…scouting you for Vogue?
ELLEN: He probably meant well. But right then and there I swore that I’d never put on another pound.
LEE: And, perfectionist that you are…
ELLEN: I did it in spades. The whole gory mess.
LEE: How did people not notice that you had a problem?
ELLEN: I was as driven about hiding it as I was about everything else in my life, and I managed to still excel athletically. But in some strange ways that sometimes made things worse.
LEE: Such as…?
ELLEN: I ran the 10K in the Olympics trials in 1980 and came in third.
LEE: And this was a bad thing?
ELLEN: It shouldn’t have been. But the 10K for women was just an exhibition sport in the Olympics at that time, so it wasn’t the real thing.
LEE: But you knew that in advance.
ELLEN: True, and I was fine with it, especially since I had a chance to go to the Games, except they were in Moscow, remember?
LEE: The ones we boycotted.
ELLEN: So I qualified in a sport that didn’t exist for a team that wasn’t going. I was used to participating and winning, and now I couldn’t do either. I was already vulnerable and that just made things worse.
LEE: But you were still competing on the international scene, doing well and setting records.
ELLEN: Nothing that had happened reduced my drive. If anything, it intensified after the trials because it fueled the fire for the next time, which would be 1984. Look, I did everything to the max, including being a good athlete and messing myself up at the same time. And when I became a pure runner, losing all that weight was a tremendous advantage. Same engine, lighter chassis.
LEE: If that’s true, here’s a weird question: What was the downside to the eating disorder? At least from an athletic perspective.
ELLEN: A couple of things. The first is that I didn’t stop when I hit the optimum weight. Another is that there was a lot of physical damage being done inside that took its toll. And then there was a psychological erosion that affected my confidence, my motivation, my ability to focus…it’s a whole cascade of negative effects.
LEE: You married the mayor of Denver, Federico Pena, who went on to become a cabinet secretary. He had no idea what was going on with you?
ELLEN: He knew I had some problems, but no idea of the real extent.
LEE: A high-functioning bulimic.
ELLEN: That’s what’s so insidious about eating disorders. When you’re not bingeing and purging, you can appear perfectly normal. I got through law school, worked at a prestigious firm, handled all of the “first lady of Denver” obligations just fine. Sure, there are periods of deep depression but it’s easy to pass them off as unremarkable moodiness. Nobody knows you’re dying inside.
LEE: How long did this “double life” go on?
ELLEN: About ten years.
LEE: Then what happened?
ELLEN: I was pregnant, and the baby was in trouble. I needed to be a hundred percent healthy and any risk to the baby, however slight, was simply unthinkable. I had to do something.
LEE: And that was…?
ELLEN: Well – and this is going to sound a little hokey, but it wasn’t – I made a deal.
LEE: With whom?
ELLEN: Whatever higher power there was. I said, I’ll stop my self-destructive behaviors, all of them, for the rest of my pregnancy. And if I do, you give me a healthy baby.
LEE: You put a time limit on it?
ELLEN: I wanted to make a reasonable promise, something credible, without overdoing it. So that was the deal.
LEE: Did you hold up your end of the bargain?
ELLEN: It wasn’t easy but I had the strongest motivation I’d ever had for anything. And I got a beautiful, perfect baby.
LEE: What happened after she was born?
ELLEN: I didn’t go back to my old ways. I stayed healthy for eleven years.
LEE: I’ve got a background in psychology, but I was more into psychopaths (go figure) so all of this is news to me. Is an eating disorder like alcoholism or drug addiction? Are you never really “cured” and have to be careful and vigilant every second of the rest of your life?
ELLEN: Kind of. The same kind of predispositions that got you into trouble are still there waiting to trap you again. But it differs from a substance addiction in one important way: An addict can engineer his life to stay away from booze or drugs but there’s no way to stay away from food. You have to eat, several times a day, so food is always there and there’s no way around that.
LEE: So what’s it like going to a restaurant with you? Are you like an obnoxious ex-smoker or drinker gone all righteous and ready to pounce with a lecture if I order a second crème brulee?
ELLEN: Nah. But I’m pretty careful about what I eat myself – dressing on the side, you know --
LEE: I do know. Some of the stuff my wife eats looks like it was grown in Chernobyl.
ELLEN: -- but it has a lot more to do with managing nutrition so I can compete better than it does with flashbacks to the bad old days.
LEE: Any relapses?
ELLEN: A couple. Getting divorced, which is traumatic enough for anyone, was a particularly rough blow that set me off again. Then, just last year, with a lot of stressful things bumping together all at once in my life, I did a big race and it didn’t go well. Afterward, and at the worst possible moment, another athlete remarked that I might do better if I lost a few pounds.
LEE: Did he end up in the ER?
ELLEN: No, but I almost did. It’s what we call a triggering event and that one was a beaut. I lost a good bit of weight but I got help and got control before anything serious happened.
LEE: Does it help that you’ve done so much work in this area, including a lot of public speaking? You even started a foundation.
ELLEN: Sure. I had some notoriety from the movie (Dying to be Perfect: The Ellen Hart Pena Story, 1996) and I used it to start the foundation. Doing that kind of work keeps my sensitivity and awareness heightened. And I’m so into endurance sports now that I wouldn’t want to do anything that compromised my abilities in that area. I’m very healthy right now.
LEE: Do you think that there are women in triathlon with eating disorders?
ELLEN: I know there are, and so do the experts I work with. Think about the personality types that are attracted to a sport like this: driven, Type-A perfectionists who rarely feel like they’ve done enough. Surround them with high-performing athletes who look like they were carved out of marble and you’ve got the textbook setup for all kinds of obsession-centered problems. Even Chrissie Wellington ran into trouble. Thankfully, she came out of it okay.
LEE: Maybe there’s some good you can do on that front.
ELLEN: I’m already working on it.
LEE: Let’s back up a little. You were a world class runner, so how did you get into triathlon?
ELLEN: I ran the marathon in the ’84 Olympic trials and really loved the feeling of long distance running. I started getting healthy again in the early 90s but then had plantar fasciitis, which took two years to heal. I got a bike for my 47th birthday and separated my shoulder on my very first ride, but I got past it and did some swimming and biking. In 2006 I did two sprint-distance triathlons and one international without intending to run the last leg, but I’d brought my shoes and did, limping the whole way. The next year things felt better, and I qualified for nationals. I’d intended to go back to running but had already paid for nationals, so I figured I might as well go.
LEE: That would have been Portland in 2007.
ELLEN: I qualified for two Team USA events there, which gave me the extraordinary opportunity to race on behalf my country, so I was feeling pretty good about triathlon. My first 70.3 distance was Harvest Moon. I came across the line in 4:52 with absolutely nothing left in the tank, so when a friend suggested I try a full Ironman, I thought, Do this twice? Are you insane? And laughed it off. But next year I went to Lubbock and when I won a slot, I took it, and did my first Ironman in 2008.
LEE: So your very first Ironman was the world championship in Kona?
ELLEN: Yep. I’d never ridden 112 miles before, swum 2.4 only once…I was naïve, I was scared, and I felt unprepared.
LEE: You came in third, behind Laura Sophiea and less than a minute behind Donna Smyers. That’s some debut.
ELLEN: It was going to be a bucket list check-off for me but was just too incredible. There’s a spiritual place I get to in an Ironman that I don’t get to any other way. I’ve done a lot of sports at a high level but Ironman is utterly unique. It’s like getting right to the essence of things.
LEE: How many have you done altogether?
ELLEN: Three, all in Kona. I had a stress fracture in my foot in 2009 and had to skip that year, and in 2010 I won my age group and missed the course record by twenty seconds. I also had one of the greatest experience of my life, which was seeing my son and not-yet-husband Rob popping up all over the place on the course and cheering me on. I started the run eighteen minutes behind and knew for certain I could make it up, and I did. It was a real team effort and, that December, Rob and I got married.
LEE: Last year you came in second to Theresa Rider.
ELLEN: I got into debt on the swim and never fully recovered. Theresa is an exceptional athlete and such a strong performer in all three disciplines. There’s no room for error when you’re competing against someone like that.
LEE: I saw you race the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in Las Vegas two months ago. It was a ridiculously tough day, and only one age grouper in the entire field managed to set a new course record. Wait, that was you.
ELLEN: I had an early wave and missed the worst of the heat.
LEE: So did everyone else who started early. You being modest?
ELLEN: I’m really not.
LEE: So let me go way out on a limb here: You’re not in Kona just to finish, right?
ELLEN: Very funny. No, I’m out to win.
LEE: Not going to be easy.
ELLEN: It’s never easy. If it was easy, you’d be doing it.
LEE: Point taken.
[Ed. note: Ellen finished second in her age group at the 2012 Ironman World Championship, just two minutes and 22 seconds behind Australia’s June Ward.]