Profile: Ellen Hart still makes the cut

Left In Full Bloom. Twenty-five years ago, an idealistic young woman competed to win a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Some 260 women qualified to run in the Olympic trials; three made the cut, she came in 11th. The devastation the young woman felt unleashed a silent chaos that had long lain dormant, suffusing her with an emptiness that no amount of love, nurturing or nourishment could fill. “For me, that effort represented the culmination of so much work and preparation. More than anything, I wanted to be an Olympic runner, and this seemed to me the end to all my dreams,” says Ellen Hart. However, rather than the end, it signaled a new beginning for Hart, a vibrant mother of three, whose life has been a nonstop whirlwind of activity. Twenty-five years after this crushing setback, she has made an unprecedented comeback in the highly competitive world of marathons and triathlons.

Hart competed in the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials 10,000-meter run, finishing a strong third, but unable to participate after the team boycotted the games. She then ran the marathon at the 1984 Olympic Trials and held the U.S. record for the 30K and the world’s best time for the 20K races. Along the way she has battled anorexia and bulimia, obtained a law degree and practiced law, co-founded the Eating Disorders Foundation, served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and served as a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. She was the subject of a made-for-television movie about her life, Dying to Be Perfect: the Ellen Hart Pena Story, which chronicled her battle with the life-threatening eating disorder. Recently she competed in her first Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, after a huge success in Clearwater, Fla., at the world championships for the half Ironman. There she finished first in her age division to become No. 1 in the world. Not bad for a woman of 50. Not bad at all.

Since moving from runner to triathlete, Hart has easily won or ranked in nearly all the events she has entered, setting new course records in some of the more prestigious events. It’s hard to believe that this woman, whose life has been filled with so many incredible accomplishments and triumphs, was once the victim of an insidious disease that nearly claimed her life. Yet for more than a decade, from age 21 to 31, Hart suffered from an eating disorder that consumed her every waking moment and controlled her entire being. Ellen HartNow 50, Hart says the person she has become today bears little resemblance to the young woman of 25 whose eating disorder raged silently behind closed doors. “For me this was a cumulative process, and my first steps into a new and healthier life came when I was pregnant with Nelia (Hart’s eldest child),” she says. “I felt I had this beautiful gift of life growing within me, and I had to nurture that. She literally saved my life.”

Following Nelia’s birth, Hart had two more children, Cristina and Ryan. As she speaks of her children and her significant other, Rob Woodruff, with whom she has had a relationship for six years, it becomes clear that family is a dominant force in her life. Her children, who are now 18, 17 and 12, are a source of constant wonder for this woman, who is able to find joy in even the smallest moments in her life. “Each of my children is on his or her own individual journey. I don’t get to call all the shots on how they live their lives, but I feel so privileged to be along on the journey,” she remarks. The second of eight siblings, Hart has an understanding of the jagged path she has traveled that has crystallized into a profound recognition of her worth as an individual. She spent her childhood in New Mexico and attended Harvard University along with four siblings; the other three went to Georgetown.

profile2“Growing up in our house, every single night was a family dinner. You couldn’t just slap out some statement that was unsupported, because if you did, the Oxford dictionary or the encyclopedia would come up. It was a stimulating, supportive and loving atmosphere,” she says. “My mom is an incredible woman who overcame huge odds,” she points out. “When she was young, her father — a fit, handsome man who was captain of a fireboat in New York City — dropped dead of a heart attack at age 46. My mother was 12 years old and learned of a scholarship to a boarding school in Scranton. She applied and was accepted, then went on to Georgetown for graduate work. She’s the smartest, most committed woman I know. Growing up, I just wanted to be her, and later I wanted to be a great mother like her. We never had a lot of money growing up, but there was always this idea that we were expected to contribute in some way to society. We were always reminded of the idea that we were so blessed and that in turn we must show these blessings to others.” Yes, her life with all its bruising challenges is so clear to her now, but what of the struggling young coed who grew up ensconced in the knowledge that greatness was perhaps too easy to achieve? Hart sighs deeply before launching into an explanation of the events that literally brought her to her knees. There is no magic cure for an eating disorder, and the road to recovery must come from within, Hart explains. “A person must believe she is worth it and be willing to take the risks to heal and come out whole on the other side,” she says.

“This then is the way I understand it now, and the behaviors I exhibited were fundamentally separate from the causes of my disease,” she begins. “College for me was wonderful, but to get there I had always followed the good girl path, as a merit scholar in high school and the winner of every outstanding athlete award.” Ellen HartAs second in her class at the Albuquerque Academy, she was in an incredibly challenging academic environment. “It was so demanding but so exhilarating, and I had never before been in that type of environment,” she says. “When I started there in the 10th grade, it was an all-boys’ school, and I was one of 24 girls beginning there for the first time. I was quite a bit behind in math, science and writing, but by graduation I was second in my class.” At Harvard, she was co-captain of the Ivy League championship soccer team, consistently made the dean’s list, and won eight varsity letters and one junior varsity letter. She goes on to say, “I had a great time, but the script was running out for me. Eating disorders often occur at a time of crucial transition, and 95 percent of those affected are women. So here I was, getting ready to graduate, and all of a sudden I was going to have to be responsible for myself. Until then I was of the mind-set, give me orders and I will execute them. But now what do I do? My world was upside down. I was questioning my identity, my sense of self, and I was terrified. An eating disorder lets you shut everything out, and I stopped dealing with my life.”

Her crisis accelerated in her senior year when she was injured playing soccer. When her foot healed, she began running indoor track, and her coach told her she would be a faster runner if she lost a few pounds. “I was fast and strong, and I weighed around 135 pounds,” she recalls. “I was always the fastest in the drills in basketball and soccer, and I had never thought of myself in that way before. So I lost some weight over Christmas, and when I came back to school, my coach told me it looked like I was gaining back the weight. I had a mental click, and I told my coach, ‘You are never, ever going to say that again.’ It was the confluence of my life, and it began to consume me. I could push aside everything else and only had to worry about getting my thesis done, getting to graduation and always, always, my food intake.” Finally her disease reached the point of no return. She says, “It was one time, and I overate and purged. It became a part of my life, but I thought I could stop whenever I needed to. I always thought that time would be the last time, but the days went into weeks, then months, then years. By the time I got to law school, I could not even focus on my assignments. The words would become a blur, and I could not concentrate. By the time I was healthy again, it had consumed a third of my life.” Hart shows no self-pity when reflecting on the disease that enveloped her entire being. She speaks with emotion, yet the emotion underscores an iron will that characterizes each accomplishment she has made, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

Today, she is in school to earn certification to work in the field of eating disorders. She is currently taking classes at the Nutrition Therapy Institute and is three-fourths of the way done to receiving a degree in the field. The program she is in is “very holistic in orientation,” and one that she says has brought countless aspects that she needed into her own life. “I recognize how important it is to deal with the family dynamic,” she explains. “We have to start with the basic premise that this is a serious disease and that help is possible. Until we as a society stop pointing fingers and blaming, until we can take away the stigma and the aura of isolationism and shame, until we can recognize it’s not the parents’ fault or the child’s, it’s going to persist.” While her life today is a far cry from the tormented one of her youth, it is Hart’s latest achievement that truly separates her from the pack and stunningly demonstrates her grit and determination.

In late October, she competed in her first Ironman competition in Hawaii, a triathlon that tested her body and her spirit in ways she never dreamed possible. It’s hard to believe this woman, who has overcome so much, would now find herself competing at such an intense level — at the age of 50. She explains, “The Ellen at 25 is so different from the Ellen I am today. Then I had an absolutely debilitating eating disorder that was raging behind closed doors. My eating disorder was so debilitating both physically and spiritually. I was living the life of a world-class runner, competing in the Olympic trials and later as the happy, cheery girlfriend of the mayor and later the first lady of Denver.” (Hart was married to former Denver Mayor Federico Peña from 1988 to 2001.) “But the whole time I was living this other life, I felt this extreme sense of fraud,” she continues. “That dual existence was so hard for me spiritually, and today I’m so grateful that for the first time in my life I feel integrated, and the parts of me have come together in a way that is true and honest.” Even her decision to compete in a triathlon was less a calculated effort or realization of a dream than a challenge to herself that yes, this, too, was something she could do. In the summer of 2006, the active runner and athlete was sidelined with a hurt foot. A friend suggested she compete in a half Ironman, and the wheels were set in motion. She began a rigorous training regimen, and that same year she ran in the Boulder Peak and placed high enough in the rankings to qualify for nationals, hurt foot and all.

In 2007 she qualified for two world events, a race in Hamburg, Germany, where she finished 11th, and then in Vancouver this past summer, where she came in seventh out of a field of more than 100 competitors. Tough odds for 99 percent of the population. But when it comes to Hart, ordinary is not in her vocabulary. She finished the swim portion of the race in 35th place, but then it was time to run. She raced her heart out and finished with the fastest time in that segment, ushering in a seventh-place win among runners from around the world. This propelled her to compete in some more local races, then a half Ironman in Lubbock, Texas, in June. But even then she did not have full confidence that she wanted to continue to the big leagues, the Kona Ironman slated for later that fall. “In the half Ironman I started the run portion eight minutes behind the first-place runner, but I made up the time and won and secured the spot for Hawaii,” she says. “I realized there was a spiritual piece to all this, and that something was calling me to partake in some sort of adventure. I knew there was an experience to be had here and that I could do well if I continued to push myself in a healthy way. I looked at the challenge as a wonderful celebration of recovery and strength, and to have the opportunity to do this at this stage of my life and to compete at this level is truly a gift.” Hart admits there are portions to the triathlon that she “really doesn’t like,” such as being wet and cold and the feeling of hesitation during the bike portion. The last is due largely to a bad biking accident she suffered when training for the competition, which landed her in the emergency room.

“I’m willing to take these risks because they take me out of my comfort zone and challenge me. This is not something I could ever have done at age 30 or 40. But now at age 50 I have a completely different attitude,” she says. “It’s good for my spirit and my soul, and doing the Ironman was incredible. But I keep my perspective. I did not discover the cure for cancer or stop world hunger, but I do feel I’m testing new frontiers, and for now that’s enough.” Her accomplishment in Hawaii is a story in itself. The event includes a 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112 miles of rigorous biking and a 26.2-mile run. When she arrived in Hawaii, Hart had not competed in a full marathon since 2004 and had never biked a full 112 miles. “Ironman is a metaphor for strength and recovery, and since finishing this, I feel like I have another half century to live and thrive,” she says. “I feel like I’m still improving in the areas of swimming and biking. When I ran in my 20s, I was as fast as I could ever be, and I know I will never be able to run at the same times I ran then. But I can continue improving in the other areas, even though I cannot imagine wanting to continue the training commitment it took for that part of my life.” Hart’s psychological approach to the triathlon was to compete in a healthy way that would be fulfilling both physically and spiritually. “God does not put you on the earth just to hang out and enjoy your corner,” she says. “I have such respect for Sister Madonna Buder, an incredible triathlete who is also a nun. She basically said, ‘I don’t have to apologize for the gifts that God gave me, I just have to apologize for not using them.’”

And use them she does. During the Ironman, Hart was determined to achieve her best possible result. As she finished the bike and swim portion, she was 45 minutes behind the first-place competitor. In the end, her grit enabled her to finish just 13 minutes behind the first-place winner and less than one minute behind the second-place winner, an incredible effort by any measure. So does this world-class athlete ever slow down? Is there another goal she can now run toward, another milestone to reach? “I am not sure of the answer to that,” Hart says with a contented smile. “Even though my children are growing, I still care so enormously about parenting, and I don’t want to miss anything. Every time you go around a corner, you discover a different relationship with your children. From the first moment your child starts to talk about something that affected his or her life and you realize you did not contribute to that knowledge or experience, you realize it’s a gift that opens up a whole other world. “So I look forward to being so involved with my children, starting my new career, and while I’ll always be an athlete, it does not necessarily need to continue at this level,” she says. “It doesn’t scare me that my body is changing, because I’m still the same me. I look forward to taking my experiences and making a positive contribution together with Rob and my family.”

Written by ELLEN GRAY
Photography by KIT WILLIAMS

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