I was laying in my bed, browsing through my Instagram feed on a snowy day, when I encountered the story about Madison Holleran. Holleran was a 19-year old freshman on the cross country team at the University of Pennsylvania, and was a star athlete in high school, both playing soccer and running track. About an hour before she committed suicide by jumping off of a parking garage in Philadelphia, she posted a beautiful picture on Instagram of a sunset over Rittenhouse Square. No one could have predicted what was to come next.
During high school, Holleran was one of the top mid-distance runners in the state of New Jersey, with accolades in the 4×800 (anchor), 800m, and the 1200 leg of the distance medley relay. Her achievements during track reign at the top of the New Jersey high school records.
Whenever a tragedy like Holleran’s occurs, the first question is always, “Why?” Holleran was smart, beautiful, talented, and attending an Ivy League school. From her Instagram account, to me, it seemed like she had a close knit group of friends on her new team at Penn and was probably adjusting to school well, as she had a 3.5 GPA. However, the surface does not always tell the “truth”. Her father told sources that she had been seeing a therapist and was unhappy at Penn, but he told her that she didn’t have to go back to school – she could transfer. The pressure was caving in on Madison, and a 3.5 GPA was just not good enough in her eyes.
Any competitive runner, regardless of whether or not you ran in college or high school, knows about the pressures coaches, friends, and family put on you. Sometimes it’s from the person you least expect: after I didn’t break a certain time in my annual turkey trot this past year, an aunt who knows nothing about running said to me immediately as I crossed the finish line, “What happened to that 20 minute 5K this year?”
And when you’re on a team, it can feel even worse, because you can start convincing yourself you’re competing against your own teammates, even if you aren’t. I’ve also experienced firsthand how badly running pressure can get to you (I wrote about it here), leading to DNFs and panic attacks, and I know I’m not the only Salty blogger who has experienced extreme anxiety during races.
But there’s something so drastically different, I think, about collegiate running. While I’ve never attended an Ivy League school like Madison and I’ve never run DI (I run DIII), it almost saddens me that I can see where she was coming from. A high-achieving athlete’s life, like Madison’s, is busy. You wake up in the morning, tired from homework and practice the day before. You go to class and the second you get a question wrong, just like missing a split during a track workout, you feel like it’s the end of the world, because you’re supposed to be this “‘perfect” distance runner. You have to host recruits for lunch and try to find some time in the middle of the day to nap or catch up on appointments, then go to practice where you have yet another high standard to reach. While this lifestyle can be rewarding, it can also be so, so exhausting. And sometimes that exhaustion just gets the best of you as, heartbreakingly, it got to Madison.
Running is a fun, rewarding, and difficult sport. Sometimes it’s really necessary to sit back and remember why you are running; serious injuries like stress fractures always seem to be good for this sort of reflection, but it’s important to think about it even without being sidelined. Relaxing is so difficult in college, as anyone who has attended college knows, but you need to carve out that time in your day, even if it’s just once a week, to reflect on why you’re running and why you are competing.
If there are any current collegiate readers out there (or even post-collegiate), I’m sure you can relate to this. Whether you’re in college or not, if you are having any suicidal thoughts, reach out to the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are in college, don’t hesitate to go to your school’s counseling center and seek out help, and if you’re not, consider reaching out to a therapist. If the running pressure is too much, talk to your coaches and see what they can do to help you with this. And, most importantly, remember that you are not alone. We all feel pressure and struggle with hardship, and we’re here to support one another.
In the Salty Running Manifesto, we encourage runners to come together in competition, and to pay support and kindness forward at every opportunity. In light of the tragic loss of Madison Holleran, now is as good a time as any to come together. Say hi, or just wave, to other runners on your route. If you’re on a team, talk to your teammates about how they’re doing, and don’t take “fine” for an answer. Reach out to a friend and ask to run together on a day you might normally run by yourself. Let’s remind each other that we’re not alone.