ALBANY — On the cross country course, Hannah Reinhardt moves when she decides it’s time to move.
If only her life was that simple.
The UAlbany senior won the America East individual championship on her home course on Saturday, a year after she became the first Great Dane — male or female — to do so.
A few days before that, she had posted an essay “How Running Saved My Life” on a section of the conference website called “AE Voices,” a public forum sponsored by the AE’s #BetterTo9ether initiative, “which aims to help create more mentally healthy environments for AE student-athletes.”
It’s easy reading because Reinhardt is a good writer; it’s painful reading because she’s an honest one.
It’ll make your head swim.
You should read it.
Reinhardt will compete in the NCAA Northeast Regional Championships in Buffalo next Friday, a site that brings her back to her homes — plural.
The bio brief on her Great Danes team page lists “Hometown: Clarence, N.Y.” and “High School: Clarence,” serving its basic factual purpose, but not even scratching the surface of her manic, itinerant childhood. Because of her parents’ drug addiction that made the Reinhardt home life a toxic cocktail of violence, abuse and criminal activity, Reinhardt, who has four siblings, was forced to move 15 times in and out of foster homes from age 7 to her senior year in high school.
By then, she was an honors student and a middle distance runner with some still-untapped potential at longer races. She was also a ward of the state of New York, her father was in and out of prison and her mother was in the midst of the better part of four years in a psychiatric ward.
Considering the countless families and homes that have been destroyed by drug abuse and improper or non-existent treatment of mental illness, the title “How Running Saved My Life” doesn’t carry even a whisper of hyperbole. Hannah Reinhardt graciously and vividly expanded on her story for me on Wednesday afternoon, a crisp, breezy splash of sunshine with colder, darker skies in the forecast.
She has a deep conviction about the role the sport of running has played in her survival, how the clarity and power of a simple one-hour recovery run could supply the opportunity to get her thoughts and emotions stabilized and organized.
“That alone time was exactly what I needed,” she said.
Not everyone with her type of backstory is going to be in a position to use running — or any sport, for that matter — as a means of survival. But one of the best parts of our interview was when she explained why she wrote and posted her essay:
“I think the main reason I wanted to share it was because, especially this year and last year, I have realized that I may not run every race to the way I want to, school may not be going the way I want it to or things aren’t in order like the way I want them to, but I have made tremendous growth over the last decade,” she said. “And I think when I was younger, I would always hear these things, whether it be from social workers or a therapist or police officers, all of the official people around me, telling me what I was going to be.
“Basically outlining ‘You’re probably going to be in the system for awhile.’ The typical route. People in my similar situations are always being bombarded hearing stories about the negatives and what destruction and turmoil you’re going to go through down the road just because of the environment you’re raised in. ‘This is going to happen to you.’ You’re probably going to have a lot of emotional trauma, a lot of psychological trauma. Maybe even physical. They’re telling you all these things that are going to happen, instead of giving you hope.”
It took torturous, never-ending twists, but Reinhardt eventually chose what would happen to her.
She did not choose the route, but was able to find hope in the sport of running.
In a sense, it was always there waiting for her.
Her parents were runners — “Dad would take me for jogs in his jogger when I was a little baby” — as were her siblings, especially brother Ben, three years older, and sister Chelsea, five years older.
Hannah Reinhardt posted a 2:21 for the 800 early in her high school career, and “had those aspirations to continue the legacy, be the next Reinhardt.”
By freshman year, though, she had been home-schooled by her aunt for a year and a half and had not only moved back to the school district where the trouble had started, but to the same house that the local police knew all too well.
“The people here must remember me,” she chillingly wrote in her essay, “The girl with the overgrown grass where the cops seemed to live, like it was their own home.”
“People did remember me,” she said on Wednesday. “And it was really embarrassing, especially because I ended up moving back to the same house that I was living in several times, back and forth.
“So, people know. It’s a small town, people know. And there was always people gossiping and things like that, but I was very, very fortunate to find not only friends but people in my life, teachers, and just people who went out of their way after class, like, ‘How are you doing? I know this is really hard.’
“And it was really hard, and there was a lot of shame that I carried. But I met a lot of great people. I met a lot of bad people. But people were very friendly and kind and were able to cast the things that were going on beside and accepted me for me.”
The constant mental anguish took its toll, naturally.
Somehow, though, Reinhardt adjusted to the incremental re-establishment of the “new normal,” over and over.
“The way I equate it is, say someone is living in a third-world country. Right? Every day, every morning, they have that same routine where they have to walk to the watering hole, just to get water. Every day, whether it be miles or hours. Humans are incredibly resilient, and they are incredibly strong.
“My childhood, it wasn’t like one day I woke up and everything changed. Whether it be a long travel day, or doing homework when my parents are screaming at each other, or doing homework when my dad’s high, or when the cops are home. It wasn’t like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is happening, I can’t concentrate,’ spur of the moment. It was normal.”
Through it all, running was her coping mechanism, she said.
The solitude was not only a blessed relief, but a means to take a deep breath, and take stock.
And Reinhardt adapted, always. That carried over to UAlbany, where she came in with mostly an 800-meter identity and comfortably folded herself into the world of cross country, bolstered by head coach Matt Jones and her teammates, especially Cara Sherman and Holly Machabee, and her boyfriend, Jake Johnson, a member of the Great Danes’ men’s team.
She ran a personal-best 16:45 — a robust progression from the 18:16 she ran as a freshman season best — to win the AE Championships last week and aspires to qualify for the NCAA nationals with a strong performance in the Northeast Regional next week.
A double major in accounting and business administration, Reinhardt is active on the Student-Athlete Advisory Council in order to make a difference “in other student athletes’ lives through advocating and educating for a focus on mental health,” she wrote. Her “AE Voices” essay ends with a tagline for The Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) for free and confidential support to people battling anxiety and depression.
“I haven’t shared my whole story with anyone but my boyfriend. Just insights,” she said. “Because it’s hard. It’s hard to be away from school and not have parents who are rooting for you and sending care packages. But the people on this team have been a source of strength and encouragement.
“I want to be someone who shares my story because I’m not the first person, and I won’t be the last, unfortunately, that goes through the things that are less than desirable when you’re going through your young adult life.
“And I think I want to be a beacon of hope.”