Excerpted from chapter 3 of "What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen" by Kate Fagan.
The best four years of her life. That's what Madison expected. Four years just like high school, except better -- because now she'd be living on her own.
Actually, not quite on her own, living with a roommate. At first, the room she shared with Emily in Hill -- the Penn dormitory -- seemed just fine, cozy even. For the first few days, they both kept the room meticulous, desperately preserving the image of college life they'd carried around for years: pictures of high school friends above desks, shampoo and conditioner tucked neatly into a plastic carrying case, roommates moving easily around the shared space with laughter and smiles, music blaring, preparing for a big party.
This image soon dissolved. In its place appeared something more real: the messiness and claustrophobia of two people who don't really know each other sharing two hundred square feet, of wet towels left on beds, of books and clothes covering every surface, of neither roommate living up to the expectations of the other, because, well, how could they? This disappointment mattered, of course, but then again so many spaces existed outside that little room in Hill: classrooms, coffee shops, the city, frat parties, restaurants, the track.
... The track.
In high school, track was fun. That was essentially its point: it was a form of cross-training that kept Maddy from burning out on soccer. Track came after school, and she spent much of the time running with Emma, her high school best friend, who competed for Boston College. Pressure eventually arose, once she became one of the best in the state, but she started without any kind of wild expectations. She just enjoyed running. She loved waking up on the weekend and going to the Celery Farm nature preserve, where she could churn through however many miles and whatever thoughts were on her mind.
But track in college was a different beast. For one, it was not just track; it was also cross-country. For another, it was not just one practice after school; it was also scheduled in the morning before classes. It was, like most Division I sports, a job -- with time commitments, with demands, with expectations of performance. And nothing turns enjoyment into dread faster than obligation.
Maddy had been recruited to Penn by head coach Steve Dolan. She liked him, clicked with him, and assumed he would coach her. But he didn't. Robin Martin, an assistant coach, was working with her, and the two didn't jibe as well, in large part because they didn't know each other. Thus Maddy was missing a crucial energy source: the inspiration sparked by wanting to make an admired coach proud. At Northern Highlands, she had enjoyed a strong relationship with her soccer and track-and-field coaches. Most high school coaches are also full-time teachers; sports are tangential. And because coaching isn't their livelihood, that layer of stress and urgency, which coaches often pass on to the athlete, is absent.
For all of Madison's life, late summer and fall had meant soccer. It meant walking onto a grass field, cleats in hand, laughing with friends she'd known her entire life. The work was hard, but it was collective work, with friends to connect with between sprints with a nod ("We got this"), or a laugh ("Coach is crazy"), or an exhausted grimace ("How many more?") --each person pulling weight toward a larger goal. Now, late summer and fall meant waking up at dawn in a cramped dormitory room, in a new city, to trudge to practice and run long distances, the person next to you living inside her own head, considering her own times, responsible only for her own motivation. Maddy didn't have anyone she wanted to show up for.
And practices rolled toward her as if on a speeding assembly line, with barely enough time to handle one before the next was upon her, morning then afternoon, morning then afternoon. Emily and Maddy spent numerous moments in their room, looking at each other, wishing they didn't have to leave in just a few minutes to go run-- again.
Maddy just wasn't enjoying it. The training was so different. In high school, she had been a middle distance runner. She had wanted to stretch to the mile at Penn, but cross-country included races four times that length. Also, when she ran races in high school, she usually won. There were only eight lanes, just seven opponents, but still, Madison routinely finished first. On the other hand, a college cross-country meet included hundreds of runners, all literally corralled at the starting line, released onto the course in a wave of humanity -- dense lines of people jostling for running room, fighting to prove themselves with each stride. And each of these runners was just like Maddy: used to winning.
To stay confident, Madison would need a shift in perspective. The same time that had won a race in high school would put her in the middle of the pack in college. But that needed to be okay; she needed to give herself time. Although Dolan thought she was doing well, Maddy couldn't accept the abstract idea that she was doing "well" -- not when she had a visceral reminder that she definitely was not. Weren't runners streaming past her on the course?
In early October, Jim went to watch her race cross-country at Lehigh, at the Paul Short Invitational. Penn finished seventeenth as a team, and Maddy came in 104th out of more than 400 runners. That day, she was Penn's second-fastest runner, despite being the only one who hadn't run cross-country in high school. After the race, Maddy introduced her dad to her teammates and the other parents. She was still adjusting, trying to understand if she could work through the pressure and the time commitment. "She wasn't enjoying it like she had in high school," Jim said. "I could tell, but that was a nice little day for the track team, and she had a good race, so that made things better."
On November 2, 2013, Stacy drove to Princeton to see Maddy run at Heptagonals, the Ivy League championships. (Stacy and Jim often alternated who attended what, since of their five kids, three were still playing sports.) Madison didn't say much before the race, because she was too nervous. But Stacy noticed that her daughter seemed different -- less radiant, dulled.
The temperature that day was hot, even though it was the first weekend in November, and the course was long, 6,000 meters. Maddy struggled in a way she never had before. She usually had a strong kick on the track and a nonstop motor on the soccer field. She possessed stamina, the result of never cutting corners, of doing all -- and often more -- of the required work. The way Maddy saw it, people collapsed at the finish line because they hadn't done enough preparation, not because they'd done too much.
But when she crossed the finish that November day, she collapsed. What was happening to her? The medics at the race guided her to the tent, where they checked her pulse, gave her oxygen, and helped her rehydrate. She had finished forty-fourth out of more than one hundred runners, and fifth on the Penn team. Maddy recovered quickly -- physically, at least.
Once she was back on her feet, she found her mom and gave her a hug. The color had drained from Maddy's face, but how could it not have? She had literally expended all the energy in her body. "Mom, I'm just not happy," Maddy said that day. "I'm not right -- something is not right."
Stacy assured her daughter that it would be okay, that they would figure it out, but she wasn't exactly clear about what was happening. Maddy couldn't articulate precisely what was wrong, only that something was. And Stacy had attended enough of her daughter's games and meets to know how hard Maddy was on herself, how delicate her self-confidence could be.
A few minutes after the race, mother and daughter took a picture together. The moment the iPhone camera turned on, Maddy transformed: she pulled back her slumping shoulders, wrapped Stacy in a hug, and smiled for the camera.
But the reprieve was momentary. And throughout that fall, Stacy remembers looking at her daughter's Instagram feed and seeing happiness and excitement. "Maddy, you look so happy at this party," she recalls once saying.
"What Made Maddy Run" will be released on Tuesday. Order a copy here.