How Running Saved Hannah Reinhardt's Life

Hannah Reinhardt, a senior at the University at Albany, won the Northeast Regional on the roads this past weekend, earning an individual qualification for the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships on Saturday, Nov. 23. This story, written by Reinhardt on behalf of America East's #BetterTo9ether initiative, details her journey through adversity and how running helped save her life.

By Hannah Reinhardt

It’s impossible to tell my entire story without starting from the beginning…

I am seven years old, the second-youngest of six children. My little brother just turned two, and we are getting settled into our new house in a new neighborhood. For most, this transition into a new house with a new baby and a fresh start would be a positive pivotal moment in the development into the next stage of life. For me, this pivot was different – in a chaotic, trying, and difficult way. This seventh year of my life marked my first introduction into what would be a decade and a half interaction with the New York State Department of Social Services and Child Protective Services (DSS). It also served as the first test of my young life: what to do when it feels like your life is crumbling in front of you? The options most visible to me followed in the order of: 1. Denial and succumbing to a bout of depression 2. Heavy drug and alcohol use 3. Frustration and anger 4. Throw yourself into school and athletics.

During the next years of my transition into my pre-teenage and teenage years the option that seemed to result in the least emotional and physical turmoil was the fourth, finding solace in school and athletics. Two of my older siblings were involved with a summer track program sponsored by our town and that’s when my love for running began. For me—it wasn’t phenomenal talent or winning events or even the competitive environment that drew me to the sport: it was the people and the environment. I was just a girl riddled with overwhelming stress that I had no control over and those two-hour practice five days a week that summer gave me such comfort. It was a space where I could get my frustration, aggression, fear, sadness and everything in between out in a healthy way. The best part was having this outlet surrounded by other kids my age who didn’t know I was and what was happening at my home, they just saw me as the girl who was learning to do high knees drills and practicing my static stretching right beside them.                                 

Flash forward to 7th grade me – yet again, in a different house, a different school, and a different life. My first year in middle school and my entrance back into public school after a year and-a-half break being homeschooled by my aunt alongside my younger brother and seven, cousins. I was fragile. It had been almost six years since child protective services walked into my life. I had been placed under the guardianship of my relatives once and I had moved six times. I was living with my little brother and my mom—separation of my older siblings had occurred month-by-month until it was just the two of us. I needed something to keep me away from the bad stuff that invited the police to becoming regular guests at our house. I needed something to pick me up and keep me running. I joined the modified outdoor track and field team and although it wasn’t that immediate “fix all” it gave me something to preoccupy the time between school and coming home each night. I learned that I loved the way it felt when I could run all the pain out. It made me feel refreshed. Running gave me an outlet, it allowed me to release my sadness instead of bottling it up.

Just a year later, I’m staring down at the outfit I have laid out on the bed I share with my mom. It feels like a sick and twisted joke that I am again starting a different school, in a different house, in a different town. I feel sick to my stomach because I’m back in the same school district I lived in through age 7-10. The people here must remember me. I was convinced that they’d recognize me as the weird homeschooled girl who lived next to the elementary school, that came to school for less than two years and left after Thanksgiving break never to come back again. The girl with the overgrown grass where the cops seemed to live, like it was their own home. I looked in the mirror, put on my outfit and took an anxiety-filled breath. This transition seemed to be the worst yet. I had a reputation here, I didn’t fit in, I was an outcast. There was a light at the end of the tunnel though: I might be able to join the high school track and field team with my older brother who was a junior at the same school.

But, I passed the required athletic skills testing that would make me eligible to compete on the varsity track team. I was ecstatic. I had a spot on the team, and I got a whole group of automatic friends. Ever trial that it seems like I faced that year had been worth it: I felt like I had a permanent home.

At the midpoint of my freshman year in high school, I reflect on the past two years—life has been hard. It has tested me in ways I never thought I would be tested. I just went through my 11th move of my life. My mom just lost custody of us and I am back living with my cousins for the time being. I get picked up by a bus at 5:50 in the morning, I ride that with a group of other kids transferring to different private schools in different districts for an hour and a half: I switch onto a different bus, arrive at school 45 minutes before the bell for first period rings. I’m carrying my practice bag, my change of clothes bag, and my post-practice dinner. I’ll probably be at school until close to 8 pm tonight so my uncle can pick me up and drive me 45 minutes back home after he gets out of work. This is my normal. I will do the same thing again tomorrow and the day after that and then again after that until I get the go ahead from DSS to move back home again.

Despite it all, these long days are worth it. When I get out of school in the afternoon I get to converge into the locker room with 20 of my best friends. The sisters who have accepted me unconditionally—who understand that my parents will probably not be volunteering to bring chili to the fall cross country home invite and who offer to give me rides home and sleep at their houses on school nights because I couldn’t get a ride home. I get to spend the afternoon forgetting that my life isn’t the average suburban dream: it’s messy but that’s okay. This feeling comforts me because in the grand scheme of things, all that matters is how fast I can get both of my feet on the round and back up again in succession. I get to be surrounded by comfort in stability. The stability that I will never lose this opportunity, that I can come to practice and work hard and not have to be faced with rocky ground because it’s just practice and it will be here every Monday-Saturday without question.

I adapted the phrase when it rains, it pours to when it’s sprinkling, it monsoons. I can see it now. I’m sitting on my bed trying to finish my AP European history study guide—I’m on page 20 and it’s due tomorrow. I’m trying to not look out of my doorframe as my mom gets wheeled away on a stretcher. She’s hurting and she can’t handle it anymore. I blame myself, why didn’t I comfort her more, how didn’t I keep her safe? I put my head down and finish my packet and cry myself to sleep. The next morning, my dad has his car packed and he says he’s leaving. I’m not surprised, I can take care of my little brother with less toxicity and aggression and mania anyways.

And the thing is, I’m not mad… I’m afraid. Where do we get money to pay for groceries? How do I make sure my little brother is home safe while I’m at practice? I set up a play-date-babysitting-combo job for the two of us to make some extra cash while I figure out what to do next.

Just a week later, I’m on move again. This is my 14th move. I don’t know what to do. There are so many uncertainties about living with a new family, about how to maintain social relationships, about what my life will look like from now on. I can’t complain though: I have my strong hold, I have running. I have my family from the team who will make sure I make it through this without diving into the dark side.

Only a year later, move #15. But this one is for the better. I spent the summer in the psychiatric ward because contrary to popular belief: when life seems to be collapsing in every which way, you can’t just wish it back to normalcy. Sometimes rock bottom is the place you seem to find out who you really are and why you want to live. I just showed up to cross country captains’ practices—a cloud follows my head out of fear of embarrassment-ridicule-judgement. It disperses as my two friends embrace me in a hug. Back to family, back to stability, back to safety, back to home. I find my fire this season: I know that running gives me strength and it gives me a reason to want to be whole. It helps to heal the broken pieces of my heart by replacing it with purpose, desire and strength.

My senior year of high school, I became a ward of the state of New York this year. My life is not like everyone else. I am a senior in high school and I am in foster care. My older sister—a junior in college at the time took me under her wing and agreed to spend the wild 21st year of her life taking foster parenting classes after college classes so that she could become my kinship foster parent. I try to remind myself of the things in my life that are good. I am an honor’s student and I am a NYS qualifying cross country and track runner. I am alive and breathing: taking one foot in front of the other a little faster than I did the day before.

Since arriving at UAlbany in the fall of 2016 as a nervous freshman, eager for a fresh start and a chance to become a better runner, my life has changed in a variety of ways. My relationship with running is one thing that has only strengthened over the years. It’s a constant grounding factor has cushioned me with safety while allowing me to be fearless. It has given me the power to not limit myself because I know at the end of the day, it will be there for me to “catch me if I fall”.

Through running here at UA, I have met the most caring, compassionate and thoughtful people. I truly believe that I was welcomed into the “Great Dane family” with open arms from day one. I am surrounded by teammates who have become my closest sisters and brothers and coaches who are parent-figures who have and continue to lift me up every day. As a member of SAAC I have developed friendships and taken part in making a difference in other student athletes’ lives through advocating and educating for a focus on mental health. Aside from that, I am on track to graduate this spring from with a dual degree in accounting and business administration. My coaches here at UAlbany took a “mediocre” walk-on and gave me more than athletics, they gave me chance to “break the mold” of the path that the stereotypical ward-of-the-state might go down. I am forever grateful!

This story may not seem that coherent but to me it’s my way of summarizing my journey through almost two decades of the complexity that is mental illness, drug abuse and toxic familial relationships. Ultimately, it’s about the hobby, turned sport, turned lifestyle that gave my life structure, meaning, safety and strength in my darkest days.

It’s certainly not a stretch to say, in the truest of terms, that running saved my life.

If you, or someone you know, is battling anxiety or depression and in need of someone to talk to, The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones by calling 1-800-273-8255. 

AE Voices is space for America East Conference student-athletes, coaches and administrators to share their personal stories in their own words. This feature is sponsored by America East’s #BetterTo9ether initiative, which aims to help create more mentally healthy environments for America East student-athletes. Permission to share this story on FloTrack was provided courtesy of America East. Read past AE Voices features here.

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