WAS ALWAYS EAGER TO PUSH THE LIMITS OF HER ENDURANCE. THEN THE PACIFIC OCEAN PUT HER TO THE ULTIMATE TEST
This is an article from the March 12, 2012 issue
FRIDAY WAS BEACH DAY.
The kids at Escuela Sol y Pura Vida (Sun and Pure Life School) would head to Playa Avellanas, on Costa Rica's Pacific shore. The ribbon of sand, dotted with tidal pools, was known locally as Little Hawaii and was frequented by world-class surfers. But on Oct. 28 the beach was practically barren. The water, usually clear enough to show stingrays in the pipes that bore the surfers to the shore, was a drab, mottled gray. "I remember thinking the sky looked angry," one resident recalls.
On the best days—and there were about 300 of them a year—the blue sky bled into the ocean, and the tableau of water, sand and almond trees was almost ostentatious in its beauty. It all looked, in a word, tranquilo. But looks could deceive. Swells could reach 18 feet, and the tides that washed in and out constantly remodeled the soft ocean bottom, rendering it unfamiliar even to veteran surfers. On Oct. 28, an overcast day in the height of the rainy season, the surfers and the schoolkids stayed away. Everyone did, in fact. Save for one intrepid woman and a small boy.
Rhiannon Hull had come to Costa Rica six weeks earlier with her six-year-old son, Julian. They'd left their home in Healdsburg, Calif., and settled in this Central American outpost to start Escuela Sol y Pura Vida, a kindergarten in the Waldorf tradition. The plan was for the other half of their family—Rhiannon's husband, Norm, and their other son, nine-year-old Gianni—to join them around Thanksgiving. But for now it was just Rhiannon and Julian living in a lizard-infested two-story concrete house with at most lukewarm water, three miles of dirt road from the nearest grocery store. Uprooting and moving to a country 3,000 miles and an immeasurable cultural distance from home? Hull, as she so often did, was smudging the line between courageous and quixotic.
In Playa Avellanas, a tiny beach community, Hull had no car. A former runner in the University of Oregon's famed distance program, she would plop Julian on his bike and run beside him on the six-mile round trip to the village of Tamarindo to buy a carton of milk. At 33, an age when most competitive runners have long since hung up their spikes, she was still squeezing in two runs a day and would whimsically enter a marathon if she happened to be around on the day of the race.
In her 20s she picked up yoga. While the discipline's stillness and calm were at odds with her natural state of perpetual motion, she soon became a certified instructor. A decade later she still had mastery over her body, a keen awareness of her physical limits and a sense that it was an affront not to explore them. Maybe that's why she felt comfortable venturing into the surf around 10 o'clock that overcast morning on an empty beach. The tide was out and the waves were breaking on the shore, so Rhiannon grabbed Julian and trudged out past the break to play in the calmer water.
Except it wasn't calmer.
In the six weeks that the Hulls had been in Costa Rica, few days had had a greater tidal fluctuation than Oct. 28, and no morning had had a lower low tide. It would be very easy to get very deep very quickly.
In all likelihood Rhiannon and Julian stepped off a sandy ledge—one that might not have existed on their previous days out—and were swept by the current into open water. In roughly the time it takes to read this sentence, a day at the beach had turned into the ultimate test of endurance.
For the next half hour, Hull would fight not just for her life but for Julian's as well. Her physique, 5'2" and 100 pounds of sinewy muscle, was normally an asset, but it didn't give her the buoyancy she needed now. Nor would she be helped by her instinct to try to overpower a challenge. The way to beat a riptide is to float passively until it drags you far enough out to swim around it back to safety. While Rhiannon was plenty strong, she was now holding up a boy who weighed nearly half as much as she did and who was probably in a state of panic.
She may have been an exceptional athlete on terra firma, but she was not a natural swimmer. She had often told friends that she aspired to race triathlons but was dissuaded because of the swimming leg. "It burned her up," says Norm Hull. "It frustrated her that she couldn't get swimming down as well as running."
One of the fascinations (and frustrations) of the word athlete is that we haven't settled on an exact definition. We know an athlete when we see one. Even if we don't have the exact proportions of the successful athlete's attributes, we know what they are: strength, speed, focus, coordination, control, resolve. But there is also another factor: the ability to bring all the others to bear against a formidable foe—in this case, the Pacific Ocean.
On the beach, 16-year-old surfer Caleb Pi√±a and his 19-year-old buddy Johan Z√∫√±iga were just walking down from Lola's, the only restaurant in the area. Fifteen minutes earlier they had seen Rhiannon, whom neighbors called la corredora (the Running Lady), and Julian head down toward the water. Now the Hulls were more than 100 feet from shore. The Running Lady seemed to be holding her boy aloft. Caleb could hear their voices faintly in the wind. They're playing, he told himself as he headed toward the ocean with his board. But the closer he got, the clearer it became: She's in too deep.
"They're drowning, mai," Caleb told Johan, using Costa Rican slang for dude. The two surfers paddled furiously out.
By the time they reached her, Rhiannon Hull was in the homestretch of the most important race she would ever win. And lose.
Rhiannon Glenn never stood a chance. As much as she might have liked other sports, running was her destiny. Born in 1978 and named after a Fleetwood Mac song, she was light and strong and, above all, game. In second grade she bested all the boys in pull-ups. Within a few weeks of taking her first gymnastics class, the instructors were talking about her as a natural with a future in the sport. But growing up around granola-and-green Eugene, Ore., known to the faithful as Tracktown, USA, it was inevitable that she'd be seduced by running.
Singlets and spandex are the vestments of Eugene; taut calves and quads are fashion statements. Each summer in high school and college, Rhiannon would attend the Prefontaine Classic, the most prestigious outdoor track meet in the U.S., and leave inspired. She had started out sprinting in middle school, although "she wasn't always the fastest," says Darren Glenn, her father. "But she was such a competitive person." In the ninth grade she moved up to the distance races, where raw foot speed is secondary to time spent pounding the ground.
Rhiannon's parents divorced not long after her birth, and hers was a transient childhood as she moved around Oregon with her mother, Karen Ellingson, often changing elementary schools, until she moved in with her dad for middle school. Running was her constant. It fed her need to be in motion, her love of the outdoors and her relentless drive for self-improvement, however incremental.
"She was really good at it," says Gabby Coffman, a friend since high school, "but it also gave her time to think and a chance to control her environment." The distance didn't matter. At South Eugene High, Rhiannon was a two-time state champion in the 4 √ó 400-meter relay, but she also made the state championships in the 800 and in cross-country and was good enough to earn a spot on the Oregon track team when she matriculated in 1996.
Living in Eugene in an off-campus apartment owned by her father, Rhiannon embraced running more than ever. "I wouldn't have been as consistent if she hadn't dragged me through morning runs," says Katie Crabb-Waterman, who became the best female middle-distance runner of the decade at Oregon.
But Rhiannon kept Tracktown's cultish fanaticism at a remove. Running was what she did, not who she was. As a redshirt junior she met Norm at a campus bar. He still remembers being transfixed by the ropes of back muscle poking from her top and by her glacier-blue eyes and wraparound smile. "Who are you?" was the best opening line he could muster. She told him, but she had no interest in discussing split times and personal bests at the bar, even one that happened to be named Joggers.
"She got sick of talking about running," Norm says. That was fine by him. They started dating immediately.
Besides going out with Norm, a mocha-skinned 6'4" glassblower and artist from Cleveland who was not an Oregon student, Rhiannon made plenty of friends away from track. She threw herself into her psychology classes, absorbed the counterculture vibe of her hometown and became, as her father puts it, "very eco-minded." Consumed by fitness and training but unwilling to give up life's indulgences, she was borderline obsessed with inventing the "healthy cookie," says Crabb-Waterman. Never mind that you're more likely to harness cold fusion than to devise a decent-tasting cookie without using butter—Rhiannon spent innumerable hours trying.
On the Oregon team she acquitted herself well, twice competing at the NCAA championships in cross-country, but her results never quite lived up to her ferocious training. "She wasn't that fast, but she was strong," says Crabb-Waterman, invoking a track term for a runner who can simply last.
During her junior year abroad in Seville, suddenly untethered from the strictures of the U of O program, Rhiannon increased her training volume, replacing 500-meter intervals with 1,000-meter intervals. When Coffman traveled to Sicily with her, Rhiannon rented her a bike so she could accompany Rhiannon on runs. ("It was the only way I could keep up," Coffman says.) In Seville, Rhiannon fell in with a running team called Grupo 10 and started winning prize money at local 10K road races and half marathons. "In Spain she blossomed as a runner," says Crabb-Waterman. "She found that she could hold her speed for a really long time. The longer the better."
Back in Eugene for her senior year, Rhiannon was riding her bike when she was blindsided by a car door. The accident left her with lingering back pain, which exacted a price on her running. She remained on the Ducks team but immersed herself in yoga. Core strength was already one of her core strengths, and soon she was doing handstand push-ups and splits against the wall and gaining an even more intimate knowledge of her own body.
In 2002, a year after graduating from Oregon, she married Norm. In '03, eight months pregnant with their first child, Rhiannon was still running daily. Concerned neighbors cautioned her as she smiled and zipped by. She delivered Gianni without drugs. Asked by friends how she managed that, she responded, "It's just like running: You know you can do it, so you just do it." Within weeks she was back to piling up the miles, insisting to friends that something about pregnancy—perhaps the increase in blood volume required to nurture the baby—had made her faster.
Two years later, after the Hulls had moved to Springfield, Ore., Julian was born. The delivery by midwife doubled as an impromptu social gathering, the sort of thing that only a woman who was supremely comfortable in her own body would allow. Norm's best friend shot video, and a dozen other friends gathered in their home, some waiting to watch the grand finale of "the wild birth," as they called it, during which Norm helped lift his wife to get an assist from gravity. "It was," recalls Norm, "pretty dramatic."
Now a mother of two, Rhiannon began to think even more about the world around her. When Norm took her to visit his relatives in Chicago's tough Englewood neighborhood—a pocket where Bill Clinton once discussed areas of America "untouched by our prosperity"—she was appalled that she had to drive 45 minutes to find a store with fresh fruit. Galvanized by that trip, she started a blog, "The Eco Family: your cost effective guide to being a green parent," under the nom de Web Eco-Mama. She'd also grown interested in Rudolf Steiner's Waldorf educational philosophy, which emphasizes storytelling and the outdoors and seeks to shield kids from the influence of pop culture (no TV) and corporate promotions (no Mickey Mouse T-shirts) until their personalities are more fully developed.
In 2008 the Hulls moved to Healdsburg, a Zinfandel boomtown in Sonoma County in Northern California, so that Rhiannon could begin the four-year training course at the Summerfield Waldorf School & Farm. At the same time she was homeschooling her own kids. Running (often twice a day) served a new purpose: giving her alone time. There were days when she would run from home to the center of town to teach a yoga class, then run back home and run again in the evening if she needed a break from a three-quarters-male household.
When, in June 2010, Healdsburg held its annual Fitch Mountain Foot Race 10K, Rhiannon hadn't officially entered but agreed to run with her friends Scott and Amber Keneally. She and Amber were in the police-station bathroom half a block behind the starting line when the gun was fired. Beginning last, Rhiannon jogged with her friends for the first quarter mile. "Then we told her she could go ahead of us," Scott says. With a quick goodbye wave she started carving through the parade of runners. She was the first woman to cross the finish line.
Time and again friends made the same observation about Rhiannon: She was never out of breath.
We have all heard stories like the one about Nick Harris, the 5'7" Kansas man who in 2009 lifted a Mercury sedan off a pinned six-year-old neighbor. Or the one about Lydia Angyiou, the woman in northern Quebec who in '06 wrestled a polar bear long enough for her son to escape to safety. As a group of South African sports scientists recently wrote, "An unusual feature of humans is their ability to produce extraordinary feats of strength (hysterical strength) or inconceivable performances of endurance when the only alternative is to face death." These superhero exploits, the scientists concluded, are the result of the human brain's forcing the body to keep much of its muscle power in reserve unless the power is required to preserve life. A burgeoning body of data suggest that our brains ensure that we can never perform our best until the stakes are dire.
Consider the true power that is contained in a human body when all its muscle fibers are fired at once. If a man who is electrocuted is flung across the room, it is not by the electrical explosion but rather by the force of all his muscle fibers contracting in unison. He is jumping.
Because of the risk of injury or exhaustion, the brain usually does not allow all or even nearly all the body's power or endurance to be marshaled without that life-threatening danger. After lifting the Mercury, Harris tried to replicate his newfound strength later the same day, to no avail. But that one time, with life on the line, "somehow, adrenaline, hand of God, whatever you want to call it—I don't know how I did it," Harris said.
In recent years the same scientists have considered acts of endurance and reached another conclusion: Because the brain stingily holds a physical reserve, wringing the most stamina from the body requires a mental finish line. In order to go our hardest, we need to know when or where we can finally stop. In the absence of an understood finish line, the brain will hold the body back.
In a 2009 study at the University of Cape Town, competitive cyclists performed four consecutive 40-kilometer time trials. As they learned the course, they rode better and with less pain on each successive trial. In a fifth trial, when information about the length of the course ahead was withheld from the cyclists, their power output plummeted and their feelings of pain and exhaustion skyrocketed. Until they came into view of the finish line, that is.
In a related study, when club runners were tricked about the proximity of a finish line, they struggled to continue beyond the line they had expected, and their moods demonstrably worsened—even though the extra distance was well within their physical capabilities and they had, in fact, covered it at the same pace previously.
This apparent effect of the brain on endurance expresses itself in elite competition as well. In world-record performances in every event between the mile and 10,000 meters, world-record-beating athletes do not slow down steadily over the race as toxic metabolites build up and their muscles progressively tire. Rather, they pick up the pace in the final segment of the race.
Intuitively, Rhiannon Hull knew this. The mind of the experienced runner is a supercomputer for rationing physical and mental energy, for anticipating the end and calibrating the threshold of exhaustion to just that moment. Here she was in the Pacific Ocean, hoisting her son, unsure of where—if anywhere—the finish line was. So she had to create one.
A leotard and a set of power tools in woodshop: That's how Rhiannon is remembered by her Waldorf teacher-training classmates at Summerfield. She occasionally flouted the Waldorf preference for conservative dress, sporting running shorts beneath her ankle-length apron. She was also well known for volunteering first and figuring out what she'd gotten herself into later. "She was the first to raise her hand for anything, and then afterward she'd think, Oh, my God," recalls John Sansone, who was in Hull's training class. "You could see her face turn red."
Last year, when a pair of expatriate families in Costa Rica posted a job listing for a Waldorf instructor to start a kindergarten near them, Rhiannon eagerly applied. Though she was 10 months shy of completing her Waldorf training, she got the job after interviewing for it over Skype and making a brief trip to Costa Rica.
The original plan was for all the Hulls to relocate together, but then Rhiannon and Norm experienced the first serious strain in their marriage. In April, Norm had been convicted of a marijuana-related offense—the pot was for medicinal purposes, he contends—and had been sentenced to 24 months' probation. The strife didn't last long. In late summer the couple attended Burning Man, a weeklong alternafest held in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. "We fell in love again and again at that place," says Norm. They also got their first ink, tattooing on their left wrists a line from a poem Norm had written: IT'S A NEW DAY, NOT A NEW FIGHT.
After a wrenching goodbye, Rhiannon and Julian headed to Costa Rica in September with plans for Norm and Gianni to follow two months later. This was to be a long-term move. Norm and Rhiannon had even decided they would try to conceive a daughter once they got settled in Central America. But despite Rhiannon's fluency in Spanish and her excitement about the opportunity to teach, the adjustment was extremely difficult.
"Rhiannon was living very rural and very remote," says Rachel Zell, a Washington, D.C., native and one of the parents who posted the job listing that Rhiannon answered. For a woman so eager to interact with others that she once roused a dozen friends at 6 a.m. after a bachelorette party to teach them yoga, the solitude in Costa Rica was crushing. Zell quickly became a friend, but she lived in the town of Potrero, more than an hour north of Rhiannon by car. They could really spend time together only on weekends, when Rhiannon and Julian happily slept over at Zell's.
Nights in Playa Avellanas were the hardest. The Hulls' few neighbors had dinner at five o'clock, and by six it was dark and Rhiannon's world was reduced to just her and Julian, without even the meditative evening runs that had saved her sanity back in California. "It's a pretty crazy thing she did, to move there," says Scott Keneally, "but she was like, I'm just doing it. She was so lonely down there."
The ubiquitous Costa Rican expression pura vida (pure life), which is used as a greeting, a farewell and an expression of general contentment, became a taunt to Hull. She started signing her text messages to Zell PFV, for pura f------ vida. As in, says Zell, PFV, it just took us two hours to get milk.
Not only was Rhiannon isolated, but also the school was not working out. She enjoyed taking the kids to explore the tidal pools, a setting ideal for the Waldorf style of kindergarten teaching, with its stress on tales of magical and exotic lands. But Julian was not adjusting easily to classes in Costa Rica. Already Rhiannon was considering other options: returning home to Healdsburg or moving the school closer to civilization, in Brasilito, a small town 16 miles to the north. Three or four times a day Hull would flip-flop on what to do next.
Norm and Gianni could not come soon enough. As Zell recalls of that last week in October, "Rhiannon kept saying, 'I need a sign, I just need a sign.'"
Rhiannon and Julian were probably about 130 feet from shore when the two teenage surfers began to close in. By that time the boys estimate the Hulls had been in the water for nearly half an hour. That is, half an hour in a head-on battle against an enemy of prodigious power, while Rhiannon strained to save 45 pounds of the most precious cargo imaginable. Julian would later describe what he was doing as "standing on Mommy."
Says Zell, "If you know what to do in that situation, you're supposed to push that person off of you.... He's probably just climbing all over her. But the mom instinct is to pull him close."
Apparently Rhiannon had been able to shoulder-press her son to get the surfers' attention while treading water. Hysterical strength. And now the young surfers were coming.
Caleb and Johan say that as they closed in, they could see that Rhiannon was exhausted. She was pushing Julian up just to keep him above the water. She would raise him, sink under the water herself and then reappear.
Rhiannon seemed to shove Julian forward. Julian would recall feeling her hand, under the water, on his foot. Caleb reached out and snatched Julian. He turned and placed the boy on his surfboard.
Julian is safe. Finish line.
They were less than 10 feet away from her, but in the time it took Caleb to turn back around, Rhiannon had breathed her last breath and vanished into the sea.
When the finish line is moved, runners struggle to continue beyond the expected terminus.
Johan dived down, but the current had stirred the water with sand. The ocean was "dirty," he would say.
Caleb took Julian to shore, left him with a friend and returned to help Johan search for Rhiannon. Caleb went for the strongest part of the current. He dived over and over, plunging into the water until the sun set and he couldn't tell the difference between the water and the sky. Caleb had pulled people from these deceptive waters before, and his proximity to Rhiannon without saving her would haunt him. She had just passed forward her son, and now she was gone.
Back on shore, someone found Rhiannon's phone in her pack and called Zell, who came down to look after Julian. The next day Caleb went back out on his board to keep searching for Rhiannon. "She wouldn't appear," he says through a translator. So he got a friend who had a small boat and went back out again. "We spent all day looking for her," he says. "All day, and she didn't show up."
Usually when the tide comes in at Playa Avellanas, everything comes back to the beach. But not Rhiannon. On Sunday, after a two full days of searching, the Coast Guard found her body floating three miles straight out from where she and Julian had entered. Perhaps there was simply no swimming around that riptide.
Using Rhiannon's computer, Zell Skyped Norm Hull while Rhiannon was still missing, and he arrived before her body was found. "He convinced himself [at first] it was foul play," Zell says. "He couldn't imagine that an athlete like her would drown."
Norm and Keneally took the first flight from San Francisco to Costa Rica, where Norm had to identify Rhiannon's body. He needed only to see the words on his wife's pale blue wrist: IT'S A NEW DAY, NOT A NEW FIGHT.
After Rhiannon disappeared and before Norm arrived, Zell took care of Julian. The boy asked her what happens when a person stays underwater. "What do you think happens?" asked Zell, herself a teacher.
"I think she became a mermaid," replied Julian, who had been educated by his mother through magical storytelling. The story spread among Julian's friends. Within hours Rhiannon had merman friends and sea creatures to keep her company. She was living on a nutritious diet of seaweed scooped from plates made of seashells.
"It would have been exactly how she wanted him to think of her," Zell says, "taken into a story and the imagination."
But Julian is smart. "Oh, he understands what happened," Norm says. "His mom handed him to someone and disappeared into the sea." One day nearly three months later, back home in Healdsburg, Norm was in the car with his boys when Julian piped up, "I worked really hard to save Mommy."
Norm almost broke down. Dude, you're six, you shouldn't have to feel this way, he thought. "You did enough, son," he said with the slightest crack in his voice. "She just wanted you to be safe."
In Healdsburg, Norm has established the Rhiannon Joy Hull Foundation (rjhf.org). It will stage Run-4-Rhi road races, proceeds from which will aid families in sending their kids to alternative schools and help support local track programs. Healdsburg families have also rallied around the Hulls, donating everything from meals to a barrel of wine to funds so that Julian and Gianni can have the private Waldorf education that their mother wanted for them.
Norm still ponders how a mother and son can get caught in a riptide and not suffer the same fate, either surviving or perishing together. "The only thing I know about her for sure is that she fought until there was not a drop of energy in her body," he says. "That's just who she is. That's why my son's alive."
And what if there had been one less hour of yoga, one less of focused breathing? Or one less day of running in both the morning and the evening? What if Rhiannon had never had a chance to explore her physical limits in Spain? Or with Julian's "wild birth"? What if she had grown up somewhere other than Tracktown, USA? And what if she had set a different finish line on that final day?
Julian, with his high cheekbones and delicate features, is an arrestingly handsome six-year-old. He is living proof that Mommy won the race.