SANTA CRUZ (MARCH 2010) — Maggie Vessey’s first indication she might become a world-class runner came when she was 6 years old. Her much-older cousin had challenged Vessey to a footrace and the two took off running across a practice field at Mar Vista Elementary School. Vessey won easily.
“I felt as tall as she was. It was just effortless,” said the now 5-foot-8 Vessey. “Running was the most pure feeling of being alive. I felt it even as a kid.”
But some of that joy began to leak out of running as word got around about Vessey’s innate ability, and other kids began challenging her to races. “It was a tangled web,” Vessey said as she sipped a bottled water after a recent training run, “because I liked to beat people too.”
Now 28 and about to embark on a series of track races that will take her around the world, Vessey still copes with the yin and yang of her sport: the nerves and insecurities that competition brings against the absolute freedom and joy of running. She has spent the past years working hard to find a balance, she said: not only in track, but also in her life.
HIGH SCHOOL SPEED
The slender, blonde Vessey was a track star in high school and got a full scholarship to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. She finished second in her signature event, the 800-meter race, at the 2005 National Collegiate Athletic Association championships and was the Big West Conference 800m champion twice.
“But because I was talented with running, I got away with a lot of stuff,” Vessey said. “I had a real diva attitude and nobody called me on it.”
One day, she was called in to meet a life coach named Jeff Troesch, who would come to play a big role in her life. Troesch, who worked for the university, was supposed to help Vessey improve her running by teaching her visualizations, but Vessey remembered viewing the appointment mostly as an opportunity to spend an hour talking about herself. She arrived for the meeting wearing high heels and a hot pink Juicy Couture tracksuit, and proceeded to spill out her whole life story to Troesch.
“He just saw this train wreck,” she said. “I was delusional with who I was. I didn’t have a healthy relationship with myself.”
Part of that “train wreck,” Vessey said, came from the easy fame of being a running prodigy. The other part, she believes, had to do with the loss of her father, who died in a car accident on Highway 1 when she was just 4 years old.
“There was an incompleteness,” Vessey said of growing up without her dad. “I didn’t have the information. I didn’t have the tools.”
Things grew worse when Vessey left the university to run with the Santa Monica Track Club and found herself cut off from her support system. She suffered an injury and began listening to people who told her she needed to lose weight, to exercise more. She starved herself, dropping 25 pounds below her normal, healthy weight, and injured out again. She increased her training and was injured once more. She spent the next few track seasons on the sidelines, dejected.
“Things were out of balance, both off the track and on,” she said.
Eventually, Vessey left L.A. and moved back to San Luis Obispo where she renewed her contacts, including Troesch. She turned her concentration not only on becoming a good runner, but on becoming a good person too.
“To be authentic, to be truthful,” Vessey answers quietly when asked what it means to her to be a good person. “To listen to people, to ask questions about them. To help people realize their strengths.”
Authenticity is now reflected in Vessey’s life. She lives alone in a small apartment in Santa Cruz, goes to bed early and likes to walk on the beach. She wears workout clothes and running shoes, and would love to start a garden someday. And even though she has a lucrative contract with shoe giant New Balance and has had international success, two days a week she still reports for work at Jerry’s sports store in Santa Cruz.
“They helped me out when I was really struggling,” Vessey said of those at the family-owned sports store. “They showed me so much love and were so enthusiastic when I was successful.”
She still works with Troesch too, along with longtime local coach Greg Brock.
“He’s the brain and I’m the body. He’s the mastermind and I’m the machine.” Vessey said of Brock. “I call him the evil genius.”
Wearing New Balance running shoes that are streaked with mud from her run on a rain-soaked trail, Vessey talked about the people who have helped her, about the near-constant focus she needs to have, and about her rigorous training regimen. She talked of early-morning gym workouts, of long hours on the track, of the need to pay constant attention to her physical well-being, the requirement to have balance — just like the name on her running shoes suggests.
That focus not only helped change her life, but is also the reason she is among the elites of international track and field.
BACK ON TRACK
In June 2009, Vessey surprised the world — and herself — when she won the 800m event at the prestigious Prefontaine Classic in a dramatic come-from-behind surge. She finished fourth in the USA National Championship in Eugene, Ore., and won the Herculis meet in Monaco with a time of 1:57:84. Her running style seems almost effortless. She glides as much as she runs. She shrugged when asked why she’s so fast. “Coaches tell me I have an efficient stride. But for me,” she said, “it’s more about the sensation of running.”
“Maggie is a hybrid,” said her coach, Brock. “She has sprint ability and a high aerobic capacity that comes together in the 800m.”
She also works hard. “Maggie pretty much has an off-the-chart work ethic,” Brock said. She shows up for every practice, does every gym workout he sets out for her, makes sure everything is done correctly. Plenty of people look at Vessey “and think everything was handed to her on a silver plate,” Brock said, “But that’s not true.”
Vessey not only has to push herself physically, but also faces the same feelings she had as a child. The pressure of competition, of wanting to win, still affects her. Sometimes, she is so nervous before a big competition she won’t be able to sleep, and may feel like she doesn’t deserve to be racing against her elite competition, even though she is ranked sixth or seventh in the world right now.
Both she and Brock agreed the pressure is mostly self-imposed. “It’s something I’m working on: that running is something you do, not who you are,” she said.
Like many elite runners, Vessey dreams of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics. “I’m up for the challenge,” she said. But she is more focused on what is right in front of her: a long season of races and traveling that begins April 3 and will take her to Puerto Rico and Europe, along with races in the U.S. And if she weren’t a professional athlete, the purity of running would still draw her in.
“It’s something I would do even if I didn’t get paid,” Vessey said. “I would be like one of those starving artists. I would just run.”