By PHIL BARBER – THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
November 23, 2013, 3:00 AM
UKIAH — The fastest schoolgirl in American history speaks rather slowly. She is introspective and articulate, and she chooses her words carefully, though she remains as candid as ever.
“Right now, I just don’t have much desire to prove myself,” Amber Trotter said. “The older I get, the harder it is for me to want to prove myself.”
Granted, Trotter is not a schoolgirl anymore, unless you count her Ph.D. program in clinical psychology. She is 29 now. But anyone who follows distance running in the Redwood Empire knows her name, and probably remembers the records she shattered as a senior at Ukiah High in the fall of 2001.
That would include the time of 16 minutes, 15 seconds she clocked over three miles at the North Coast Section Cross Country Championships that year. When the best high schoolers in the area ran at Hayward High on Saturday, it was Trotter’s record pace they were chasing.
For purpose of comparison, imagine the fastest cross-country runners of the NCS over the past decade-plus — girls like Healdsburg’s Sarah Sumpter, Montgomery’s Julie Nacouzi and Casa Grande’s Jacque Taylor, plus all the rabbits from Carondelet and College Park, etc. Now get out your phone and open the stopwatch, and as you start it, imagine Amber Trotter crossing the finish line. Now count out the seconds and visualize an empty chute. It’s kind of peaceful. Birds may be chirping. Finally, when you get to 42 seconds, picture a Campolindo girl, Carrie Verdon, pushing across the line just ahead of Sumpter, followed by a stampede of runners.
Forty-two seconds. That’s not the margin by which Trotter won her NCS race in 2001. It’s the gap between her and every other girl on the Hayward course, that has hosted the event 13 of the past 15 years.
And her achievements went beyond local boundaries. At the national Foot Locker Cross Country Championships at Lake Buena Vista, Fla., that year, Trotter shattered the event record with a run of 16:24. It has never been equaled.
“Amber made really amazing gains through her high school career,” said another local legend, Sara (Bei) Hall, who went to Montgomery High and was one year ahead of Trotter in school. “I remember early on I was not even really aware of her, then pretty quickly she moved to being one of the top runners in the area. Then her Florida championship when she won was obviously an amazing time.”
Bei and another local girl, Julia Stamps (now Stamps Mallon) of Santa Rosa High, still rank in the all-time top 10 at the Foot Locker nationals. Both went on to run at Stanford and distinguish themselves professionally. Stamps Mallon was the sixth-fastest American woman at the New York Marathon three weeks ago. Sara Hall twice represented the United States at the world indoor track and field championships.
Trotter, the fastest of them all, hardly competed after high school. She all but disappeared from the sport, acquiring an air of mystery even among her former competitors.
Speaking over lunch at the Ukiah restaurant where she once tended bar, Trotter didn’t seem particularly mysterious. She calmly recounted the peaks and valleys of her life since high school — the loss, the self-discovery, the recalibration.
Trotter, a straight-A student at Ukiah, surprised a lot of people when she declined offers from virtually every major track program in the nation and opted for Middlebury College, a Division III program in Vermont. She chose Middlebury, she said, because she didn’t want competitive running to consume her.
She also wanted to save her body for a professional career after college. Trotter sat out her freshman season with piriformis syndrome, a disorder (not uncommon among distance runners) caused by a muscle deep in the buttocks pressing against the sciatic nerve. She picked up again as a sophomore, but during the second race of the season, her sacrum and pelvis spontaneously fractured.
“You kind of don’t know where the expression ‘blinding pain’ comes from until you experience it,” Trotter said.
She finished the race, though she doesn’t really remember the final mile-and-a-half. “I knew at that point I would not be running for a long time,” she said.
Haunted by eating disorder
Trotter believes, though it’s impossible to prove, that the injury was related to the eating disorder she developed in high school. Her anorexia hasn’t been a secret for a long time. She spoke openly of it when she was blazing through those Foot Locker competitions as a senior, and emerged as something of a teen advocate on the subject.
But the damage to her body had been done. Bone density is a frequent casualty of eating disorders. Trotter has had trouble with her teeth, too, though a recent DXA scan revealed her bone density to be normal for a woman her age.
In substantial pain and suddenly isolated from the friends she’d made on the cross-country team, Trotter was at a low point back in 2003. It didn’t help that right around the time of her injury, she learned that her brother was having legal problems, and that her parents were divorcing.
“It was devastating,” she said. “One of the things that I think a lot about is the nature of suffering, and what it all means, because we all have so much pain. And that’s certainly what I do now professionally, is sit and listen to people’s pain and suffering, and try to make meaning out of it, try to make sense out of it.”
The family fissures remain difficult, but Trotter’s physical rehab allowed her to analyze some of her own pain.
“I had way too much time to lay alone in a dark and cold environment, thinking about things,” she said. “I pushed it too hard, and for what? For external recognition?”
Trotter was home-schooled in Redwood Valley until ninth grade, and says she had a hard time making friends in junior high. In high school she figured out that she could gain acceptance through running, and that she could run faster (at least for a while) if she starved herself. She attacked her grades with a similar relentlessness.
Trotter’s shattered bones made her question her path, and she gained even greater perspective when she spent her junior year of college as an exchange student in Ecuador.
“That’s when things kind of broke through for me,” Trotter said. “It was like, here are these people who have nothing. It’s so clichéd to say that. But when you’re in it — spoiled white girl from California? It was very powerful.”
Change in perspective
Trotter never again competed at the highest levels, though she did return to running when she came home to Mendocino County after college. She began working out with her former high school coach, Jerry Drew. They would go for long Sunday runs together, and freed from outside expectations, Trotter found herself enjoying the sport more than ever.
She got pretty fast again, too. Trotter won the Avenue of the Giants Marathon at Humboldt Redwoods State Park in 2009, finishing in 3:09:53 — not an elite pace, but impressive considering her moderate training.
“For Amber to come back after not running in college, to come back home, and still not doing much for a year or two, then start cold turkey all over again, how hard is that?” said Drew, who splits time between Redwood Valley and Los Angeles these days. “And to be able to run 3 hours, 10 minutes in that first marathon, just playing at it — what an achievement. Gee whiz.”
Could Trotter have returned to top-tier competitive racing?
“I feel like it’s hard to know the answer,” she said. “What if I had just gotten injured again? At the time I felt good, yeah.”
Trotter experienced the lure of running — that feeling of “transcending suffering” as she puts it — but never was compelled to re-enter the sport.
“I remember the 2008 Olympics, when I got my edition of Runner’s World or something and was looking through all these people — you know, Dathan Ritzenhein and Alan Webb and Ryan Hall. People I knew personally in high school,” Trotter said. “And just had this flash of thinking about their lives, and was like, I would hate for my life to be running and eating and sleeping, and having these races. … If you want to be a really successful runner, that’s all you do.”
Redirecting her journey
Somewhere along the way, Trotter discovered that she also loves swimming. And more recently, cycling. She’s in good shape, though she officially downshifted to “recreational” running when she entered grad school.
Trotter got her master’s degree from the California Institute of Integral Studies last spring while living in San Francisco, and has returned to her roots to intern at the Mendocino Community Health Clinic in Ukiah while pursuing her Ph.D.
She lives in Potter Valley with her husband, farmer and caterer Ellery Clark, and 13-year-old stepdaughter, Trinity, in a home that Clark is refurbishing. It would be easy to suggest that Trotter chose psychology because of her own struggles with anorexia. And indeed, she doesn’t feel the eating disorder is entirely behind her.
“It’s changed my relationship with food forever,” she said. “I really do enjoy food. But it’s never going to be just as simple for me as for someone else.”
Helping one person at a time
Trotter said her career choice is more an offshoot of her passion for social justice, though. Majoring in environmental studies and sociology at Middlebury, she studied under famed environmentalist and author Bill McKibben.
Trotter said the idea of becoming a global activist didn’t suit her. She decided instead to try to affect change one person at a time.
“I’m really trying to live by my own values,” she said. “I really think that we are deeply alienated from ourselves, from each other, for the most part. That’s a lot of what I think about with therapy, that I think we can bear a lot of suffering as long as we don’t have to bear it alone.”
Trotter mentally collects quotations she finds meaningful, and one of her favorites is from the philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Twelve years ago, Amber Trotter thought the world needed her to run really, really fast, and she obliged. She still loves to run, but can no longer allow it to become a preoccupation. She’s too busy coming alive.
(You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)