January 22, 2020
When Parley Hannan ’15 thinks about the day of November 23, 2019, tears start to build up in her eyes. That day, when she won the Division III NCAA National Cross Country Championship, was more than a single victory. For the Ithaca College junior, the win was a celebration of her journey to get to that very exact day and moment, and an affirmation of what it took to cross the finish line.
“Running is what keeps me going through life when I’m really struggling,” Hannan said. “So I couldn’t imagine not winning. I put my heart and soul into it. Crossing the finish line, it was complete and utter elation. I just felt like everything I had worked so hard for, it had all come together at that moment.”
For Hannan, a 2015 graduate of Westover School, her story isn’t about winning one single race, But rather how the sport of running has helped her put one foot in front of the other, and find success amidst a life-long battle with her mental health.
“Running has been an outlet for her anxiety, and I think it’s a driving force to continue to work on the things that she struggles with,” Ithaca College
Head Cross Country Coach Erin Dinan said. “She knows that to continue to compete at this level, she has to make sure that’s she’s keeping everything else in check, and that’s hard, that’s really, really hard to do. But to see what she’s done is phenomenal.”
Hannan, who is from Orlean, Va., never competed in cross country or track at Westover. An all-around athlete, she instead played soccer, lacrosse, squash and swam. For Hannan, running was her safe space, and as a high-schooler, something she wanted to be able to do on her own terms.
“(Running) kind of became a passion of mine to help me channel any negative energy that I had,” Hannan said.
Hannan’s path to Ithaca has been untraditional. She started at the University of Colorado in 2015 and then transferred to Northeastern University after a year.
“After two weeks at Northeastern, I realized that something was definitely up with my mental health, which was affecting my ability to perform in not just the classroom, but in day-to-day life,” Hannan said.
Hannan, who developed an eating disorder when she was 15, and has struggled with anxiety since the eighth or ninth grade, was diagnosed with depression. She explained that during her time away from Northeastern, working on bettering her mental health and well-being, she decided not to return, instead, transferring to Ithaca. She said between high school and college, she’s taken two and a half years off from school.
“I ultimately loved the school (Northeastern) itself but when contemplating the idea of returning, I realized that being in the city definitely did not help my mental health issues,” she said.
Before her competitive running career took off at Ithaca, Hannan was on the tennis team. While still continuing to run on the side, she realized how much she enjoyed playing a collegiate sport. So in the summer of 2018, about a week before the start of the cross country season, she reached out to Dinan, asking if she could try out.
“She sent me an email, her information, saying, ‘Hey, I run a lot of miles, I’m interested in trying out,” Dinan said. “She was doing some longer distance stuff, and I loved her energy and her drive. And she was very open and honest about the things she struggled with over the years. And I said, ‘Let’s give this a go.’”
Hannan ended up making the Bombers roster and a spot in the top 7 for the fall 2018 season. Dinan explained that Hannan’s struggles didn’t dissipate (she missed the 2019 spring track season due to a medical leave), but being part of a team, a supportive community, and having a purpose have served as a positive reinforcement.
“Doing it (running) on a competitive level offers me another form of therapy,” Hannan said. “I like the fact that I get to see my success and progress, and to be congratulated for that is really awesome. I want to use that not just for my benefit, but for my team, and all areas of my life.”
Hannan said this past summer she made a lot of life shifts in regards to her lifestyle, including going off medications, which she says helped her tremendously, but also made some things more difficult.
“Ultimately, it was the best decision I had made,” she said. “But when you are on medications for such a vast majority of your life, and then you go off, things kind of come to surface level that hadn’t before, as well as you kind of have to learn how to tackle life differently.”
While navigating a tough semester, running proved, once again, to be the outlet that Hannah desperately needed. She experienced a breakout cross country season as the No. 1 runner for the Bombers. In the regular season she placed in the top 5 in all of her races, including winning the Connecticut College Invitational in a time of 20:52.2, a new personal record and course record. Hannan went on to win the Liberty Conference title in a meet record time of 21:19.9, guiding her team to a second place finish. At the NCAA Atlantic Regional, she clocked 21:01.2 to win the title. She was named the Liberty League Runner of the Year.
“Seeing how she’s developed really on her own has been incredible,” Dinan said. “And the biggest work that she’s done has been emotionally and mentally.”
Heading into the national race on Nov. 23, both Dinan and Hannan knew winning was a real possibility. Hannah remembers thinking she had to win this race. There was no alternative.
“I said, ‘Let’s do this,’” Dinan said.
On the 6,000-meter course at E.P. “Tom" Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky., Hannan didn’t leave anything to chance. About midway through the race, she was able to build on her lead over Genny Corcoran of Geneseo. She crossed the line in 20:53.8, winning by 18 seconds.
“I remember throwing my hands in the air and saying, ‘Yeah! and just kind of crying and laughing,” Dinan said. “It was a strange feeling of emotion, and it was such a different level to see her to do it, because of everything I know she’s gone through. People see numbers on a paper, but she’s so much more.”
Hannan was the first student-athlete in school history to win a cross country national title. She was also named Liberty League All-Academic for the second straight year.
“It was a pretty hard semester for me mental health-wise, but I think having the successes of my running made it a lot more manageable,” she said. “It was still really hard but I think OK, I am good at something when I felt like I wasn’t good at anything. Being able to win these races and for my team to be doing well, allowed me to continue to hang on through a very difficult semester.”
This winter, in her first full season of track for the Bombers, Hannan hasn’t missed a beat. On Jan. 10, she set the school 3K record at the Spartan Invitational, clocking a time of 9:34.22, which is an all-time top 10 mark in DIII history. In the team’s home-opener on Jan. 18, Hannan ran the mile for the first time in her career, winning in 4:54.81, and setting a school and facility record.
“I think her level of commitment and drive puts her at the elite level,” Dinan said.
Hannan said she has goals this track season of breaking the Division III 3K and possible 5K national records. She also lists goals of staying healthy -- mentally, physically and emotionally.
“I would say that anything I put my mind to I can achieve,” she said.
Hannan, who has changed her major multiple times, is set to graduate in 2021 with a degree in Outdoor Environmental Stewardship with a focus in Special Populations (Special Education). She said she still has a year of eligibility left.
“I am not one who really thrives in school,” Hannan said. “I do pretty well for the most part but I have a lot of issues with our traditional education system, especially in colleges and universities, (Westover was very special in the way it approached its teaching, I loved it). I also just have really bad anxiety that makes school really hard, another reason why I haven’t been able to rush through college like most. I don’t know if I would be able to finish my degree if I didn't find running and the outlet it offers me.”
For now, Hannan is keen on living her life to the fullest, which includes not shying away from her own story. Dinan, who has a background in mental health, said Hannan’s voice and boldness of speaking her truth are powerful tools to help break down the negative stigmas that swirl around mental health. And that it’s OK to be struggling, it’s OK to get help.
“I have gone through a lot with eating disorders, depression, anxiety and really felt like I was at rock bottom,” Hannan said. “But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I think when you’re in a place of discomfort and pain, I think you just need to remind yourself that there are things you don’t even know are out there that could offer you this sense of true joy.”
*Photos courtesy of Ithaca College