Unhealthy lifestyle nearly ruined Famiglietti

05/27/2009 - 13:17

Famiglietti_Anthony-Kidney09rn-52709.jpgBy Joe Battaglia / Universal Sports - Anthony Famiglietti packed his bags and headed to the airport.

He figured, what else was there left to do?

After turning in his worst steeplechase race in about six years at the 2007 USA Outdoor Championships, he wasn’t about to sit around Indianapolis wallowing in his fourth-place finish and missed opportunity to compete at the World Championships.

Besides, judging by the 8:27 he just ran, there was plenty of work to do.

Famiglietti returned to his altitude-training base in Flagstaff, Arizona intent on getting in better shape for the summer circuit in Europe. But the next day, he was hardly ready to run. In fact, he could barely drag himself out of bed.

The tired feeling persisted, but for Famiglietti determination always trumped fatigue. It wasn’t until he couldn’t complete the easiest of workouts that he figured something was seriously wrong.

“I was just exhausted,” Famiglietti said in an interview before the New York Road Runners Healthy Kidney 10k on May 16. “For two weeks, I couldn’t run more than a half a mile without having to stop and walk home. I was really scared. I thought my career was history and that I blew my body out.”

After years of living unhealthy, Famiglietti’s body was finally breaking down. The frightening nature of the experience shook him to the core and prompted a complete overhaul of his lifestyle. His new holistic physical and spiritual approach has resulted in a competitive resurgence that has the 30-year-old running among the nation’s elite across a variety of distances on the road and the track.

So far this year, Famiglietti has won the USA 15K Championship, narrowly missed the American record for 5,000m on the road at the Carlsbad 5K, finished second in the 5,000m on the track at the Mt. SAC Relays, and finished fourth at the 10,000m at the Brutus Hamilton Invitational.

“When I was sick, it destroyed a whole part of what I wanted to do and things I wanted to achieve,” Famiglietti said. “It was a really tough time for me. To give up the way I was thinking of myself and the way I was thinking in general I had to shed my ego. I started going to church a lot more, which gave me insight into what is important. Once I got that insight, I was able to let go of a lot of junk. When you do that, you move forward so much faster.”

I am not a runner

Famiglietti first began pushing his body to its limits while growing up on Long Island. As a youngster he became an avid skateboarder, which any X Games enthusiast can tell you is no sissy’s undertaking. But after more concussions, broken bones and trips to the hospital than he can count, Famiglietti was forced by his parents to find a new, less dangerous pursuit.

“Since my arm was broken, I couldn’t play any other sports so I just started running,” he said.

But his somewhat- introverted personality refused to allow Famiglietti to think of himself as a runner. If he had his way, no one outside of his teammates at Patchogue-Medford High School would have even known he was on the track team.

“The only reason people in my high school knew what I did was because the damn PA announcer every day would announce what races I had won or that I had made the state meet, or something like that,” Famiglietti said. “Personally, I wouldn’t have told anyone. It wasn’t because I was embarrassed to be a runner. I just liked keeping those things separate.”

He continued to suppress his identity as a runner when he got to the University of Tennessee, where he said no one in any of his classes knew he was a runner and none of his friends had anything to do with running.

Track and the rest of his life had to be two separate entities, even after college.
Anthony Famiglietti clears a barrier at the Beijing Olympics.
“Even my neighbors, when I lived here in New York City for four years, had no idea what I did,” Famiglietti said. “One guy in the basement figured out what I did because he would see me at the washing machine every two days washing a pile of running shorts and t-shirts. He said, ‘How come you’re not at work? You’re always down here at two in the afternoon washing clothes.’

“Telling people what I did just wasn’t my thing. Even when I take a flight now and the person next to me asks what I do for a living. Sometimes, I just make something up. I won’t tell them I’m a runner. I’ll say I’m a sales executive for some company.”

A one way street

From day one, Famiglietti did things his way. Unwilling to see himself as the stereotypical runner, he adopted an anti-runner persona and subsequently began living his life in that manner.

“I think what it was, was the people who were involved in the sport early on were the short-shorts guys with band-aids over their nipples,” Famiglietti said. “I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to be a part of that. That’s not my style.’ I don’t wear short shorts. I think for a lot of younger athletes in high school it’s not appealing. I didn’t join the wrestling team because I didn’t want to wear one of those unitards. Track guys wear short shorts. When you’re a kid, those things matter to you.

“That was the start. I was this rebel skateboarder kid. That was how I was living my life and I took that attitude toward running, anarchy. I’m going to do what I want to d and train how I want to train. I’m going to run the races I want to run, when I want to run them. I’m going to eat whatever the hell I want, and go to bed when I want to go to bed.”

Famiglietti was particularly undisciplined when it came to his diet. A rundown of his daily menu greater resembled that of a trucker than an athlete.

“If I told you what my diet was, you wouldn’t believe me,” Famiglietti said. “I never ate fruit during the day, ever. I never ate any vegetables besides tomato sauce on pizza. It was ridiculous. I remember when I was really young, my mom took me to the doctor and told him the way I was eating and what I was eating and he shook me and said, ‘If you don’t eat fruits and vegetables, you’re going to die.’

“He tried to scare me and she felt so bad that she took me for an ice cream sundae on the way home. She was like, ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t know he was going to do that. You can eat whatever you want to eat.’ From then on, I ate what I wanted to eat and I never really ate healthy. I didn’t know what broccoli tasted like. I never even took a bite out of an apple.”

As he got older, his choice of what to put in his mouth at mealtime never changed. Remarkably, Famiglietti’s weight never ballooned and his performances on the track never suffered.

In 2002, he won his first U.S. national championship in the steeplechase. In 2003, he finished third at the Pan-American Games. In 2004, he finished second at the Olympic Trials and eighth in his steeplechase heat at the Athens Games. In 2005, he finished second at nationals and sixth in his heat at the World Championships in Helsinki. In 2006, he set PRs in the 1500m, the mile, and the 10,000m.

“I just ate junk food all of the time,” he said. “I didn’t eat any healthy food. I was the antithesis of a runner, an anomaly. I would just eat pizza all of the time, and junk food. When I raced in Beijing for the first time (at the 2001 World University Games), I ate McDonald’s every day for two weeks because I didn’t like the food in the cafeteria. And I still won a gold medal in that race. But all along, I was making it tougher on myself. Being the anti-runner wasn’t helping me in any way.”

Things head downhill

By 2007, Famiglietti was suffering from recurring sinus infections, particularly when he was training in Flagstaff, and was constantly going on and off antibiotics. He began struggling to recover from difficult training sessions and his race results were becoming more erratic.

“I had low energy all of the time and I couldn’t figure out why I kept getting all of these sinus infections and getting sick,” Famiglietti said. “I felt like I needed 12 hours of sleep a night and I wasn’t recovering after my hard workouts. The next day I would have to do a really easy six-mile run.

“Every time I went up to altitude in Flagstaff I would get a sinus infection. I would have to take these antibiotics to fight it. Then I would go run these races after being on antibiotics for a while and would run a great time but completely deplete my body. I would run to the limit and after the races just felt like garbage. I would go and have a great race, then a horrible race, a great race, then a horrible race. And people couldn’t figure out why I was so up and down.”

Famiglietti hit rock bottom at the USA Outdoor Championships that year.

Before the race, he came down with another sinus infection. Being the strong-willed person that he is, he decided to ignore the illness and run through it. After all, he was the same guy who in 2002 tore a tendon halfway through the 3000m steeplechase at USA Outdoors and continued running his way to a first national championship.

Anthony Famiglietti looks dejected after finishing fourth at the 2007 USA Outdoor Championships.For much of the early going in Indianappolis (watch race), it looked like his determination might prevail again as he hovered near leader Max King in third place. With about three laps to go, Famiglietti bolted to the front while Daniel Lincoln stayed on his outside shoulder. With a little more than one lap remaining, Lincoln made his move to the lead and Josh McAdams followed while Famiglietti was unable to answer.

At the bell, Lincoln and McAdams had begun to gap Famiglietti, who had fallen back some to the rest of the pack. McAdams overtook Lincoln for the lead on the backstretch at almost the same time that Thomas Brooks was able to move in front of Famiglietti for the coveted third spot.

As the runners hit the final straight, Famiglietti passed the fading Lincoln and tried to make a charge but just didn’t have the energy. He wound up finishing in 8:27.64, but placed behind McAdams (8:24.46), Aaron Aguayo (8:27.01), who charged from fifth to second in the final meters, and Brooks (8:27.34).

Famiglietti was not going to Osaka.

The wake-up call

When Famiglietti returned to Flagstaff, unable to shake his persistent exhaustion, he ran into a friend who happened to be a dietician. When he explained how he had been feeling, his friend immediately pointed to his unhealthy diet being at the root of the problem.

“My body was basically breaking down and it all just built up to that race,” Famiglietti said. “I had to take eight weeks off without running. I completely stopped. During those eight weeks, I had to decide, ‘Is the way that I’m going to keep living, because this is obviously the source of the problem, or am I going to be a runner and see if I can do this for a few more years and make the Olympic Team?’”

After sitting out for those two months, Famiglietti basically found himself starting from scratch. Some of his first training runs back he had to cut short after a half-mile before turning around and walking home, something he called, “a frightening thing when your career is running.”

In December of 2007, Famiglietti wanted to see if he had lost his ability to race at a high level. He decided, on a whim, to run the NYRR Joe Kleinerman 10K in Central Park, a course he knew as well as the layout of his own home.

“I just showed up and wasn’t expecting to do anything,” Famiglietti said. “I ran the race with a pair of sweatpants on and a collared shirt. I don’t think I was even wearing racing flats.”

Famiglietti found himself matched up against a large group of talented runners from the Westchester Track Club, none of whom he was familiar with. When the race started, the group from WTC took off in a pack. Famiglietti followed a few steps behind. Knowing the course as well as he did, he knew where he could make a move for the lead or to catch up if need be. He soon discovered the time off did little to dull his racing instincts as he managed to edge Girma Tolla, 29:17 to 29:20, for the victory.

“The race came down to a kick and I outkicked this guy in an awesome finish,” Famiglietti said. “When I ended up winning that race I just knew that I was back. I knew that I still had it and it was going to come down to making the right decisions in my life from then on.”

New confident outlook

By now, Famiglietti was eating healthy, getting requisite sleep at night and living a well-grounded life. He set his sights on qualifying for the Olympics in Beijing, a task he knew would require more than fruits and vegetables. To get to a proper place spiritually, he began going to church on Sundays and started reading books on Buddhism.

“The stuff I read and learned about talked about finding the middle path,” Famiglietti said. “There are extremes in life and I’ve obviously lived those extremes. I accepted who I am and at the same time found things that grounded me.”

On the track, Famiglietti competed like a man who had received a new lease on running. At the Olympic Trials in Eugene last July, he set a totally unexpected tone, blasting to the lead from the outset, continuing to push a punishing pace lap after lap. In a performance that left 20,000 fans at Heyward Field awestruck (watch video), Famiglietti crossed first in 8:20.24, almost a minute and a half ahead of runner-up Billy Nelson (8:21.47).

“I just decided that I was going to run as hard as I can, as fast as I can and I’m not going to let anything get in the way anymore,” Famiglietti said. “I’m going to push myself and have total confidence and I’m not going to let anyone dictate what the race is going to do and how it’s going to unfold. I knew my ability and had been at rock bottom. I knew that I had a future in running again. To have that in front of me again and to go to the Olympics was like having everything handed back to me.”

Famiglietti carried that confident approach to China. In similar fashion to his victory at the Trials, he went out hard and dared the field to follow (watch video). He crossed first again, this time in a personal-best 8:17.34.

“I never told anybody before why I had a bad race at that U.S. Championship in 2007,” Famiglietti, who finished 13th in the Beijing final, said. “If you look at pictures from that race, I’m just completely pale and look sickly. I just don’t like to make excuses for myself and tell people why I had a bad race. If you look at the races after that, it was like a metamorphosis because I decided what kind of runner I was going to be. Every single steeplechase race I ran was from the front, even at the Olympics and Olympic Trials. To win that race at the Olympic Trials front running the whole way, running my style, and dominating was incredible. I went from not being able to run a half a mile down the block without walking home to running an 8:17 PR running by myself in the Olympics. It was an incredible feeling.”

The present and the future

If the new Holistic Fam could travel back in time and knock some sense into his former self, Famiglietti said he’s not sure he would.
Anthony Famiglietti on a visit to P.S. 38 Roberto Clemente School in New York.
“I have so much value from that and have learned so much from trial and error, things you don’t get from winning all of the time,” he said. “I have a great perspective on the sport now. I did the wrong things and found the right way the hard way. I feel like that will add up to something great in the future. It will pay off somewhere.”

Famiglietti said he isn’t sure in what that event might be.

He sees himself gravitating away from the steeplechase and toward the 5000m and 10,000m, but said he isn’t quite ready to give up the steeple entirely since he has more to prove to himself there yet. Famiglietti said that, eventually, running a marathon would also be a possibility.

Either way, he sees himself running for many years to come. He has never really been a high-mileage runner. Famiglietti said, “I guess I was just gifted in a way where I could develop with just quality training. I didn’t have to do a lot of quantity,” adding that he has never loved running on Sundays, so while most runners are out on long runs he has been home resting.

Famiglietti isn’t even sure how the rest of his season will shape up. He has qualified for the USA Outdoor Championships in the 1500m, the 3000m steeplechase, the 5000m and the 10,000m and isn’t yet ready to settle on which he will run next month in Eugene.

“I’m going to go back to training at high altitude after this race in Flagstaff,” Famiglietti explained. “When I’m up there, I’ll let it come to me organically. I won’t just make a decision. I have a really strong idea of what race I want to run but I’m going to judge from how I feel and what I think feels. Before I get into any longer distances I’d like to see what I can do in some of these shorter events. It’s hard to say. Do I want to run a race to win or do I want to run a race to see what I can do and have fun?”

Famiglietti said he enjoys running a lot more today than he ever has.

“I have this perspective now to be able to enjoy every step of every race,” he said. “Just the fact that I’m out there racing again at this level is just a great feeling. Being surrounded by a sport that lends itself to a good, holistic lifestyle has pushed me onto the path that I’m on now.

“And it’s ironic that all I had to do was change my diet to get there.”

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