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 Piña and his 19-year-old buddy Johan Zúñiga 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 × 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.