Tuesday, May 10, 2011
New York Daily News Profiles Bobby Curtis
Former Villanova distance runner Bobby Curtis battles insomnia, hopes to qualify for London Olympics
New York Daily News
Tuesday, May 10th 2011
WAYNE, Pa. - Bobby Curtis has the body of a spindle and the legs of a thoroughbred, and so many big plans. He wants to run in the world championships in Korea this summer. He wants to qualify for the U.S. team and run the 10,000 meters in the London Olympics next summer. Bobby Curtis is one of the best distance runners in the country and whether he achieves any of this could well come down to the most basic of human needs:
For Bobby Curtis, 26, a running prodigy out of Louisville who was the NCAA 5000-meter champion for Villanova in 2008, sleep isn't just a vital means to recover from training. It is something that has been the bane of his life, a full-bore obsession that has intermittently left him anxious, paranoid, confused, depressed - and resigned to the fact that he would have to quit the sport he loves.
You think it's easy when you want to run and all you can do is cry uncontrollably?
"Hopelessness would about sum it up," Curtis said after a training run at Villanova the other day. "I was about as deep as you can go in the rabbit hole."
Curtis' affliction is called conditioned insomnia. When he competes on Saturday in the UAE Healthy Kidney 10K in Central Park, where the field will include the two fastest 10K roadrunners in history, Kenyans Leonard Patrick Komon and Micah Kogo, he expects to come in fully rested, with a mind that's mercifully quiet, a most welcome break from his past.
"For five years all I did was think about sleep," Curtis said. "It totally consumed me. You keep searching. You have so many unanswered questions, so much anxiety. You don't want to think there's something wrong with you emotionally, but you wonder ..."
Curtis' sleep problems first manifested themselves in February 2004, days before he was to run a race at the Armory for Villanova. He had a sleepness night. It annoyed him, and made training hard, but he didn't think much more of it until he couldn't sleep for a second night, and then a third. By then he was a mess, and would remain that way for months and months.
"The fire was lit in my head, and the whole emotional preoccupation with sleep began," he said.
Curtis eventually withdrew from school, saw specialists, underwent tests, took medication, trolled the Internet. In time one of the experts he saw put him on a sleep restriction schedule, in which he could sleep only from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., the idea being that ultimately the body's natural need for rest would help him ease back into a longer schedule.
The regimen gradually took hold, and Curtis reenrolled in school. He had success with running, won his NCAA title, but he still found himself thinking about sleep relentlessly. Then, in March 2009, the insomnia returned. He tried the sleep-restriction program but it didn't work. He became alarmed, and once more commenced a ceaseless chase of remedies. He tried room-blackening blinds, a different mattress, more medication, dozens of supplements. He was desperate, and the harder he searched for the answer, the worse it got. One night he purposely got completely drunk. None of it worked. He could never sleep for more than four hours, and many nights not at all.
A professional runner at this point, Curtis told his coach, Nic Bideau, "I can't run. I can't do anything. I'm a wreck."
Said Marcus O'Sullivan, Curtis' former coach at Villanova, "He had to fix the problem not just for his running, but for his life."
It was on one of his innumerable Internet searches that Bobby Curtis finally found a deceptively simple approach, one that counseled him to follow his normal schedule of activities, no matter how he slept, to not let sleep or lack of it dictate his life. It encouraged him to stop looking outside himself for the holy grail of cures, to keep it simple. It helped him see that lack of sleep wasn't the principal issue, it was his reaction to the lack of it that triggered the conditioned insomnia.
By the early part of 2010, he felt better than he had in years, and the progress continues apace. Now he is training 110 miles a week, sleeping nine hours a night, talking about his problems openly, understanding that 10 million people suffer from this and he has no reason to be ashamed. Earlier this month, Curtis ran a personal-record 27 minutes, 24.67 seconds for the 10,000 at a meet in Stanford.
"I think he's capable of a lot more," said Marcus O'Sullivan.
Mary Wittenberg, CEO of the New York Road Runners and organizer of Saturday's race, is a former elite runner herself.
"(Insomnia) is probably one of the worst diseases or issues you could possibly have as a distance runner," Wittenberg said. "Bobby is the kind of guy you really want to cheer for."
Bobby Curtis can't wait to get on with his big plans. He'll run the 10K in the park, then go for the worlds, and the Olympics. People in the sport talk about his staggering natural talent. The future rests with Curtis himself, and after years of obsession and depression and the rest, he believes it will all unfold as it's supposed to.
"I know I have within me the ability to sleep," Bobby Curtis said.