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Running From Himself : Former Track Star Darrell Robinson Almost Reached a Final Finish by Attempting Suicide

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first time he tried to kill himself that day, it didn’t work. He got into his girlfriend’s quietly idling car and waited while the carbon monoxide flowed from the exhaust pipe through a piece of garden hose he had rigged to run in through the window.

He had even taken the precaution of breathing deeply, but the deadly gas that was supposed to choke the oxygen from his blood was not doing its job. Darrell Robinson was not suffocating. Frustrated, he returned to his apartment and sat in the dark.

Later, he got in the car again, drove to the supermarket, parked in back and pulled the yellow plastic jug of antifreeze up to the seat next to him. He poured the greenish-yellow liquid carefully into the glass he had brought, remembering to keep track of how much he drank. To be sure it was enough. He brought the first glassful to his lips. It didn’t taste bad--sweet and syrupy with a bitter aftertaste.

He had drunk more than two-thirds of the jug when he began to feel groggy. A thought swam up--he wanted to see his baby daughter by a former girlfriend, to say goodbye. Somehow he got the car onto Interstate 5 heading south, then took I-90 east, across the floating bridge to Mercer Island, which, squatting in Lake Washington, resembles a heavily wooded slash.

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He wanted to see his daughter, but this time the suicide was going pretty well. When he knew he could no longer drive, he pulled the car into a deserted park-'n'-ride lot. Before lapsing into unconsciousness, he reclined the bucket seat all the way back. There, less than a block from where his baby daughter slept, he began to slip into a coma.

*

It had all been carefully planned, this death. Robinson, a one-time world-class track athlete, had considered it for some time. He had been seeing a psychiatrist for four months and when he told her, in his clear and articulate way, that he was considering killing himself, she apparently heard only the words, not the thoughts behind them. He talked about it with his girlfriend, who got angry.

The last time they had talked about it, he was taking her to the airport, and as she left she made him promise that, should he begin to be drawn to his deadly plan, he would check himself into a mental hospital. He had said he would.

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Alone, however, Robinson locked himself in his apartment and sat in the darkness for days, taking stock.

“I just didn’t know where I was going,” he said. “I was treading water, trying to find somewhere to go. Everything was collapsing around me. My relationship was starting to fall apart. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”

That’s the kind of self-analysis many go through much earlier in life. But Robinson, 32, had an athletic gift that allowed him to postpone such difficult adult decisions. Since he had been an 18-year-old high school senior who set a world junior record of 44.69 seconds at 400 meters, any vocational thoughts were driven away by the lure of track and field’s endless summers.

His life was as simple as sprinting once around an oval. And as difficult and lung-searing as training to cover a quarter of a mile in less than 45 seconds. He was contacted by more than 60 universities while he was in high school, all of them dangling scholarships. College coaches were excited about his potential.

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He was already a schoolboy legend in Tacoma. The fourth of six children raised in the dangerous neighborhood called Hilltop, Robinson followed his oldest brother, Michael, into track. He led Wilson High to its first state title, scoring 32.5 of his team’s 47 points. His state-meet records stood for 14 years.

Robinson accepted a scholarship to the University of Houston, a track hotbed where Carl Lewis and others trained. But he withdrew from school after a month and followed sprint coach Clyde Duncan to the University of Washington. Because he had been on scholarship at Houston, Robinson was ineligible his first year. And as things turned out, he never did compete for the Huskies.

That was the beginning of a peripatetic life that brought him to UCLA in 1985 to pursue a music degree. That brought him into the orbit of Chuck Debus, coach of the Los Angeles Track Club.

“Darrell was really, really talented,” Debus said. “He was genetically predisposed to run 400 meters. There probably weren’t that many things he could have done athletically as well, but it was perfect for him to run the 400.”

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Robinson did what track athletes did at that time. He knocked around, went to Europe and ran the circuit every summer. It was possible to make some money. And even if he never fulfilled his enormous potential, he was still moving forward.

His best year was 1986, when he ran a personal best of 44.45 seconds, won the national championship, was second in the inaugural Goodwill Games and was ranked No. 3 in the world.

That was also the year he was kicked off the World Cup team. What might be seen as free-spirited independence in others came across as anti-authority arrogance in Robinson. He gained a reputation for flamboyance and volatility.

After he barely missed reaching the finals in the 400 at the 1988 Olympic trials, his actions in 1989 did nothing to bolster his reputation. In a move that alienated him from nearly every acquaintance he had in the sport, Robinson became track’s biggest whistle blower. He sold a juicy story to a German magazine, Stern, saying he had sold performance-enhancing drugs to triple gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner and was present when Carl Lewis injected himself with a milky white substance. Both athletes deny ever having taken drugs.

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The ensuing controversy engulfed Robinson and the sport, already reeling after the Olympic disqualification of sprinter Ben Johnson and Canada’s Dubin Inquiry into drugs in sport. To many, Robinson’s sin was twofold--he said aloud what was being widely discussed in private, and he took money for it. He made some serious enemies.

“I thought it would become old news but it never did with those guys,” Robinson said. “Some guys hate me to this day.”

He maintains that powerful people in the sport conspired to blackball him from European meets, effectively ending his career. Whatever the reason, Robinson stopped running and, as far as track was concerned, fell off the face of the earth.

Sitting in his darkened apartment, Robinson mulled over every dysfunctional relationship he had ever been in. He remembered how the mother of his 2-year-old son beat the child to death in Concord, Calif. He worried about how often he would be able to see his youngest child, 9-month-old Jihan.

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He thought about his oldest daughter, Tshalaine, who was living with his former wife in Toronto, and on whose behalf he had been put in jail.

The family had been living in Atlanta, where Robinson was part of a songwriting team working for pop producer Babyface. Sharon Clark Robinson, a former long jumper for Louisiana State, secretly left Atlanta in 1991 and took their daughter to her family in Canada.

When Robinson found Tshalaine there days later, in the care of an aunt, he pushed his way through a screen door and took his daughter back. He was arrested soon afterward and charged with assault, abduction, failure to appear and failure to comply. He was held in jail for five months and on the day of the trial accepted a deal: The charges would be dropped but he would be deported without his daughter and he would need official permission to return to Canada.

Canadian authorities dropped him off across the border in Buffalo and within minutes a friend had picked him up and driven him back to his daughter. Sharon refused to let him see the child but he was able to get out of the country again without incident.

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“I write her every month,” he said of Tshalaine. “I send a letter and it gets sent back to me. Tshalaine was everything to me. She was my world. She became my motivation, everything I did was for her. Just to come home and to hear her little feet running to the door and to hear her say, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy’ and to give her a hug . . . I would have done anything for that little girl.”

As he sat and pondered, Robinson’s thoughts became obsessive. He went to the Seattle public library and checked out a book, which, besides providing information about the making of explosive devices, detailed methods of poisoning yourself and others. It became his guidebook to the other side.

*

The Mercer Island Police Department put out the call for paramedics at 12:33 a.m. on March 24. Unit 90 responded and got to the scene at 12:40. Paramedics found the “patient” slumped in a car with spittle around his mouth and vomit on his lap. They could find no radial pulse and noted he was confused and lapsing into unconsciousness. They ended their report with this terse sign off: “Drug overdose. ASAP to HMC.”

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Robinson was admitted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle at 1:26 a.m. He was comatose, listed in serious condition, and was placed in intensive care and treated for ingestion of ethylene glycol. Expectations that he would survive were low, for Robinson had drunk far more than would have killed an average man.

He lay in his coma, watched over by doctors and nurses but no visitors. His girlfriend was still out of town. His family in Tacoma had no idea he had been living in Seattle, never mind lying in a coma in a downtown hospital.

A sequence of chance events led to the family’s notification that Darrell was in the hospital. And the family that wasn’t very “together” as Michael Robinson put it, did what families can do in a crisis. They circle the wagons.

One sister served as call-screener in the early days as reporters began to telephone. Another raised hell when doctors recommended taking her brother off life support, saying that even if he did come out of the coma, he would be irrevocably brain-damaged.

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“You don’t know Darrell,” they said. “He’s not like normal people.”

When Robinson drank the antifreeze, what should have been a deadly chemical reaction began: His body began to convert the ethylene glycol into oxalic acid, a poison. Calcium deposits--crystals--began to form on the kidneys. They normally lead to kidney shutdown--fatal renal failure.

“It’s not an efficient way and it’s not a very pleasant way to die,” said Dr. Arthur K. Cho, professor emeritus of pharmacology at UCLA. “You recover from the coma, then you die of renal failure. If you are lucky enough to survive, then your kidneys are shot and you’re looking at a lifetime of dialysis.”

Robinson came out of his coma on March 31, looking into the face of his brother Donnie.

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“I saw the hurt that I put on my family,” Robinson said, tears brimming in his eyes. “What bothers me the most is what everyone else is going through. I’m not that kind of person. I’m not selfish--I know it’s a selfish act. But we’ve never been this close. It’s been so long since I’ve been in a room with my family, I can’t think of the last time everyone was together.”

He’s out of the hospital and staying with his parents now. He’s going to get rid of his apartment in Seattle, to save money. He’s heard from scores of old friends--a guy he ran against in eighth grade just called. But he knows that as time goes by, the calls will become fewer.

Robinson will undergo his first dialysis Friday. After further testing, doctors will decide whether to surgically implant a shunt into an artery so that for his weekly sessions, an IV can be plugged directly into the device, saving the trouble of finding a vein.

He’s still seeing his psychiatrist twice a week, trying to work out where the light is in his life and what lies ahead.

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After heartfelt talks with his family, after numerous interviews, Robinson still can’t quite answer the question. Why did he do it? What broke down in his life? After balancing on the edge, what pushed him into darkness?

The answer is not found on the police report or in medical records. The answer lies deep in the psyche of Darrell Robinson. The answer may be found in a place he does not want to go.

Getting there, so he can answer the question, is his new race. And he may need to get there fast, before despair catches him again.


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