Running Down a Dream

What do psychotherapy, Spanish, ultramarathon running, and Colorado State University have in common? In the unlikely event you guessed Hannah Saunders Wurster (M.S., ’16; Ph.D. ’18) you’d be right.

Hannah Wurster
Hannah Wurster

Wurster’s father is a clinical psychologist in Wisconsin where she was raised, and his work fascinated her. “I always liked psychology and I always liked kids.” So, she attended the University of Minnesota Twin Cities to earn a degree in child psychology, with a minor in Spanish, which she began studying in high school.

“I knew Spanish would benefit my career, but also just enjoyed it. At Minnesota, we learned a lot of history and literature, and culture along with the language.”

Keeping pace with Wurster’s academic pursuits was her interest in running. “I’ve been running since the fifth grade. I ran through high school and then discovered half marathons in undergrad. I recently started running ultramarathons, which are super fun.”

Taking the Next Step

Her search for a graduate program led Wurster to Dr. Zeynep Biringen, a professor in the Human Development and Family Studies department in the College of Health and Human Sciences, who connected Wurster with another professor in the department, Dr. Toni Zimmerman, who sparked her interest in marriage and family therapy.

CSU quickly rose to the top of her list, and the weather in Colorado was appealing, too. “My last year in Minnesota was the polar vortex when the temperature didn’t get above zero for about 40 days. That’s when I was certain I had to leave.”

Wurster’s moved to Fort Collins in 2014 to begin her master’s work for a degree in Human Development & Family Studies, followed in 2018 by a Ph.D. in Applied Developmental Science.

“Grad school was a fun time in life. I made some of my best friends. I really enjoyed a lot of the classes. It was great to get to know and conduct research with my advisor, Dr. Biringen. Dave MacPhee was probably my favorite instructor. The HDFS program did a great job of letting us find our path to whatever interested us most.”

Living in Fort Collins had other benefits as well. “I fell in love with trail running almost immediately. That’s something I didn’t know I would like so much, but you can’t beat the trails here. There’s so many places to run and I have some good friends who like to run.”

The Journey Continues

While working toward her Ph.D., she began seeing a few clients a week through the private practice she started (Hannah Saunders Therapy LLC), and around that same time met her future husband, Aaron, who was with the Air Force stationed in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “He ran a half-marathon with me on our third or fourth date, and that won me over,” she said. They were married in 2018 and honeymooned in Peru, where Wurster’s Spanish-speaking skills were a plus.

During her post-doctorate work, she served as a counselor at La Cocina, a Fort-Collins based program providing mental health services and advocacy for Latin American immigrants and families. There, Wurster’s years of Spanish proved invaluable.

“I definitely have a passion for the Latinx community,” she said. Other post-graduate activities included her work on a grant to foster community resilience around housing instability and stress in Latin American families. The program resulted in a YouTube video Wurster produced for organizations and managers titled, Toxic Stress & Resilience Among Latinx Families.

“The grad program at CSU taught me an appreciation for the applied sciences – how we understand how things work in the real world and how we create change. That was something I was really interested in. I’m action-oriented, so I want to know how things work, but then I want to know what to do about it.”

Variety is the Spice of Life

In addition to her psychotherapy practice, Wurster teaches general psychology and human growth and development part time at Front Range Community College, periodically leads group therapy, and performs contracted assessments for infants and children in Larimer County.

In 2020, she also co-founded The Willow Collective, a network of private practitioners who support maternal, infant, and early childhood mental health services in Northern Colorado. The network connects professionals with each other, accepts and manages service referrals, provides consultation and training, and contracts on grant-funded programs.

Hannah in the Waterholes Canyon during the 2020 Antelope Canyon 50 mile Ultra Marathon.
Wurster in the Waterholes Canyon during the 2020 Antelope Canyon 50-mile Ultra Marathon.

Despite her busy schedule, Wurster said, “I’m trying to be mindful of balance, especially this year with how much anxiety there is around the pandemic. It’s a lot to see more than 20 clients a week, so I try to diversify my work and do other things, too.”

Running to Keep Up

“Running is my number one stress reliever,” she said. “I always say it got me through graduate school, especially with some of the tougher clinical work. I could go home and run it out.”

Wurster has gradually increased her endurance and about a year ago started running ultramarathons (long-distance running races that exceed the traditional 26-mile marathon). She trains about 10 hours a week and completed a 50-mile race last year. She is now preparing to run a 100-kilometer race (about 62 miles) in April.

“I think it’s really fun because you don’t have to worry about how fast you’re going. The goal is just to enjoy yourself and finish.”

That sounds like sage advice for all kinds of endeavors.