Confessions of an Anorexic Runner
There are a lot of words I could use to describe what recovering from an eating disorder looks like. A lot of them would include explicit content not suitable for most audiences.
Eating disorders are very prevalent in the running community, but not often talked about. Sure, after someone has recovered, they occasionally blog about their success story, but I have found that many of the raw details have been left out.
When approached to write about this topic, I wanted to wait until I felt like I was fully recovered to tell my story. After some thinking, I determined it would be more beneficial to tell you what an eating disorder looks like right here, right now. I have made progress forward on the road to recovery, but “recovered” is a word I cannot yet use.
How it Started – Year 1
At the end of my sophomore year of college, I headed into summer deciding that restricting food would help me to lose weight and run faster. A switch had flipped. Being lighter could provide me with an extra edge that I wanted and needed to become a better runner.
In addition to decreasing my food intake, I increased my mileage. Counter intuitive when you think about it, but I ran faster and got better. I made the all region cross country team. Then, 200 meters from the finish line at nationals, I collapsed. I was told I needed to eat more.
I tried to do as I was told, but it only evolved my eating disorder into something else. I found myself eating the exact same foods, and amounts of food every single day. I recorded in excruciating detail what I ate and tried not to eat over my “limit” each day. I even agreed to start counseling in order to satisfy the pressure of speculation that I had an eating disorder.
In spite of this, I had my best year of track to date, and the best year I may ever have. I was an All-American in the 10k, runner up in the 5k and 10k at the Big 12 Conference meet, and ran USA nationals, ending the season with a personal best.
Eating disorder or not, I was fast, and I was not about to change my habits that were working so well.
Living in Denial – Year 2
Coming off a stellar track season, I took a very small break and then got right back into training. I set high goals for the 2011 cross country season and 2012 track season, there was no time for recovery. I ate; I wasn’t anorexic. I told myself, Anorexics don’t eat at all, so I can’t be anorexic.
The cross country season went well; I finished with another All-American, but I was starting to feel a little tired. I had put in a lot of training and needed a break. I took a short amount of time off, then began training again until it was halted for a minor injury. Even still, I was able to come back from it and qualify for the 3k and the 5k indoor nationals.
After my 5k qualification, things began to spiral downwards, and at a very brisk pace. To make a long story short, I came in dead last in the 5k at nationals that year. Horrified and embarrassed, I chose to DNS in the 3k the following day.
Things hurt, my body couldn’t recover from anything, and the life was being sucked out of me. I rear-ended a car because I was so preoccupied with what I should or shouldn’t have for dinner. I was constantly depressed, losing friends, and worst of all, lost any love I had for myself.
I missed qualifying for nationals outdoors, I missed the 10k Olympic Trials Qualifying “A” standard by 8 seconds, and I was beginning to hate running.
Hating to Run – Year 3
By the summer of year 3, I took a lot more time off from running. My body wasn’t right. I was constantly injured.
I continued going to therapy and saw a dietician, but I didn’t really believe the things that they told me. Eating Disorders evolve, and that’s what mine did.
I ate a lot of vegetables and regularly woke up starving at 1am. I couldn’t eat a piece of bread if my life depended on it, and would spiral into heap of anxiety at the thought.
People struggling with an eating disorder often have foods they feel are “bad.” For me, it was grains. There was no rhyme or reason for my fear, but it was very big, and very real, and made consuming them again nearly impossible.
It was my last year of college. I didn’t have any eligibility left so I trained and trained and trained, consistently running 95+ miles a week and eating far less than what I should have been. It was a recipe for disaster.
And disaster is what happened next. From the end of December, until the time of publication, I had yet to put together over six months of consistent training. My last track seasons were filled with a stress fracture, loads of cross training, and a lot of self-disappointment. I was still able to sneak into the outdoor Division 1 national meet and run the 10k, but nowhere near the performance I had just two years prior.
I was not on top of the world anymore, and I hated myself. I was more concerned with how I looked in a jersey, than how my body felt. Push through, lose weight, run faster, were my mantras.
Pursuing the “Dream” – Year 4
Now I was a college graduate, and clearly not running well, but people told me that I could still compete. People said that I could pursue a career in professional running, so I did.
Was my dream really to be an Olympic athlete? I am still not sure. Did I believe I could be an Olympic athlete? Not really.
Did I think running was a way to prevent me from gaining too much weight? Absolutely.
I joined a professional running team, but was riddled with injuries. I didn’t spend more than two months at a time running. My butt became best friends with a bike seat. I convinced myself to become an elliptical champion. I even joined a masters swim program to keep up fitness.
Did I miss running? Yes, but mostly because I thought running was what prevented me from gaining weight.
Running was not running anymore. It was this monster pressuring me to keep my body a certain way to run fast. I had something to prove, and I wanted to be the girl that defeated anorexia and ran better because of it.
But, that didn’t happen. You can only push yourself for so long before you burnout. After my last stress fracture, which included fracturing the neck of my femur, I decided not to jump back into running. My love of running had been sucked out of me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back.
Recovering – Year 5
I spent the majority of the summer in 2014 road biking, doing yoga, and dabbling in running. By the end of the summer, I decided to give running another try. I had been consistently working with a dietician for over a year, and a therapist for over six months, so I thought I was ready to jump back into it.
I was so far from where I wanted to be, I still didn’t really enjoy running (especially workouts), and I was extremely depressed. I finally made the decision to step away from the elite running world and focus on myself. It has been the hardest thing I have ever had to do.
After almost 5 years of living my life a certain way, I have had a really hard time just being me. Quite honestly I don’t really know who I am. How strange is that?! I live with myself every day, yet I don’t know anything about myself. I had defined myself as a runner and restrictor for so long that I lost myself along the way.
Now all I am left with is me, myself, and I. What now?
Daily Struggle – Today
On a day-to-day basis, I still think a lot more about food than the average individual. Every food has become so complex that it is hard to let a slice of bread just be a slice of bread. I often have to sit down and sort out my thoughts before I eat a meal.
Some days are easy, and some days are hard. Sometimes I am really good about not using food as a coping mechanism for anxiety; sometimes I forget to be gentle to myself. The process of recovery is about pushing the eating disorder out of its’ comfort zone, while also being O.K. with messing up and being human.
We make mistakes.
As someone who strived for perfection for so long, a mistake can be very hard to deal with. There is a quote by John Steinbeck that reminds me of the unrealistic expectation of perfection and how it can translate into all aspects of life. Steinbeck writes, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
I am not perfect, and I never will be perfect. I can work on letting perfection go. I am not recovered yet, and I know the road will be long. I have a great support team, and know that they always have my back. Without them, I wouldn’t have made the progress I have today.
I will recover, and I will write about it when I am finally there. Eating disorders are big, scary, and look differently for everyone. If you are struggling, please get help. The first step is hard, but try talking to a friend or feel free to contact me, I’d love to hear from you. Although I am not recovered, I believe that I will be one day.
And once that day comes, it will be the most glorious day of my life.