One athlete bravely shares her deepest struggles and outstanding triumph with a very dark disease that affects many runners.
My collegiate sports career started out in basketball. It was and always will be my first love. However, the transition from high school to college basketball hit me hard. It mimicked the difficulty of the transition from living at home to moving away to college. I soon found myself getting far too comfortable on the bench, and began running as a way to let out the stress of my first semester of college not going the way I had hoped it would. After basketball ended, I decided to ask the track coach if he’d let me join the track team. I soon became the sole female long distance runner on our small team. About a month later, I medaled in our conference’s indoor track championship. It was then I realized I had found where I belonged: in the world of running.
That first season of track, I trained alone a lot, and occasionally with the men. I was so naïve to running and to training at a high level. I didn’t know what an “easy” day was, but the runner’s high and the improvement I continued to see kept me hooked, ready for whatever workouts and training plans my coach brought my way, even if I didn’t understand the “why” behind what I was doing.
Four seasons of track, three seasons of cross country, and eight All-American awards later, I was granted the ability to come back for a fifth year of cross country, since I did not participate my freshman year. I desperately wanted to fulfill my dream of becoming a national champion, and unfortunately, a slight obsession with running and perfectionist tendencies turned in to a full-blown battle with anorexia.
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I still saw myself as a bulky basketball player. My perfectionist mindset, combined with my own distorted body image, convinced me that was why I hadn’t been able to reach the top of the podium. Obsessive thoughts came around more often. No days off. Train three times a day. Weigh myself twice a day. Eat less. Eat only certain types of “healthy” foods. Run more. And I just kept getting faster.
I showed up to camp the lightest weight I had ever been. My coach was concerned, but I assured him it was just because we increased my mileage. I went on to have a tremendous senior season, setting PRs like crazy. I was singularly focused on winning it all. But I took third at the national meet, falling short of my ultimate goal.
Again, that perfectionist side took the best of me. Instead of being happy for all I had accomplished, I couldn’t stop beating myself up. I took one day off after my season and then began obsessively training again.
A few weeks later, thanks to my collegiate successes, I signed a professional contract. Even more miles. And faster. Even less food. Surely that would get me to the Olympic Trials, the eating disorder voice told me. I won my first professional race, the Disney World Marathon, two months after my cross country season ended. A month later, I ran the New Orleans Half Marathon. This time, another new PR, and just a few seconds away from the Olympic Trials standard. “Okay! I’m on the right path,” I thought.
One week, and 110 miles of running later, after the fastest race of my life, my body gave out on me. I had a stress fracture in my calcaneus (heel bone). I could not even walk a single step without a shooting pain all the way up my leg. Pool running and cross training—that would keep me in shape and not allow me to put any weight back on, said the eating disorder voice that was rearing its ugly head yet again. A week or two after my injury, however, a teammate of mine finally approached me about my behavior, and that day helped me begin to take my life back. She had been living with me and couldn’t help but notice how little I ate for how much I had been running and training. At that time, it certainly was not what I wanted to hear. But her words—they stuck with me. Suddenly, I began to realize how much I had isolated myself from so many people, how consumed I was by how much I needed to exercise in a day, and how completely obsessed I was with the number staring back at me as I stepped on the scale. I was sick and needed to find help.
Thanks to connections in the area I was living, I soon found a psychotherapist and a nutritionist and was diagnosed with anorexia, an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body perception. I began the difficult process of taking an in-depth look at the underlying causes of my eating disorder, and then, how to talk back to those distorted thought patterns surrounding food, exercise, body image, relationships, and more, that had become pervasive in my life.
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I tried to keep running professionally, but the prolonged period of undernourishment did not allow my body to cooperate, even after I had started eating more. Injuries mounted up, and a year and a half after I had signed my professional contract, it was terminated. I was at a better place mentally and physically than when I arrived, but bone density scans still showed I was on a path to osteoporosis. My body was far from healed. I knew I had plenty more work to do to find a place of peace within myself.
Within two months of leaving my first professional running group, I moved to Minneapolis. Originally I thought I would try to keep running professionally, but more injuries kept popping up. Frustrated and feeling hopeless, in stepped the Emily Program, and sports dietician Rasa Troup to help lead me on the path to recovery. I took time away from running and racing. In that time I finally learned to think of food as fuel, to recognize that runners come in all shapes and sizes and to know I was defined by so much more than the splits on my watch or the number on the scale. I learned much more about balance and moderation in exercise and in life.
This past April, two and a half years after arriving in Minneapolis, with the help of an amazing support team, and the same hard work and perseverance that helped me find success in running and athletics, I was able to declare myself recovered from anorexia. It was certainly a long journey and an uphill battle, as it is for anyone diagnosed with an eating disorder, but it is a battle I won. I can say without a doubt that my life is better than it has ever been. I am grateful to have regained a healthy relationship with running. I run because it’s fun and because each day I have the opportunity to get out and run. It brings a smile to my face. I’m thankful to be in tune with my body, knowing when it’s time for a complete rest day, and being okay with it. I am so appreciative of all that my strong body continues to do for me!
I hope my story can help remind runners to be thankful for the running and physical activity their body allows them to be able to do, and to be proud of the body they live in! Every BODY is different, so why wouldn’t you embrace your uniqueness? I also hope that my story can encourage anyone out there who may be struggling with his or her relationship with food and exercise to seek out help. Recovery from an eating disorder is possible, and with it, a brighter outlook on life!
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. If you think you may have an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise, please visit http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org, take a confidential online eating disorder screening and find more information on seeking help.