Running is something I have loved ever since my first 5K in third grade.
The feeling of the strain in my legs as I sprinted down the road on the Fourth of July with everyone cheering me on was so invigorating. (OK, let’s be real, here. The patriotic Bombpops at the finish line were probably the real reason I enjoyed that race so much.) Either way, because of the “runner’s high” or Bombpops, I kept running.
After playing club soccer and then dabbling in triathlons for a few years, I found running was my true passion. I narrowed my focus and trained faster, harder, longer. I got up early to get in extra runs before school and followed rigorous training plans. Before I knew it, I had qualified for my first state track meet in the spring of my sophomore year.
And I wasn’t just a state track qualifier, but I also was a 4.0 student involved in a plethora of clubs and organizations. By my senior year, I was the president of Prairie High School’s chapter of Best Buddies — a club that pairs students with special needs to their peers — a member of Science National Honor Society, National Honor Society, a volunteer organization called Key Club and the team captain for Prairie cross country and track.
I was a school record holder in multiple events and state qualifier in track and cross country. I accomplished all of this while still maintaining my 4.0 GPA. To any outsider I was the “ideal” high school student, heavily involved with the ideal GPA.
By the end of senior year, I had signed a Letter of Intent to run for the University of Northern Iowa and was planning on majoring in biology, in hopes of becoming a physician assistant. I thought I had my future figured out. I was ready to run at the next level. After all, running was my life. In fact, it had become my identity.
However, here I am, four months into the first year of this “amazing” future, writing this article after withdrawing from all my classes this semester and redshirting my freshman season of cross country. How did this happen? How could I go from someone who appeared to “have it all together” to this?
I forgot to add one thing to my list that made all the difference in my senior year and where I am now.
I had an eating disorder.
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As much as running is part of my life, so was my eating disorder. I just didn’t recognize it.
My senior year, I did not accept I had an eating disorder. Not at all. Sure, I knew I was under fueled and saw a dietitian weekly to change that. I agreed to gain a set amount of weight in order to please my family and coach, but my personal rules and the rigidity around food intake didn’t change. I was obsessed with ensuring what I ate was the “healthiest fuel” for my body. I wanted to gain weight, but to only do it by eating healthy foods.
And I did. By the end of my senior year, I was at my “healthy weight,” a weight suggested to me and decided it would be the “healthiest” weight for my body. After I hit that target, I stopped going to a dietitian because I was “better.” I was at the necessary weight and now knew how to fuel my body.
In a matter of three weeks I lost the majority of the weight I had restored by, unconsciously, restricting and cutting out the “unnecessary” additions I had made with my dietitian. I devised more rules about foods and what was “healthy.” Looking back, I knew my rules were comprehensive. I had no idea how much so, though.
Now, sitting here in treatment, I have to make a list of all the food rules I follow. Fifty-five. Fifty-five “food rules,” all swirling around in my head. Rules such as no full fat cheese; dessert once a week, and even the dessert had restrictions attached. To anyone else, these rules seem crazy, but in my head each rule made sense — made me a healthier person.
Eating disorders can occur for so many reasons but are especially prevalent in sports in which lower weight is considered to be an advantage. My eating disorder started in an alarmingly subtle way. In fact, it was in the name of health and having the competitive edge — having a lighter frame. I now understand it actually grew out of my perfectionism, from the pressure I put upon myself to be perfect as a means to force my body from “growing up.”
To remain fast.
“She slowed down after she went through the girl changes, if you know what I mean.”
Almost every female runner has heard a coach or parent say that at some point. I was exposed to that pessimistic notion my sophomore year, and it was the beginning of a long journey toward my eating disorder. During my sophomore track season, I had dropped more than a minute in the 3,000-meter run and 45 seconds in the 1,500. I had high hopes. I expected great things out of my next two track seasons. And people were saying I was going to, inevitably, get slower? No. This was the moment I suddenly decided I would do everything in my power to not go through the “girl changes,” thus ensuring I wouldn’t get slow.
While I didn’t consciously act on this until later, this ideal was the beginning of a terrible trip toward self-destruction.
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During that following summer, I began to get a lot of anxiety from the pressure I put on myself. I wanted to be the best at everything I did. I never was satisfied. No matter how well a workout, race or test went, I wasn’t happy. There always was something I could improve upon. I began to focus more and more on what I ate, not consciously thinking about it to begin with, but it helped me feel I had control of something in my life. In running, there are so many factors you can’t control, but my shape — through my diet — was something I could.
My focus on food became an obsession.
It paid off at first. The summer of my senior year I lost even more weight and was running faster than ever before. At the start of cross country season, I was having some really great meets, but I didn’t get to enjoy them. I couldn’t find my love for running that had always been there. I was hungry all the time, cold and my hair was thinning.
This occurred throughout my senior year and even when I did get to a “healthier” weight, my focus on food still took away from everything else. I realized before the start of college I had an issue. But, even then, I didn’t fully understand the severity of my situation. Disordered eating I called it — not an eating disorder. I am eating, and I have my life together. Right?
I started working with an outpatient team in Cedar Falls at the start of the semester, forcing me to realize I did have an eating disorder and I wasn’t making much — if any — progress. College is such a vulnerable time, and I was only becoming more vulnerable.
It was one random Sunday in September that I decided I needed more help. I called my mom and, together, we decided I check myself into the Victory Program at McCallum Place in St. Louis. The program is designed for elite athletes with eating disorders, with a goal of bringing them back a healthy relationship between food, sports and life. The Victory Program has a certified strength and conditioning coach and a protocol to ensure exercise isn’t reintroduced until the athlete is healthy, in the mind and body.
I am now discharged from the program, after staying for 10 weeks. I have found an identity outside of my running life, in fact I am considering taking up rowing as a new sport. I am still working on letting go of my need for perfection and dulling competitive edge in an effective way. I have restored my weight and it is not just a number I upon which I grudgingly agreed. They used my growth charts to help guide me back to a weight that was healthy for me.
Eating disorders are sneaky, subtle and have long-term consequences. I recently found out I have osteoporosis in my back and I am only 18 years old.
Eating disorders can be fatal. The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12-times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death for females 15-24 years old. Without treatment, up to 20 percent of people with serious eating disorders die.
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But treatment is only part of the journey of eating disorders. There are many ways those in the sports community can help reduce the prevalence eating disorders. That one random comment about “girl changes” remains with me to this day. Coaches, parents and spectators have the power to uplift girls and encourage them in their efforts, even when running isn’t going well, without referring to weight.
Not to mention, there are many other reasons why girls may slow down besides puberty. Loss of passion and lack of winter training can play into a slower season, too. However, I never knew this until much later.
Often in running, weight and body size become the focus, and the message athletes receive is that heavy equals slow. Other attributes such as passion, determination, commitment to the sport receive much less attention.
Coaches and health professionals also can go to conferences where eating disorders are discussed so they have a better understanding of what to look for to identify an athlete with a potential disorder and how to safely intervene. This may require coaches and health professionals to have some hard and awkward conversations with students, but these are necessary for the safety and well-being of the student. While intervention may not make immediate changes, because there were people in my life who were willing to have those conversations, I was able to reflect and realize I needed help.
If I could leave one message to other female runners out there it would be this: don’t think restricting your food intake will make you happier or faster. You may have some short-term successes, but only with lots of long-term consequences.
I missed out on enjoying so many opportunities my senior year because the entire time I was focused on food and performance — heavy equals slow. I never was able to relish in all the other things going on in my life: college applications, my last homecoming and prom, and saying goodbye to all of my friends.
My eating disorder didn’t give me success, it hindered it.
Who knows what I would have been capable of if I had been able to enjoy all the extracurricular events, instead of focusing on all the “rules” I created in my head? There is more to life then running and if you have coaches or people in your life who care more about the results, then the process it takes to get them, tell them that. Be aware of the rules that you make for yourself in the name of health and performance.
Eating disorders do not happen overnight and the journey to recovery will not be a sprint, but a marathon — with many hills to overcome.