Or, why I’m thankful for this crazy sport…
I wasn’t always a runner. I actually hated running for the first 14 years of my life. I tried to get a doctor’s note to skip our annual Field Day and dreaded the weekly “Fitness Friday” mile runs in middle school. But somehow the first day of cross country freshman year got me totally hooked and I knew I’d found the sport I could do well in and feel passionate about. And so it began — and brought me here today.
However, I can hardly claim that my running career has been smooth sailing. Since I started this blog, I’ve had — and written about — a lot of successes. PRs, accidentally perfect races, great training experiences. But I mentioned the story of my body image issues awhile back, and in the context of Thanksgiving, it’s an important part of how I got to where I am now.
When I joined the cross country team my freshman year of high school, I was still training pretty heavily (20+ hours per week) with my club swim team. My days went as follows: M/W/F 5:30am practice or T/Th lifting, school, XC practice, back to the pool for another 2.5-3 hours, homework, bed just to wake up and do it all again the next day. It was taxing, but I handled it pretty well and managed to snag the only freshman spot on the varsity team.
I didn’t join the track team until the following spring, so most of my time and energy through the summer was devoted to swimming. But as I geared back up for my sophomore XC season, I started looking a lot more like a runner thanks to the sheer size of the caloric deficit I was building. And, as a result, my swim performance suffered. There’s a reason swimmers have bodies different from other endurance athletes — they’re strong and powerful and actually need that body mass to carry them through the water off of starts and turns. I lost a lot of that and saw my times slowly creep up. In the meantime, people were noticing — and commenting on — the way I looked.
At first it didn’t mean much to me. All I really cared about was being able to swim fast. And run fast. But then I started thinking things like “why yes, I do have six-pack abs” or “hmm, I need smaller clothes” or “wow, I didn’t realize there was muscle there!” And I liked being noticed and hearing that I looked good. So at first, conscious control of my eating was about vanity. But it quickly spiraled into much more than that — a sense of complete control over what my body could and couldn’t do and have. I think anyone who experiences any kind of exercise or eating or body image disorder has a different journey, but those who say it’s about power nail my own on the head.
So I taught myself to ignore hunger cues, to eat only half of everything I was served, to skip meals if no one would notice. I read a lot of books on sports nutrition and healthy eating (THE IRONY) and saw this as the right approach to better performance. And maybe part of it was the horrible lack of control fifteen year-old girls seem to have over every other aspect of their lives. It didn’t help that eating disorders were totally normalized in the competitive private school environment I grew up in to the point that it was almost a game in and of itself (see, for example: the dramatic “I’m so fat” conversations in the lunchroom and locker room).
In any case, I still ran really well during that second XC season. I was elected team captain and placed in the top 3 at our region meet. As spring track approached, it was pretty obvious there was a problem. And my parents are not stupid. Unlike many, they didn’t turn a blind eye to what was going on and immediately jumped on it in a supportive — rather than accusatory — way. To limit the stress on my body, they asked me to choose between running and swimming (I think we know which one won) and connected with all kinds of specialists to monitor my progress. Because by my 16th birthday, I was 20+ pounds lighter than I am now and well over the line of healthy and fit to scary, a line that’s impossible to see when you’re the one toeing it. But the pictures from those days don’t lie.
Despite all the help I was getting from the amazing people in my life, I still started my junior year in a pretty crappy place. But my running! A mid-summer team practice had me easily keeping up with the guys’ team and feeling great. Then, after a long run with all of my Fleet Feet buddies, I felt a sharp pain in my foot. Pretty much everyone was laying on the sidewalk with 10lb bags of ice on all kinds of body parts (also because it was August in Savannah?), so I didn’t think much of it. In a weird twist, at some point during the first week of school I went to a martial arts studio to try out for a class, kicked a board and knew immediately that something was seriously, seriously wrong.
[This was strangely reminiscent of my 4th grade broken arm — I manage to break bones just by hitting something solid.]
I went to our daily assembly the next morning limping on the outside of my foot and was immediately accosted by our athletic director. “Looks like you have a stress fracture.” All I knew was that it hurt. He ordered a couple of football players to go get me a bucket of ice from the training room and meet me in my first period class. Then he called my parents, who scheduled an orthopedist appointment for that afternoon (Dr. Dad’s connections FTW). An x-ray and bone scan later and I was in a walking boot and on crutches and kissing a killer XC season goodbye.
This is where the whole “running saved my life” thing begins. My decisions had left me with weak bones and extremely prone to stress injuries. I had to make a choice. Keep doing what I was doing and struggle to ever run again (the least of my problems), or get my shit together and get back on the road. Slowly but surely, I gained weight back. The hardest part was the mental and emotional shift I had to make. Physically I was helped along by the inability to do much exercise — though I did pool run once or twice and my dad very generously bought me the road bike I still ride today — but I had to rebuild my relationship with food and learn to be ok with not being able to see every bone in my body. It was a long road, and it was interrupted by another stress fracture the day before I was scheduled to leave for my state track meet that spring, but my senior year was a brilliant comeback and what cemented my commitment to running.
Today, I’m healthy. I love to train, I love to compete, and I fuel for performance (and fun). I’m at a “happy” weight that I only really monitor at an annual physical. Otherwise I avoid the scale and use cues ranging from the way my clothes fit to my athletic performance to stay balanced. This experience will never go away completely — I’ve slipped more than once before being jerked back into reality and still have a few quirks and aversions because of it — but I love and value my ability to participate in running, triathlon, cycling and life in general too much to ever fall as far as I did the first time around.
So, here in 2011, I’m thankful for:
–Running. It keeps me healthy and sane and has forced me to see that those two things are not accomplished simply by weighing 100 lbs. It gave me a reason to dig myself out of a deep, dark hole and never jump into it again.
–My parents. They’ve always handled everything with love and compassion and never ignored the tough stuff. They brought me to the healthy and confident place I’m in today. My sisters were too young to really grasp what was happening then, but they’ve been my best support crew ever since.
–Kick-ass coaches. From my XC coach (who also coached my mom in high school) to my track assistant coach (who picked up on what was happening almost immediately thanks to her own experience) to the amazing AJ, I’ve been blessed with a series of smart people to get me to each start line healthy and strong.
–The coolest friends (and training partners) on the planet. I’ve made a lot of internet friends through this blog. And soon after I started posting my life online for all to see, I met some of those virtual people in real life. I haven’t been the same since. This incredible group of girls has taught me so much about being strong and capable and smart when it comes to sportz, and they’ve been there for me through all the ups and downs. And we eat! Man, do we eat. I remember calling my mom last spring and gushing about how amazing it was to finally meet a group of female athletes who have a healthy relationship with food and aren’t counting out 1,200 calories a day and actually want to have another beer and more bread and a third (ahem fifth) cupcake please. Because we need those calories to replenish depleted stores and refuel tired muscles and reward awesome performances. And that’s as healthy as it comes. So ladies, THANK YOU.
–My body. I’ve put it through a lot. Some things have been healthy, others not so much. And it’s still working for me, letting me do tough things like Ironman and PR-ing with no training and generally living the absurd life of an endurance athlete.
And I’ll add my own little PSA, because it’s possible that these struggles are more common among adults — and especially athletes — than we’d like to believe. You can take it or leave it. The greatest gift I was given in all of this was the support and understanding of the amazing people around me. There’s no one right way to approach someone you think is struggling with an eating disorder and needs help, but knowing someone (actually, many people) wanted me to be healthy and were willing to do whatever it took to get me there created an opportunity to really evaluate what was going on. My family and friends were caring and supportive and firm all at the same time but never accusatory or intent on guilting me into anything. The ability to listen is your greatest asset as a friend.
Whew! Heavy post over — and thanks for reading. Tell me, what are you celebrating this Thanksgiving?
*Also, if you want to contact me outside of the comments section, I'm at eal5287[at]gmail[dot]com.