The journey of a walk-on distance runner and disordered eating
This story could change your life or a life around you, it could also save a life. Please find the time to read and share.
My mother raised me to be a strong and confident young lady. In my final year of high school, my mental and physical health couldn’t have been better. I had just one goal- to be a Division 1 distance runner in my hometown.
I grew up just 2 miles from one of the largest Division 1 Universities in the country. With three months left before graduating, my mind was still set on running there, despite already receiving a declined application. Truth is, it was the only school I had applied to.
I called the coach to explain my plans to make the team and asked him point blank what times I could run to be a walk on athlete. He sent me a list of times for each event- all were significantly faster than my personal records.
All senior season I missed the times. In the final 2 mile track race of my senior season, with teammates cheering I won the race with a 30 second personal record and met the coach’s qualifying time by just one second.
I was accepted into the University. As the ‘hometown walk-on’ my determination had made an impression; the coach could see my desire to be there. However, this soon faded as I found every practice felt like a race and I was crushed by my teammates on a regular basis.
After my freshman cross country season my personal record had dropped a minute, but I was usually the slowest or second slowest runner on our team. My previous mindset to ‘avoid overtraining’ was forgotten just to keep up with the other girls in practice. I was told I needed to see the nutritionist.
My freshman track season was ended after the home meet, where I ran another personal record. Just six months after my first practice with the team I was battling a hamstring injury but still motivated to keep working. To my disappointment, I was told to manage my own training until the following cross country season. Finally, the coach mentioned that I couldn’t stay on the team if I don’t improve, and I needed to see the nutritionist again.
The nutritionist’s claim to fame was their machine to measure body fat percentage. It looked like a big egg and you had to sit inside, with a swim cap and just underwear while it took a reading. After my first visit, I was shocked to find out mine was 18% bodyfat, considering the other girls would vouch about 9-14%.
The nutritionist continued to explain the importance of portion size and the food pyramid. She suggested I get a food scale and made a list of ‘food choices’ for each category. Carrots, skim milk, lean meat- she even said I could splurge on some chocolate milk. She listed just 1400-1600 calories on my paperwork as suggested intake level, even with 60 miles of running each week.
What happened during the following 12 months wasn’t as obvious to me then as it is now. It kind of crept up on me and took over.
I started with the coach’s normal training schedule of about 60 miles each week of the summer. Combined with my new ‘clean’ diet, I remember losing 10 pounds my first month. I started to realize I could run faster and farther every day if I weighed less.
I started training mostly alone, without my watch, on 18 miles of trails just outside of town. This soon evolved into my daily training place, all dirt, I would zone out to the sound of my feet and breathing and just run- at least an hour sometimes closer to two. My hamstring injury lingered but was manageable on the soft ground.
Training became more about pushing myself and getting lighter. Every time I did a loop, it was faster. By the end of summer, I was running 80 miles a week in single runs. I lifted weights twice a week and added swimming and biking. The trouble was, I was never ever hungry.
My 5’8 frame dropped another 30 pounds in about two months. By the end of that time I had started intentionally training during the hottest part of the 100 degree days. I’d theorized the heat would force my body to work harder so during cool weather I would have an extra edge.
At our first practice of the cross country season, I was running and passing, the top girls on our intervals. The coaches seemed thrilled and explained after that day, they knew I would be on the travel team. It all felt like a dream and the positive feedback made me feel like I was doing the right things.
The reinforcement was incredible. The coaches spoke to me like I mattered. In several instances I was the example to the team. In front of the freshman/sophomore boys team the coach kneeled down when I was stretching and asked me how many miles I had run that week. “That’s what your training should look like” he told them.
After a few weeks I was cross training with hamstring pain. CT scans showed the tendon in my leg was separating from the bone. I sat out every regular season race, injured. After three months of cross training I could finally run again. I sat beside our head coach before the last regular season race and bluntly told him he should send me to the post season races. I vowed I could crush the girl I knew he was sending and it made another impression.
He didn’t send me to that meet but to the Conference meet, where I was the team’s fourth finisher. I’d proven my place on the travel team. I was able to train during the post season, raced at regionals and was going to the National Championship Meet. This was my ultimate goal- dream- but my hamstring injury had flared up worse than ever. Before the national meet I agreed to visit the doctor to get an ‘anti-inflammatory shot’ of Toradol into the joint/tendon.
Our coach knew how to motivate. With the girls team gathered to run our final interval workout before the National Championship race, he explained I had ‘ice-water’ flowing through my veins and that I was ‘like a wolf in the woods’ – ready to run. I was stunned and focused.
Before nationals we ran the course and coach mentioned “I would be so light on my feet I wouldn’t sink into the mud.” The team went to our prerace dinner at olive garden. My bland rice and chicken diet was broken to eat some pasta, bread and cake. I remember finding out deserts had an effect of supercharging my energy stores after being on a restricted diet. The night before nationals my legs felt so energized I laid in bed just imagining the race ahead; I knew I would run well. The energy was surging in my legs.
I ran the best race in my life. The National Championship was a physical race- elbows the whole way. The feeling was beyond pain, I could feel every bit of energy flowing in my body, and could burn it with my strides. I only lost control when I collapsed across the finish line where I have finalized my deal earlier that morning- I knew I’d given everything. I set my personal record, even had my name in the record book for the school and our team finished the highest in school history, top 10 in the nation.
I returned to training after nationals and knew I needed better nutrition but I still had disordered thinking. Food was fuel I could take in and exhaust out through my running. I made it through training for indoor track season and ran one indoor two mile race. 9:54 after a 70 mile training week. The coaches had me running with the boys team at practices. I was a work horse, even an Olympic athlete from Jamaica would meet me in the woods for distance runs.
Then it was all over. I tore my glute mead muscle and was out for 6 months- swimming with a floatie between my legs. Depression struck and my body took back the connection with my brain. My metabolism had slowed, resting heart rate 46 bpm. Hunger returned and I knew I was in trouble because there was never a feeling of satiety. I was always hungry, restless and unhappy.
I started regaining weight and realizing the starved state of my body. It had been 2 years of amenorrhea and doctors explained the connection between the brain’s hypothalamus, serotonin and hormones. I could be sterile if I didn’t regain my nutrition and hormones. Depression turned into suicidal thinking and my deal with the devil became clear. I felt trapped in my own body.
Unable to run, even my restricted diet would cause weight gain. I put on 20 pounds in a month and met in the coach’s office, where my heart was broken. He explained “I cheated, my running was over for a while and I needed to heal my injuries.” Confused, I wanted to disappear and accepted his suggestion to take some time off to heal.
Hopeless, I would still go to the woods to walk. I would usually spend hours walking there, where I could be away from people and feel some peace. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see reality. 45 pounds, more than I had lost, returned and most of the weight was stored irregularly, around my midsection and thighs since my hormones didn’t return for almost four years.
It was a gradual mental recovery. I did run away to North Carolina. I was reckless, angry and impulsive. I tried jumping off a 68 foot bridge into a river as a test. I compression fractured a vertebrae in my back and didn’t even care. Life felt apocalyptic; my boyfriend had left me for another girl and my parents were divorcing during the economic crash of 2008.
I dropped out of college for six months to escape the athlete crowd. I moved to a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountain area of North Carolina, where I worked as a waitress at Applebee’s to pay my rent (in an attic of a student rental). I made friends who were ‘normies’ for the first time since grade school; the purpose was to heal.
It was the perfect place to recover. I read Hemmingway’s account of the ‘healing mountain air’ and could finally cope with the damage I had done to myself. After birth control and Prozac normal thinking and good feelings slowly started to return. Amazingly, I started running in the mountains and did regain healthy training and eating regimen. I even trained with some of the area’s college runners.
I went back home to finish my degree and returned to run on the cross country team. Even after my mind was recovered from disorder and the hells of disorder, my body was still paying the price. After just one season with the team, I felt sharp pains radiate down my inner leg after an interval practice. The next day I was putting my pants on and fell over in pain.
More xrays followed and in the doctor’s office I wasn’t ready to give up. The doctors told me not to wonder how long before I can run again, but IF I will ever be able to run again. I had double fractured a bone called the ‘pubis ramus’ bone during the workout and my ability to run long distances was likely sacrificed.
Most competitive distance runners face more than one line. There’s the finish line we visualize every day and dream about. But there’s also a line that we shouldn’t cross- the line that exists between healthy and disordered thinking. The important balance between strength and speed is accomplished through slow and steady progress. If I could go back, I would never have cheated myself out of the strength and food my body needed to keep running.
The mental strength to be healthy should always be reinforced by coaches and teammates- but at the end of the day it is up to the athlete to not cheat themselves out of a future of running.
Now, eight years later, I realize those days developed my character and sense of self-worth. After graduating, I went to my first job working in an industrial factory in the Midwest. The lessons I gained from those turbulent days of college running helped me face bad corporate bosses and learn to live life for me.
Many times I’ve stood up against pressures of business and taken leaps of faith because I know I’m stronger and tougher than ever. I started my own local farm business. I’ve ‘run’ with carpenters, masons and am a self-taught welder. I’ve built barns and cultivated my own fields because I believe in myself. I can proudly say I’m happy and alive and hope my story will inspire others to achieve their goals through mental strength and self-confidence.
thank you dear friend for sharing this story. xoxo