Recently a well known female runner spoke up about her struggle with weight, being weak, the success she achieved,the injuries she then gained and how she gained strength. I can only thank her for being brave enough to attempt to shift the behaviour and mentality of weight and distance running.
Another brave runner called ‘L’ wrote to me to share her story, she writes about her personal experience living with an ED that started in high school, how she recovered and where she found support and strength. Thank you for being brave and inspiring those around you!
I slid off my Nike dri-fit shirt and stepped on the scale. Down to 102 pounds. Still two pounds away from my goal. It must have been that cookie you had yesterday. Damnit, you’ll never be fast with this weight. It’s no wonder why your run sucked today with all that sugar and fat floating around in your system.
I was a sophomore in high school and had just finished a breakthrough cross country season. Track season was fast approaching, and interactions such as the one above were almost a daily occurrence. I never remember a time in my high school career when I was completely happy with my physical appearance. My freshman year, I merely tolerated my body but never restricted calories or ran extra. My sophomore year, I remember going to the doctor’s office, where my pediatrician made the comment, “you’re the perfect weight.” I recall the feeling of my stomach dropping and my heart pounding. I’ve never been called the “perfect weight” before. I’ve always been slightly underweight, as is consistent with my body type. My doctor’s comments, meant to be earnest and encouraging, achieved the completely opposite effect. I was devastated to be called “normal.”
As winter rolled around and cross country ended, I decided it was time for me to take action and fix the “perfect weight” issue, thinking that dropping a few pounds would make me a better athlete. I thought that by shedding weight and running incessantly, I would somehow achieve the perfect distance runner body: lithe, slim, muscular, gazelle-like. Little did I know that this was impossible and would contribute to one of the biggest trials I have ever faced as a runner.
In late November, I began to count calories on my phone. I started with 2000 a day, then dropped it down to 1700, then 1500. My search history on safari consisted of “low calorie meals,” and “how to run to lose weight” Breakfast was 200 calories or less. For the first time, the lunches my mother packed me would come home incomplete. I would make up flimsy excuses such as, “I was feeling sick,” or “I had a meeting with a teacher” to keep her off my dieting trail. I ran hard every day after school, using my Garmin to guide my legs over the hard packed concrete, telling myself I was too slow. I used running as a punishment for overeating rather than as a training tool.
My father and coach saw no problem with this new lifestyle. In fact, I can recall several occasions where my father encouraged my austere eating habits, even championed them in front of my sister. Suddenly I became the poster child for health in my household. My restrictive diets were seen as “healthy.”
In December, I eliminated fat and dairy almost completely from my diet. I lost weight rapidly, going from 110 pounds from my doctor’s visit in October all the way to 100 pounds by January, and developed a lactose intolerance that still exists to this day. But that wasn’t enough for me. I’ve lost 10 pounds already, what’s another five? Everything that passed between my lips was counted on my phone. I visited a nutritionist, who saw nothing wrong with my diet despite my abnormally low caloric intake and high activity level. In fact, she told me to eat less. “1500-1600 calories should be your maximum during peak running season” were her exact words.
And the funny thing is, my running took off. My body, suddenly free of those “sinful” pounds, made me feel accomplished. I began to overtake our number one runner, passing her at the end of workouts. My coach noticed my improvement, and told me to keep up the good work. It wasn’t his fault at all. He was just seeing a mediocre athlete begin to make something of herself. What I didn’t realize is that I was on the brink of injury, overworked, underfed, and chasing what I believed was the “perfect runner’s body.” Little did I know this does not exist.
I wasn’t happy. Nothing was ever enough for me. My dieting was so restrictive that I didn’t allow myself to indulge in cake on my own birthday. I had to have chefs prepare special food for me at restaurants, and everything I ate was blandly steamed with pepper (no salt; salt was off limits). If I was full, I was unhappy. I began to like the feeling of being hungry.
However “successful” I was feeling, running became less enjoyable, and I began to push away my friends and my family members. I retreated into a shell of vegetables, water, and exhaustion. My fingers and toes turned a pale blue from my body’s lack of energy and ability to keep itself warm, while my hair began to lose its typical shine. The weight fell off of me faster than snow melting as I made it down to 95 pounds.
In February, my sister began to notice my habits. She told my mom, who made an appointment at the doctor just to check up on me, but somehow a part of me knew that my Thursday afternoon run before the doctor visit would likely be my last. I thought I was being healthy, but as it turns out, I was killing myself.
I went into the hospital on Friday, February 7th after being diagnosed with “severe bradycardia,” (in non-medical terms, that means my heart rate was so low that I could go into cardiac arrest in my sleep and never wake up.) A monitor was strapped to my chest, an IV was stabbed into my arm, and I was to stay in bed for a week with only minimal 10 minute “excursions” around the hospital. And forget about running. “You’ll be lucky to run cross country in the fall” one of the nurses told me. It didn’t help that I had a doctor who doubted me the whole time. He failed to recognize me as a person, and made generalizations about my condition that lacked acknowledgement of my sheer desire to become a better athlete through misinformation about the effects of weight loss on running. While I was in the hospital, I passed my days thinking about running and the plausibility of not participating in my sophomore track season, while my parents tried to distract me from the inevitable. After nine days of frustration and anger, I was finally released, and forbidden to run for at least another week. I was on a strict meal plan that left me exhausted both mentally and physically. Without running, I felt alone and powerless. Suddenly nothing was in my control, and for the first time I had nothing to do after school. No team to run with, no jokes to tell, no workouts to write in my training journal.
My mentality shifted completely as I reached out to the online community and educated myself more on the issue of disordered eating, especially among athletes and distance runners. I found that I was not alone, and found strength in being able to overcome what had owned me for so long.
Fortunately, I was barely cleared by my doctor to run track that season. Although I did not have the season I wanted to, I was grateful to have the opportunity to rebuild myself through running and enjoy going to practice again. I set a few PR’s that year, and have continued running to this day. Now, I have successfully completed another season of cross country and track, and focus on making myself stronger rather than trying to change my whole body type to fit some distorted notion of how all distance runners are supposed to look. Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
I still struggle with the identity that comes with being hospitalized and diagnosed with an eating disorder. It haunts me on medical disclosures even a year and a half later, and I know I cannot change that. But I can learn from it and do my best to help others. My experience is a part of me, but it does not own me.
If you have any questions about L’s experience, struggle with eating disorders, or know someone who is, please feel free to email the site and emails can be forwarded to the author.