The Dark Side of Distance Running

Part of being a distance runner is that constant struggle of wanting to be as fit as possible and also trying to take care of your body. There has always been this image of what a top female distance runner looks like: long legs, flat chested, no hips, and absolutely zero body fat. Being a girl growing up in this sport, it’s hard to avoid obsessing over this image or to see the negative effect it can have on your mentality and your health. It starts out as leaning out, getting rid of that little excess body fat that you think is slowing you down, getting down to the “perfect” form that will help you win races. Initially, it’s losing a few pounds, but then that becomes a few more and then a few more until you can no longer control it and the number on the scale in the morning is the determining factor of how your day is going to go. The smaller the number is, the better you feel mentally and the the worse you feel physically. It’s a vicious cycle that I’ve found myself in for the past 2 years of my life.

It’s an unspoken rule in the running community that we don’t address these problems publicly. So many girls struggle with eating problems, but we don’t like to acknowledge the ability of this sport to foster their development. This leads to so many of us dealing with the problem internally rather than reaching out for the support that we so desperately need. In my case, it took me two years to swallow my fear of judgment and face what I had been denying for so long: I have an eating disorder.

It was after one of our Sunday long runs that I sat down with my coach and came clean. There were several things that happened that week that lead up to my confession, but it was something that had been weighing heavily on my mind for a while. I was pretty quiet for most of the run, which for anyone that knows me, is a pretty good indicator that something isn’t quite right. Lara pulled me aside and asked me what was up and I said we could talk about it after we got back to campus. I was terrified, but I had made up my mind. I couldn’t deal with it on my own anymore and I trusted her more than anyone else in my life at that point. Telling the truth about my struggles was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It’s uncomfortable. I felt like I was being ripped apart internally as I tried to put into words exactly how I was feeling and what I was doing to myself. For anyone that has ever told their deepest, darkest secret to someone, you know how this felt.

Nobody ever tells you how hard it is to get over an eating disorder. It’s a constant battle with myself over what’s worse: eating and potentially gaining a little bit of weight or not eating and doing damage to my body. It’s exhausting having to fight with myself while also trying to maintain a “normal” exterior so that people don’t figure out what is going on. The scars on my hand, the panic I feel when faced with eating a meal, and the obsession with how I look in my uniform are all things that are part of my daily life and all things that I feel the need to hide. I know that these thoughts and behaviors are not normal or even remotely acceptable, but I can’t help it. For parts of the day, I’m okay. I don’t worry too much about food or how I look and I can just be me. Other times, the eating disorder takes over my brain and it’s all I can do to not have a full-on breakdown. The very notion of eating something and keeping it down is enough to send me into panic mode. I know it may seem ridiculous to think that eating a bowl of pasta or even a salad makes me feel like I’m gaining weight considering the fact that I run 50 miles a week on top of core and lifting, but that’s part of the disorder.

It’s been about six weeks since I told Lara about my struggles. Since then, we’ve been working towards my recovery. I wish I could say that each day is better than the last, but like most things in life, it hasn’t been a smooth process and I still have my bad days. It took me a few weeks to really buy into the program and stop resisting what she trying to get me to believe. It’s not like a normal illness where you can take some medication, drink fluids, and rest up and you’ll be fine in a week. It takes time and patience, the latter of which has never been a strong suit of mine. There’s been plenty of yelling, plenty of fights, and plenty of tears. There have even been some moments where all I wanted to do was lash out and punch her because I wanted control back. It’s a dangerous thing, control. To a certain extent, it’s good. You want to have control of your life and the things that you do, but when it comes to an eating disorder, control is your absolute worst enemy. It’s not you controlling your life, it’s the disorder controlling you and you can’t even see it. Letting go is the only way to get better, but letting go is also your biggest fear.

The easy thing to do would have been to put me in a hospital where I would be forced to eat enough and not exercise until I gained some weight back and was able to take care of myself. However, as a collegiate distance runner who was on the brink of attaining the type of success I had been dreaming of my entire career, this was the absolute worst idea I had ever heard. I love running more than anything and the idea of not being able to do it anymore was enough to reduce me into tears. So my coaches and I made a deal: I could still run, but after every practice I was to sit and eat with Lara for about an hour to make sure I was replacing the calories I had burned during my workout. I also fill out a food log every night. If it’s not approved, then I can’t go to practice the next day. It’s done a pretty good job of motivating me to eat, but it’s definitely not an easy task. I still require distractions in order to eat something of any substance and I still think about food way more than I would like to. I still subconsciously count calories and fear gaining weight more than anything. The logical side of me knows that eating more will only help my running, but the eating disorder side of me still wages that war of if you eat more, you’ll get fat and fat is not fast. I still get anxious around food and I still have thoughts of throwing up anytime I put anything in my mouth. I have to avoid eating alone in my apartment because when I do, it’s all too easy to give in to the disorder.

I don’t enjoy being like this, in fact, I absolutely hate it. I’m not usually one to regret things or want to change anything about my past, but if given the chance, I would change this. If I could, I would take back that very first thought of restricting food because it’s not worth it. Sure, I’ve been running better than ever the past year, but it’s come at a cost. I have to hide part of myself from the people I love, I’m tired much of the day, and I know that it’s holding me back from accomplishing the things I want to accomplish in my sport. Being skinnier is never worth your health and I wish I could have understood this earlier in life because maybe then I wouldn’t have ended up here. Talking about my eating disorder is one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever had to do, but staying silent will get me nowhere. I kept it inside for so long that I became an expert at hiding it. Believe me when I say that this is one of the hardest things I will probably ever face in my life and everyday I wake up terrified that I will never get better. I don’t remember what it was like to have a normal relationship with food and that makes it so much harder to see any sort of progress or remain positive about my journey. My coaches have been so understanding about this and I think without them, I would be lost. Lara’s only been my coach for four months, but she’s wedged her way into my life in a way that I never really expected. I don’t trust people easily, but I had no problem trusting her. She’s helped me to start seeing my worth and my value as a person beyond just my sport. I don’t know what would have happened without her support, but it would not have been good. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all of this, it’s the importance of letting people in. I’ve never been one of those people that lets herself rely on others, but I’m starting to realize that it’s okay to need someone and it’s okay to ask for help. I can’t do everything on my own and I definitely can’t do this on my own.

I wish I could say that I’m recovered or even partially recovered, but I know that I have a long way to go before that happens. What I can say is that I’m trying. I have my bad days and I have my good days, but I’m finally buying into the process and believing that I can do it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a problem anymore. For anyone that thinks they might have an eating disorder, I urge you to tell someone. It doesn’t matter who, but don’t keep it inside because it will destroy you. More people struggle with EDs than you think and it helps to know that you’re not alone. I’ve finally started to see this and it’s done more to help my mentality than anything else. I’m nowhere near where I want to be with my fight, but I’m still fighting and that’s enough for me for now. It will take time, but I will get through this and that is a fact.