Beyond Racing Weight: Running to Recovery from Anorexia

Phew! I’m finally back with Part III of my story of overcoming anorexia. Sorry for the delay! My Boston Marathon recovery called for a little time away from running, which also included writing about running. To catch up, you can read Part I and Part II before diving in.

Four and a half years ago I was struggling in the throes of anorexia and running was tangled up in my illness, a means to burn the few calories I consumed. My running performance was an excuse I used to justify needing to lose more weight. For these reasons, it might come as a surprise that, after all that, it was running that helped me recover.

According to the American Psychological Association, recovery from mental illnesses like anorexia and other eating disorders refers to the personal experience of the individual as he or she moves out of illness into health and wholeness. Individuals with strong social support groups tend to do better in terms of recovery than those without, so do those who are physically active and frequently out of their homes. Running certainly checks all those boxes. Efficiency, another thing I love!

Almost four years after I quit running, walking off my college’s indoor track suffering mightily in the grip of anorexia, was the point that I really turned the corner in my recovery. In December of 2015, only a couple of weeks after we got married, I told my husband, Mr. Pesto, that I’d like to try to run a marathon in under four hours. Knowing all too well about my long, arduous struggle and subsequent recovery, he was cautiously supportive. “We are doing it properly this time,” he said. “If you get too skinny that’s it.” Perhaps not the most delicate of phrasing, but I felt duly warned.

Approaching running with a new perspective

Once I knew I had the support of my husband, I immediately joined the local running club, met a bunch of comrades with whom to run and was off to the the races — quite literally. I think I ran a race every other weekend for a period of time.

My return to running was certainly a fresh start from my previous college days. I made new friends, many of whom probably don’t even know about my collegiate running past or my struggles with anorexia. Those who have either read these posts or that I’ve shared my story with are often initially shocked and sad, but then genuinely happy that I have rediscovered running and food and have developed a healthy relationship between the two. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind sharing this, but it’s barely ice breaker conversation material.

After a couple of months of base building I started running workouts, then started signing up for goal races again. I was hooked. But this time it was so much different. For the first time I ran because I just loved it. I wasn’t nervous or fixated on my paces anymore because I knew I was simply doing the best I could.

Besides new running friends, I had strong networks outside of the running community. A life outside of running, you say? Madness! My old support system consisted of people who knew me during my dark days, so they were naturally a little hesitant about my return to running. I absolutely know that every single one of them was keeping an eye on me during the early phases, and I totally appreciated it. Had I given them any data previously to suggest that I could run and eat my cake too? No, absolutely not. I think having people who knew about my struggles with anorexia and running was essential to my recovery because I could trust that they would catch me if I started slipping back down the old slope.

Since I started running again I’ve found some of my old speed and I’m enjoying training and racing with some of the best. I’ve run two sub-3:00 marathons, and have participated in the elite field of several races. I appreciate this success, but what I appreciate most is that I’m running, competing, and enjoying it. While weighing in at forty pounds more now than I did back in January of 2012, I’m performing better than ever.

Sure, every so often I have a fleeting OMG-I’m-so-fat thought. But the difference now is how I deal with them. As quickly as these negative thoughts can enter, I’m able to challenge them and filter them into the “shit-that-needs-to-be-disregarded” file just as fast. I feel that I have achieved so much with my recovery, and I’m sure as hell not willing to return down that road. As hard as habits are to break, habits take time to establish too.

Every. Single. Morning. I make my coffee and eat toast with a banana and peanut butter within ten minutes of rising. Hungry or not, easy run or workout, long run or no run, the habit is there. It starts each day in the right direction and consistently maintains that healthy relationship between me, running, and food. It’s like a ritual to remind me of how far I’ve come.

Running, to me, isn’t about burning calories or getting my body bikini ready, it’s about seeing what my body can do, how well it can perform, how fast it can go. To do that it needs fuel, and LOTS of it.

I’ve been fortunate enough in the past year to spend time with a number of super high-performing women runners, be it at races, for coffee, or spending time training with them. These women have had nothing but a positive influence on me and have reinforced what took me years to learn myself. Seeing runners I look up to eating and being normal humans was a huge eye-opener.

I don’t even know what I thought elite runners did, but I’m sure it was along the lines of what I used to think I needed to do: live this super “healthy” lifestyle with a restrictive diet, banging out high mileage, killer workouts and races week after week. Because, after all, they have super powers, right?! Wrong. Of course they eat healthily, but they are not restrictive about calories, treats or particular types of foods.

***

To circle back to where I started, here’s a summary of the things that, looking back, have been essential to my healthy return to running after recovery from anorexia:

  • Surrounding myself with a strong and varied social support network; not all my friends are runners.
  • A safety net of people who know my history and are objectively looking for signs that I’m struggling.
  • The ability to recognize destructive thoughts very quickly and appropriately deal with them.
  • Identifying a motivation for running that was not about how my body looked or about how others viewed me.

A year and a half after I decided to train again, my husband is still my biggest supporter. That local running club I joined remains a big part of both of our social scenes: Mr. Pesto is now on the board, I am coaching a Couch-to-5k program this summer, and we do dinner or happy hours with friends from there often. I’m still close with all those non-running friends and I’ve made tons of running friends too. While running was what lead me to anorexia all those years ago, I feel confident in saying that running is helping me recover and to find my most healthy and best self. And for that I’m grateful!

Part I | Part II

Have you ever struggled with an eating disorder? How do you maintain a healthy relationship between yourself, running, and food? 

I am currently working on my Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience while sipping on wine & coffee in Northern Virginia. Together with my husband and Rhodesian Ridgeback, Gracie we battle to keep the Tupperware cupboard organized for more than two days at time. I recently ran my first marathon (2:51) and am excited for what is to come. I like to ramble about running post injury, finding a work-life balance and running quickly.

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5 comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this series. As a former D1 collegiate runner who struggled with disordered eating, I can relate to almost everything you’ve described. I couldn’t agree more with the things you’ve outlined as crucial to recovery. I didn’t fully shake my eating disorder until grad school, when I had a community of friends with no connection to running. And it’s so important to reach the point where you can identify disordered thoughts and quickly discard them. I love the expression, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Our brains can play tricks on us, but it’s so liberating to just say “NOPE” when those thoughts arise.

  2. Thanks so much for continuing to share your story! I think when most women get honest with themselves (athletes and non-athletes alike), we’ve all dealt with some degree of disordered eating at some point in our lives, or even just an unhealthy mentality when it comes to food, or certain groups of food. I know I have. I hope that more people will be willing to share their stories, as you have, and that the conversation around this topic of body image, food, and wellness continues to become a more open conversation. Keep up the awesome work! I can’t wait to see what you will do in the future.

  3. I like how you listed what is essential to your healthy return to running. Having it on paper like that, you can always refer to it if you need help. And what an amazing picture of you and Mr. Pesto running with your dog!