Beyond Racing Weight: A Story of Running, Anorexia, and Redemption

Warning: anyone who is easily triggered by images or discussion of the effects of eating disorders, specifically anorexia, should use caution before continuing to read this post.  

Variety is the spice of life, and for the Salty Running team there is no shortage of variety in our past selves before each of us was taken aside, bitten by the running bug, and now appearing on your screens. A year ago, when I came on board with Salty Running, I vaguely alluded to a period of time where I did not run after college. The time has come for me to explain what happened between the time I quit running and began again a few years later.

The cliff notes:
I have gained 40lbs
I am totally ok with it
I have the best support system in the world (really, I challenge you to find a better one)
I am now strong AF

This is the story of how I suffered from an eating disorder, recovered, and the importance of running then and now. Today, Part 1 of my story.

By now you’ve heard how common eating disorders are among collegiate runners. Even adult runners are often obsessed with racing weight, assuming leaner and lighter always equals faster. But as any runner knows, long term running success requires a balance of extremes, and weight is no different. Lighter and leaner does equal faster, but only to a point. I learned this the hard way.

An unhealthy, gaunt Pesto racing in college.The Tipping Point

Everything came to a screeching halt one morning in January of 2012. I remember getting dressed for practice and, as I was putting on my tights, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. What I saw shocked me. My entire spine and pelvis were protruding through my skin. At that moment, I saw myself objectively. I realized I had a problem and that I could actually die from what I was doing to myself. At 21 years old, I was 5’10″ and weighed a scant 97 pounds.

After getting dressed I went to practice as usual, but that morning I was ready to confront my coach and beg for a break. But alas, that’s not what happened. I was greeted by a workout, 1000m repeats, and I did not have the capacity to say no. I ran the first few without hitting paces, much to the coach’s displeasure. Around one of the many turns of the 200 meter indoor track, I started to cough blood. I asked to stop. My coach said no. At that moment I realized that I was the only one who could stop this.

I stopped in the middle of a k, and walked out the emergency exit into the snow. I trekked across campus to my room, bawling my eyes out and wondering what the fuck I had just done. I was thousands of miles from my home in New Zealand, at university in America on a full athletic scholarship. Running was my life.

Five years later, I can confidently say that was one of the most important moments of my life.

A New Life

For the next couple of days I did not leave my room. After about a week one of my professors, now a dear friend, reached out concerned about my uncharacteristic absences from class that week. We met for coffee and discussed the likelihood of my being able to remain at school minus my full scholarship.

Thankfully one thing was going well. By this time I was thoroughly immersed in research and had aspirations of getting my Ph.D. My mum helped out with finances so that I could stay in school and pursue my academic goals. She knew that I wasn’t going to be any happier back home in New Zealand, and she is a firm believer in finishing things that you start, so leaving school was not really an option. Thank you, Mum!

Not many things were going well for me at this time. With all the upheaval in my life plus my frail physical state, I was suffering major depression. I had no friends, I was on the other side of the world from my family, and I had just realized that the thing that meant so much to me had cost me nearly everything.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It All Started So Innocently

While putting off studying in my senior year in high school, I decided to try my hand at running. Why not? I had done fairly well in a number of sports growing up, from volleyball, judo, netball (it’s big in New Zealand), to equestrian. We occasionally ran for fitness or as punishment, and I’d “train” for about two weeks leading into our school’s annual cross country race, but that was it.

As a late-comer to running relative to most collegiate cross country and track recruits, I felt like a poseur, so I studied the habits of the more experienced runners around me. Whatever I did during that brief three-month stint as a high school runner, it worked and I secured myself a spot on a D1 track and cross country team in the United States.

Looking back, I now see that some of the things I picked up were good, some not so good, and others completely changed my life. In September of my senior year, a couple of months before graduation (December in New Zealand), I competed in my first inter-school race. I went with a girl from a neighboring school. The race was in the afternoon,so we stopped to eat lunch beforehand — very novel for a boarding school kid. Along with her lunch, my more experienced runner friend ordered a huge slice of carrot cake, to which I asked if that was for after the race. She said no, and scarfed down the entire thing and off we headed.

Upon arrival we did the usual pre-race stuff. I say usual, but in reality I had no idea WTF to do, so I just kind of followed her around. I trailed after her to the bathroom and thought, “Ok, that makes total sense.” After all, I didn’t want to stop and pee during the race.

But when we got in there all I heard was the obvious sound of her retching over the toilet. Immediately after leaving the stall, I naively asked, “Oh my goodness, are you alright?!”

She was totally nonchalant in response to my question, “Oh yes. I just needed to get rid of that piece of cake.” This completely offhand reply, as if what she did was totally normal and what everyone does, duh! totally changed my entire life.

That day I placed third, and yes, my friend did beat me. Which begged the question> were others doing this? Some of these girls were very thin, much thinner than me. And then it all made sense to my 17-year-old mind:

If I wanted to be fast, I needed to look like the fast girls and do what they were doing.

Not totally convinced I would be able to make myself throw up, I decided that the next best thing was to eat less. It really wasn’t that hard at all; I was in boarding school where we were offered three meals a day plus two snacks. It started off very innocently. One less thing from one meal a day, one less thing from two meals the next day and so on and so forth.

Within a few short months I dropped somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds. In December at graduation, as our headmistress handed me my diploma, she said “Rochelle, you look more and more like an athlete every day!” This was just the reinforcement I needed. I was on the right track!

Two weeks later I ran in the NZ Secondary Schools Road Race Championships and placed second, and booking myself a full ride to college in the United States the following August.

The Relationship Between Speed and Weight

Like other mammals, we learn the majority of our behavior through a reinforcement schedule, first observed and studied in Pavlov’s famous salivating dog experiment. Essentially, we learn associations between cause and effect. At times this is a conscious process, but it is equally likely that this happens unconsciously.

Like the following:
(a)  Behavior X → Positive outcome Y = more likely to repeat Behavior X
(b)  Behavior X → Negative outcome Y = less likely to repeat Behavior X

Besides studying the runners around me, I read everything I could on how to become a faster runner. I read somewhere, likely online so of course I thought it must be true, that you should stay away from eating heavily three to four hours before working out. I figured that an extra hour would be a good precautionary window to make sure that I wouldn’t get any side cramps at practice, because a side cramp would detract from running fast. With this new found fear I inadvertently created a huge window of time during the day during which I believed I wasn’t allowed to eat, if I wanted to run well at practice.

Within a couple of months of arriving in the U.S., I dropped another 10 pounds, and on top of the weight I had already lost shortly before heading to the US, I was hovering around 120 pounds and running faster and faster every workout. Everything was going fantastically. I had a stellar cross country season my freshman year, I was named to both the All-Conference and All-Region teams.

By the end of fall my freshman year, I had noticed a clear relationship between dropping pounds and running faster. I had no intention of embarking on a battle that would take over and destroy years my life. But this oft-mentioned slippery slope is exactly what makes eating disorders so dangerous.

I don’t think that many people set out with the intention of developing one. It starts out small, and the individual often doesn’t realize the severity of what is happening until she is so tightly grasped by it.

We quickly transitioned to indoor track where I continued to run PRs. But by mid-March things quickly began to fall apart. I experienced random aches and pains, stress reactions in my feet, colds that I couldn’t shake. After being diagnosed with some metatarsal stress fractures, my coach decided that I would redshirt the outdoor season.

It was a miracle that I did well in school during this time, I spent my first two and a half years of college crippled with anxiety about running, running fast, counting calories, an insane fear of gaining weight, convinced that I looked big, suffering from insomnia, worrying about my grades and how much longer this was all sustainable. Yes, basically I was a wreck.

I somehow survived off approximately 500 to 700 calories a day while running 60 to 70 miles a week, occasionally allowing myself to “splurge” and eat whatever, which helped me create the illusion that I was normal. Each time, without fail, this was followed by a relentless period of self-hate, guilt, and nearly every compensatory behavior under the sun. This cycle continued on and on for nearly three years.

Incapable of Accepting Help

To this day, I am not entirely sure how no one managed to intervene during those years. I did not think that I was “that skinny,” so I did not listen to anyone on the subject. Though I have worked hard to block out most memories from this time of my life, I can only imagine that I was wildly unapproachable and unwilling to accept help while anorexia wreaked havoc on my body and mind.

None of my teammates ever said anything to me about my weight or eating habits, thus confirming in my mind that I didn’t have a problem. I continued along my train wreck trajectory in absolute denial about what was going on, while it was absolutely clear to everyone around me that I was unwell.

I was seen by therapists, to whom I had zero interest in talking, by doctors who were confused about why my blood work was out of whack and my kidneys weren’t working as I sat there and told them I was fine and by nutritionists who told me I needed to drink whole milk.

It is painful to reflect on this period of my life and think about the number of people who I completely disregarded. It was not their fault they couldn’t help me. It is impossible to treat or help someone who has no interest in being helped. All I cared about was running and competing; I was running fast when I wasn’t injured, and my coach continued entering me in races, so I did not see a problem.

If not for the brief moment of self-realization that moment in front of the mirror, I hate to think how things might have ended. I am so thankful for that miserable January morning when I walked off the track and finally called it quits.

***

Continue to Part 2.

Have you struggled with an eating disorder? What was your turning point?

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.

Leave a Reply

20 comments

  1. Pesto, thank you so much for sharing this story – it resonates with so many of us. I grew up in ballet school and can relate to many of these struggles. You are one tough cookie.

  2. I relate to so much of this. I was not a runner when I was really in deep with my ED, but I can definitely relate to being unapproachable and so much in denial. I had friends voice concern and every time they did, I would hold on tighter to it while still trying to act like everything was JUST FINE! “Don’t worry about me! Look! I’m eating a thing!” It was so exhausting and lonely because to hold on to my ED I had to let go of all meaningful relationships.
    Thank you for sharing this- I think this will help a lot of people. It was good for me to read this and remember why I choose to focus on my health and happiness. <3

  3. Love you, Pesto! So many extremes in your life, from “you can’t stop running” to “you can’t run so much”…you just keep doing you. And since you’ve had enough people telling you what to do with your running, I am here to tell you to keep doing relaxing, and Taco Tuesdays, and anything else you need to de-stress. :)

  4. This had to be so hard to relate back to. Thank you for sharing. I saw a lot of women in college go through an eating disorder, some who didn’t know how thin they really were. It is so isolating! And sadly, sometimes your friends and teammates are too afraid to say anything. I am shocked by your coach, though. That makes me sad. Our coach would typically bench the athlete if he saw injuries starting up, etc. He was very forward when it came to eating; he wouldn’t tolerate any kind of BS that would put our lives/having children in the future/safety at risk. I am looking forward to reading next week… thank you for sharing.

    1. What a good coach! Running fast in college is not worth your health at the time – nor is it worth risking permanent damage. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a number of today’s top distance athletes came from D2 and D3 programs.

  5. Thank you for sharing this! I, too, always wondered why no one did anything sooner for me (when I finally went into treatment my mom said “huh, I thought it was weird that you kept passing out”), but looking back I realize I was a huge asshole and very much in denial that anything was wrong. My turning point was in college when my crippling fear that I’d never been able to have kids overrode my fear of getting fat. Proud of you for finding a love for running again and for sharing your story!

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you have bounced back too :)

      The denial issue is part of what makes EDs so, so hard to treat and intervene. They are a lonely world where you are totally unapproachable – so really there is very little driving people to really persist with trying to help you

  6. Thank you for sharing this. I too am so glad you are better now and back to enjoying running.

  7. Thank you for sharing. I struggled with one a decade ago and it’s amazing how your piece took me right back to some of those feelings. I’m sorry that no one (especially your coach) helped you. EDs are so lonely and isolating, especially in college. I didn’t run in college but played a different sport and I remember being congratulated for the shape I was in at one point and then told I was too thin at another–and I remember thinking to myself “you see this and didn’t say anything until it was too late??” Glad you recognized that you needed help, even if it wasn’t necessarily what you wanted.

    1. Me too! I am so fortunate that I realized that I (eventually) needed to stop. And yes, very lonely, which only makes approaching/confronting/treating someone with an ED even more difficult.

  8. I am so happy you had that “aha” moment in your life. I have not struggled with an eating disorder myself, but I have had a few friends in the past that have. Thank you for sharing such a powerful story.

  9. Thank you for sharing your story. I didn’t start running until after I had recovered – I use that word so loosely because I feel like the ED devil is always in the back of my head – but running is what keeps me stronger than that devil.

    1. Absolutely, Mina! I’m glad it was beneficial. And don’t beat yourself, it took me five years to extinguish that devil in the back of my mind

  10. Hitting home right now. I don’t want to discuss my circumstances specifically, but Running actually saved my life. Thanks for posting <3

      1. My story was almost identical. I walked away from my full scholarship at a major UC school. The school environment itself was also a major pressure cooker. My coach knew many of us were struggling with eating disorders. As long as we ran well, he didn’t care. If you ran poorly, he’d chastise us. We got the message that light is fast. My breaking point was when running shifted from a deep joy to a mechanical, robotic job and a chore- just one more hurculean demand for my tired body and weary soul. I knew I had to get out of that environment or die. I took a semester off of school, a year off competitive running, put on 20 pounds and found a team that became like family.