Beyond Racing Weight: Separating Anorexia from Running

Last I left you, it was January of 2012, and I had just walked off my college track team. By “walked off“, I mean I literally quit running intervals on the indoor track during practice, and I walked out an emergency exit without looking back. I finally accepted the painful truth that I was suffering from anorexia and, at the time, running was a huge contributor to my sickness.

Thank God for that fleeting moment of insight when I realized that I could not carry on the way I was. As time went by I started to reconnect with friends and family from back home in New Zealand, loved ones with whom I’d fallen out of contact because in their attempts to reach out to me in the throes of my illness, I thought they were all crazy. Voluntarily, I found a therapist who specialized in eating disorders, got rid of my running shoes and vowed to get healthy — and to never run again.

There are pros and cons to being a driven, over-achieving, type-A person. When I set out to do things, there is no half-assing it. Describing how I managed to turn the switch, break the cycle, and initiate my recovery is difficult. Once I realized how bad things were — and that I could die if I kept running without separating running from the eating disorder — the previously overwhelming and obsessive thoughts about running fast, calorie deficits, and feeling big largely dissipated.

From One Extreme to the Other

The pendulum began to swing in the other direction. Recovery and gaining weight became my new thing, along with completing my studies. I threw myself into my honors thesis, working on research projects, and working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I didn’t slow down, instead turned my energy toward other ventures. Remember, Ms. Type-A over here.

Fairly quickly, I went from the extreme of anorexia to another extreme. I wasn’t finding therapy particularly helpful, so I impulsively quit and threw myself into my studies instead. I should have stuck with it and maybe I could have avoided the next part of the story, but I digress. On I went with this newfound “making up for lost time and missed meals” attitude. Time had gotten away from me, and before I knew it, I had not exercised in years.

While I was not thrilled about consistently needing to upsize my wardrobe, the thought of moving faster than a walk was not something I had any interest in doing. In my attempts to give my body the nutrition I thought that it needed, I ended up severely overcompensating. I ate all of the food, ate dessert twice a day, drank a lot of crappy wine and beer, and really just didn’t give a shit about anything.

Not surprisingly, between January of 2012 and summer of 2015 I gained 80 pounds. It’s obvious in retrospect that I was still struggling with body dysmorphia, but at the time I did not even notice it. Note: I do not recommend this one bitGoing from one extreme to the other is not healthy.

Finding Balance

So many things in life were miraculously going well during this time. I was working on my PhD, made so many great and supportive friends, and, most importantly, I met the person who became Mr. Pesto. Despite all of these great things, I was so incredibly unhappy in my own skin, and my body constantly ached from the arthritic pain of my lupus.

Thankfully, I had another of those important aha-moments, realizing that this making-up-for-lost-time approach really wasn’t all that healthy either. I realized I could not and should not continue along this exponential weight gain trajectory. I needed what most people (lucky sons of guns) seem to know they need all along — BALANCE. For how profound this discovery was to me, it makes me feel like a total idiot, but whatever. At least I eventually figured it out.

Learning to Love Running Again

When I began thinking about how to get more balance in my life, that’s when I got the itch. I wanted to run again, but I wanted to figure out how to do it healthfully. I didn’t want or need to run fast or competitively. I missed the fresh air, trails, and the feeling of being out in early mornings while the vast majority of people were still asleep. After everything I had gone through, I promised myself that there was no going back, there was no way I would put my body through that again. I had no choice. If I wanted to return to running, I had to do this properly.

I started jogging occasionally, maybe twice a week, and running was nothing like how I remembered it. Initially I would get upset about how slow I was running, how I couldn’t run for more than ten minutes before I was laboring for breath, and the general shittiness of how it all felt.

But then it came to me: it doesn’t matter how fast, how slow, or how far I run. I was out there moving, living, and that’s all that mattered. After a couple more months these twice weekly runs had morphed into four or five runs per week, and I started to wonder about training for a marathon. I wasn’t thinking about racing it, rather running it to finish. I brought up the idea to Mr. Pesto. He was nothing but supportive, but echoed my thoughts about the importance of balancing the nutritional piece this time around.

Achieving Recovery

Before January 2012, my anorexia and running were so intertwined. I viewed food as the enemy of my running and running as the antidote to eating. So it might come as a surprise to know that, while I was no longer severely underweight or exhibiting the destructive thought and behavior patterns that I did leading up to January 2012, I did not consider myself truly recovered from my eating disorder until I started running again almost four years later, in late 2015.

When I began training in earnest for that marathon, my relationship with food finally turned into a good one. After experiencing life at two extremes, and it not being good at either, I knew that the middle ground was where I belonged. I started to prepare the majority of our meals at home, and started looking at food as both delicious and necessary fuel.

The human brain is a funny thing. Given the seriousness of my illness years prior, I am still amazed and insanely thankful for how relatively easily it was for me to be able to transition back into running with only the briefest of negative thoughts. I almost wish that I had something deeper and more profound to say on recovery other then it took time and that I might have been really, really lucky.

Sure, maybe it would have been quicker if I stayed in therapy all those years ago, and I still would never recommend someone quit as I did. Ultimately for me, it took a couple of years of distance away from the running scene, maturity, an amazing support system, and an incredible amount of resiliency to heal. I am so fortunate to have overcome these demons and forever thankful to be surrounded by so many like-minded, happy, healthy and strong friends. And yes, I eventually finished that marathon.

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Part 1 | Part 3

Have you recovered from an eating disorder? What helped you recover?

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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6 comments

  1. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you’re sharing this and how important it is for others. I can relate to a lot of it. I struggled with an eating disorder in early high school, but when I joined the track team and started running and wanting to compete I found almost instant relief. I’m sure every person who suffers heals differently, many needing therapy while many others managing without.

    I have one question though: I’m curious how your lupus diagnosis fits into the time line.

  2. I love this series and can’t wait to read the next installment! I, too, quit therapy pretty quickly. Then I got married about a year later and “made up for lost time” just like you! I’ve read that it’s actually somewhat common for former anorexics to become overweight for a bit after recovering. The word “balance” is overused I think but it’s applicable here…everyone has to eventually find their middle ground when it comes to eating and exercise.

  3. Thank you, Pesto. Your story is so unique and yet so relatable (how’s that for balance, eh?). I admire the strength and courage to not only share but make the necessary changes to achieve balance.

  4. Thanks for sharing your story with us. This is a challenge I’ve never faced, so it can be hard for me to understand the motivators. Reading your post correlating fast times to big weight losses helped me grasp it a little (a little. I could never, ever say no to food if I was hungry, even if it would make me Olympic champion, so I can’t totally empathize!). It also highlighted the extreme pressure collegiate runners face, especially as you grew visibly sicker and started experiencing injury. The fact that the coach and team didn’t intervene – rather, perpetuated the pressure – was surprising and dismaying.