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