Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What I Wish People Knew About Runners With Eating Disorders

I tried to write this post over two years ago. I regurgitated my personal eating disorder story onto the page (ironic, I know) and let it sit on Blogger as a "draft." I have reread it from time to time and I don't think I will ever post it. It's cringeworthy and I decided that no matter how many times I edit it and no matter how many ways I try to explain myself, you can't get people to fully understand what it's like to have a mental health issue. Even when I meet other people with eating disorders, I can never fully understand their story because "unhealth" plays out differently for everyone.

So why am I writing now? Recently iRunFar published an article written by the Trail Sisters called Weight and the Accompanying Head Games. I think the authors were well meaning but as I read it, a pit began to grow in my stomach. I made sure to eat a snack but the pit was still there. I read the comments section and felt physically ill. How do so many runners misunderstand eating disorders and why are the majority of people so tactless while discussing it? I knew it was time to write.

The Trail Sisters article was not the first I read that hit a nerve. I remember reading an Anna Frost profile back in 2012 published by Trail Runner Magazine written by Rickey Gates. You can read it here. The way Anna talked about her weight loss patterns before races really bothered me. She knew it was unhealthy but it was reported so nonchalantly. At the time, I was just beginning to discover what it felt like to be healthy and the way it was reported made me feel like her unhealthy eating habits were acceptable, maybe even expected, if you wanted to compete at a high level. Since then, I have read other articles and books that touched on how weight affects runners and as a person who has struggled with eating disorders I always feel so misunderstood.

I don't like to tell my story because people in my life seem to blame themselves for not noticing sooner, but so that you can know where I'm coming from, here's one paragraph of my history. I ran cross country 7th-9th grade and quit after my Freshman year because I would get panic attacks before and during races. I became anorexic during my Sophomore year and I found that it gave me a feeling of control that I couldn't find anywhere else. I stopped getting my period and the doctor should have diagnosed me but instead just told me to gain weight. Due to my low weight, my body did not produce the hormones to develop a healthy bone density and I will probably always have pre-osteoporosis (osteopenea). Sometime during my Junior or Senior year I started a new habit. I would starve myself during the day because I felt self-conscious eating around others but when I was home alone I would find things to binge eat. This pattern of starve and binge continued through my Freshman year of college and after spending the summers in Colorado working at a youth camp, I started to develop healthy eating habits. After spending a lot of time backpacking and trail running, I finally view food as energy that allows me to go on great adventures.

Now I will get to the point. Here are the things I wish people knew about runners who have had eating disorders.

You can't just look at a group of runners and know who has an eating disorder. I have heard a lot of people say something like, "I was at the starting line and there was this skinny bitch next to me and I just knew she was anorexic." First of all, being anorexic is NOT an advantage. If she was really starving herself than she would not have the energy to compete at her highest level. There are skinny girls who don't have an eating disorder and there are girls who appear to be a normal weight but if you observe their relationship with food, you will see they have a disorder. When I hear someone say, "Oh she's a good runner but did you know she has an eating disorder?" I always want to respond by saying, "You sound jealous. You don't seem very happy with yourself or your abilities. Why don't we focus on solving that."

Please be sensitive about the way you talk about food and weight. The hard thing is, you might not know that your running buddy has a past with eating disorders. I have a friend who does not have an eating disorder who has made comments about how if people ask you if you are eating enough, then you are at your ideal race weight. On another occasion, when I mentioned how I couldn't wear waist packs because they don't stay on my hips, a friend mentioned how they worked fine for his girlfriend because she was so skinny. I wanted to correct him and say that it was because she doesn't have hips or a waist, but I took a deep breath and let it go. We know you are well meaning but it's hard to forget your words.

When you talk to us about "Race Weight" it's like describing your delicious craft beer to an alcoholic. Yes, I read Matt Fitzgerald's book and it was informative. Yes, I know the statistics about how losing x pounds makes you x seconds faster per mile. I can never be the person who follows a rigid nutrition and exercise plan. The problem is that it is addictive and gives me so much control that I will obsessively adhere to it until the point where well, to be honest, I kill myself. There was once a time where every day I would weigh myself, take my blood pressure, do a body fat analysis, record my exercise and hours of sleep, and then at the end of every week I would average it and at the end of every month I would average the weekly averages... you see where this is going, right? No matter what works for you, the alcoholic is not going to sit at the bar with you and enjoy just one beer. I know you love your coach, or your training plan, or this new book that is helping you lose fat and build muscle, but excuse me while I listen to my heart and go chase butterflies through mountain meadows. It's taking all of my self will, not to fall back into my addictive patterns.

We are never really "cured." I read this really awesome article by Ashley Arnold in Trail Runner Magazine and you can read it here. Towards the very end of the article she quotes Diane Israel who is referencing an idea from Carl Jung that instead of pursuing a cure we are just on a journey. I like that idea because as much as I'd like to think that I am healed and would never relapse, I have to just be thankful for the place I'm at right now and trust that if I went back to my old ways, then I would have friends and family who would get me the help I need. If we pursue being healthy then there are steps forward and sometimes there are steps back, but we are still going somewhere. We don't need people to hyper-vigilantly watch what we eat, but please ask us if there are ways you can help or habits you can watch out for.

It's not about the number on the scale or the image in the mirror, it's about our self-worth and the control we gain through our relationship with food. There are a lot of different types of eating disorders and I won't pretend that everyone has the same motivations. I think people who are attracted to ultra-running are intense, highly self-motivated, and prone to obsessiveness and as a result, ultra-runners who have had eating disorders have similar themes in their stories. When someone says, "I think you look good the way you are. People look better with a little meat on their bones, " I appreciate that, really I do. But honestly I don't care what you think is attractive. I'm not looking for praise or a self-esteem boost. When I was at my worst, I wrote repeatedly in my journal about how if my life continued the way it was going, I would rather be dead. I felt like I had no control over anything and I was full of self-loathing. My eating disorder felt like a temporary solution to all of that. It was like a razor blade to a cutter: I finally had control over something and I could slowly kill myself with it. If your significant other has an eating disorder or you have a friend with an eating disorder, you can tell them you think they are pretty the way they are or prettier with more meat on their bones and they won't care. At the end of the day they have to deal with their own self-hate.

Don't tell us that we can't run. I've read opinions from a variety of nutritionists and sports doctors and there seems to be a prevailing thought that if you've had an eating disorder then running will become destructive to you. While I recognize that they may have had clients who could not go about training in a healthy way, that is not true for everyone. I like to believe that if I can approach training for ultra-marathons in a healthy way, then I will learn principles that allow me to approach eating in a healthy way. Through running and backpacking, the way I thought about food was revolutionized. I don't even feel like the same person anymore. Training allows me to feel an aspect of control but teaches me that if I have to miss a day due to weather or illness, I'm not suddenly a worthless person. Achieving the goals that I set while training keeps me from feeling the self-loathing on a regular basis. When I don't achieve a goal, instead of turning against myself, I'm challenged to re-examine how I define my self worth. Please don't take running away from me.

In conclusion, a lot of people are self-conscious about their weight. I think the reason why the Trail Sisters article bothers me so much is that I hear Gina and Pam saying, "Even though I hate feeling like a giant, I'll love my body in spite of that because I can power up mountains." And I hear Liza saying, "Even though I'm petite and tiny, I still don't always like the way I look." At the end of the article all I've heard is "I hate my body the way it is." That makes me so sad! Whether or not these ladies have struggled with eating disorders, I don't think that your self-worth should be based on a comparison to other women. The ideologies of "I'm bigger therefore I'm more powerful" or "I'm tinier therefore I can fly" are both slippery slopes to self-destruction. I prefer the same ideas without the comparisons. I'm powerful. I can fly.

P.S. If you want to read a blog post that will make you smile, read Emelie Forsberg's ideas here.

I'm powerful. I can fly.
(photo by Phil Snyder)

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Hixon 50k Race Report

About a month ago, my dad sent me this text, "Jake Hegge, married to Becka Miller is the RD for the first Hixon 25/50k. He just won the Superior 100 with a course record of 19:30. Come home and run it with me." Not usually one to say no to a race, I started to think about how I could possibly make it work. I was already scheduled to work that whole weekend, but after a lot of schedule shuffling at work I was able to get just a few short days off to travel back to Wisconsin. I didn't know this Jake and Becka that my dad mentioned but when someone from your hometown puts on a ultra-marathon, you show up and support it.

When talking about the race my parents kept referring to me as "the girl who was going to win it," but I found that highly unlikely. I knew the course was going to be hilly but more runnable than I was used to. I thought for sure there would be some fast road marathoner who could win it. All of my training this summer has been for Skyrunning races or for long adventures in the backcountry. I have no speed in these legs of mine and I think I was more apprehensive about this race course than for a race like the Rut or San Juan Solstice.

Throughout the weekend multiple people wanted a comparison of the bluffs of La Crosse to the mountains of Colorado. As far as Wisconsin is concerned, La Crosse is certainly hilly, but the terrain isn't easily comparable. Here are some numbers to compare: At the end of the Hixon 50k we had the biggest climb of the race coming in at ~500 feet of gain; at the end of the Ouray 100 mile race Cory had a climb with ~5,000 feet of gain. The climbs in Colorado are much longer and steeper which give the runner a mental and physical break from running. I haven't done a race in Colorado where I didn't take a sustained walk break. The Hixon 50k felt really difficult because even though it was hilly, I never got to take that walk break I was looking forward to. A runnable course is difficult in it's own way.

Before I get into the details of the race, it's important to describe two key things about people from the upper Midwest, things that were only glaringly obvious to me after spending so much time away. First of all, people are generally polite to a fault even if it comes at their own expense.  Secondly, people are bad at dealing with conflict and when forced, people will handle it as passive aggressively as possible.


Alright, onto the race. A good group formed at the race start and it was obvious that a lot of people knew each other. It's exciting to see such a strong ultra community in Wisconsin. The start of the race was relaxed and unceremonious and people seemed tentative to take any sort of lead. I hate leading and somehow, even though I was determined to start conservatively with my dad, I was the first girl to hop onto the single track that wound through the woods in upper Hixon. I didn't mean to but everyone was so polite about letting other people onto the single track that no one wanted to lead the train. Dad stuck close behind me, breathing like a freight train, and I just felt bad. I felt bad that I was making dad go out to fast, I felt bad that there was a train of super speedy guys trapped behind me, and my heart sank as I realized that I was not going to enjoy these first three miles of the race. One spectator cheered, "Isn't pack running the best!?" and it took all of my resolve not to say, "F*** you. Nobody thinks that right now!"

I contemplated letting the guys pass, but at the end of the train I could see two girls and you can't just let only guys pass. After a mile or two, dad said he was going to have to drop back and I was hoping some of the guys would use the wide corners as an opportunity to pass. I hugged the side of the trail and hollered back that they could pass if they wanted to but the guy behind me said that he was happy with the pace. Finally as we neared the end of the three mile loop some guys shot by me and eventually a girl caught up to me (her name was Kim). She looked strong and experienced and passed me with ease as we ran through the first aid station.

Next up we had four more miles of winding and rolling single track. I dialed it back and realized I needed to do a better job of taking care of myself. My quads were already on fire and I felt way more extended than I should have. I let another girl pass (Jennifer) and she looked like she wasn't even trying. She seemed to be falling a lot but it looked like she was having fun playing in the woods. It was time to work on my mental state. I was tired and not enjoying myself and that's not the way to start a race. I talked to some guys around me and met a nice guy named Dave and another guy named Al who had lived in Pittsburgh for a few years. Reminiscing about Pittsburgh took my mind off of the race and as we ran through the next aid station and descended into the Quarry section, I felt my mind hitting reset on the day.

Shortly after the Quarry aid station

At the bottom of the Quarry

I tried to keep up with Al as we hit a short road section and began the out and back loop to the Miller Bluff aid station. There was a woman not far behind us and I wanted to keep a comfortable lead on her. She caught us at the aid station since I stopped for water for the first time, but I gained on her on the downhills. As we bottomed out at the lower Hixon aid station, I was getting excited for the big climb that I had heard so much about. We did another rolling loop and the climb began. I could see the woman a switchback behind me and was impressed by her uphill ability. I thought we were only halfway done when a spectator told me that we were almost at the top. I hadn't gotten to take my walk break yet!

I felt a little cranky as we finished the loop and came into the start/finish aid station at mile 15.5. I was hoping to build more of a lead on the woman during the climb. My mom gave me some Tailwind and I stopped for water at the aid station. That allowed the woman to catch up to me. As we hit the single track section again we talked briefly and I started to pull ahead. She stayed within one or two switchbacks of me for the next three miles and I determinedly caught back up to Al. Just before the aid station, I caught Al and tried to encourage him since he seemed like he was hitting a rough patch but was determined to put a gap on the woman behind me in the next section.

I ran through the aid station at mile 18.7 and was feeling great. I felt strangely emotional and overwhelmed with happiness at how beautiful the course was and how perfect the weather was. I cruised through the next few miles and the woman behind me was no where in sight. Due to the nature of this winding single-track section, I was able to see Al's bright shirt a ways back but was relieved to know that I had put a sizable lead on the woman. I stopped for a few seconds at the Quarry aid station at mile 22.7 for a water refill and pushed on through the fast, flat section ahead.

Glorious single track

During this time, only one guy passed me on the road section and he was flying. Later he told me that this was his first trail race and the roads were just more comfortable for him. As I began the out and back loop to Miller Bluff I saw Kim, who I thought was in first, and I estimated she had 10 minutes on me. I thought Jennifer was between us so I started speeding up trying to catch her. I blew through the aid station, ran up the hill, ran up the road section, and picked up my speed as a hit the long downhill to the Lower Hixon aid station.

I passed a guy who was walking and then I excitedly caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a girl in front of me. I excitedly thought that maybe I could get second place. I quickly caught up as she was moving quite slowly and was furious when I saw who it was. It was the woman who I had fought so hard to put a gap on at mile 18. I usually try to give people the benefit of the doubt and I contemplated not mentioning this part of the race but it still bothers me so much. This was the best-marked course I have ever run so it seemed unlikely that anyone could get lost. As I came alongside her, I asked in typical passive-aggressive Wisconsin form, "When did you pass me? I thought you were behind me?" Her response was simple, "Oh, I don't remember when I passed you." I was enraged. I was 100% percent sure that she did not pass me because I never even stepped off the course to pee.

I was so mad that as I ran by her, I told her that she should probably not continue since she had cut the course. I was mad at myself for being mad. I blew through the Lower Hixon aid station at mile 28.4 determined to not let her even get near to me. I turned over all of the possible scenarios in my head of how, where, and why, she could have cut the course. Maybe she got lost and didn't mean to. She had rolled her ankle, so maybe she had cut the course to get to an aid station faster. Surely she wouldn't finish the race since she had not run the whole route. I still don't know what her story is because I couldn't bring myself to talk to her after the race. Even though I still beat her, I was so angry and Wisconsin people are non-confrontational. Again, I really want to give her the benefit of the doubt because, though cutting this course would be easy, there really was no incentive to.

I was happy to finish in third place behind, who I learned were, two very respectable competitors. I talked to Kim, the woman who had passed me at the first aid station and ended up getting second, and found out that she used to work at a camp in Colorado and that she and her husband had lived in Montana before moving to Duluth, MN. She told me that she used to race a lot and had done Western States and Hardrock. What she didn't tell me was that she had actually been top 10 twice at Western and had finished in 4th at Hardrock. As her kids got older, racing became a less prominent part of her life and this was her first ultra in a while. I wish I also could have talked more to the winner, Jennifer, who seemed awesome and I heard she is also a mom. It's always so encouraging to hear about women who can balance being a mom with being a bad ass runner.

At the end of the day, it was probably the best first-year event that I have ever been at. Jake, Tyler, and Michael put on a flawless race and they had an incredible crew of volunteers. I'm so thankful I got to participate in this event and experience the amazingly gorgeous trails in La Crosse. I hope these guys have a long and successful career of racing and race directing.