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)


  1. Bravo for writing this- I don't know much about the running world, but identifying your habits and triggers will help you continue the journey in a healthy way. Keep going, and know that I wish I were one iota as fit as you and Cory.

    1. Erika! I just started doing the shiva rea video again and I think of you every time! I miss you.

  2. Well said. Thank you for opening up to us. That must have been difficult and I want you to know that it was very much appreciated.

  3. THANK YOU for sharing this. I never had a full-blown eating disorder, but I certainly had disordered patterns and it's still hard not to go back to that. I so appreciate your candidness here. Thanks.