Running and Competing While in Eating Disorder Recovery

In a journal entry from December 2018, I asked myself: “Can I be an athlete AND be in recovery from an eating disorder?”

The rest of the page was blank. I didn’t have an answer. And not having the answer to that was one of the reasons I checked myself back into an eating disorder treatment facility a few months later. While I didn’t know if my relationship with running and competing was disordered or enabling my eating disorder, I knew I needed to figure that out. Because the one thing I knew was that I loved running, and that my eating disorder was keeping me from it due to the string of endless injuries.

I’m now a year and a half removed from treatment. I’m running and competing. But I still ask myself that question regularly. And the answer is the most lawyerly kind of answer ever: “it depends.”

It depends on the person, it depends on the manifestation of the eating disorder, it depends on the kind of movement. Hell, it even depends on the day and the headspace you wake up in.

I don’t proclaim to have this figured out. Of all of the nuances in eating disorder recovery, I believe that navigating the relationship with running (or, the sport of your choosing) is by far the trickiest and most complex. So how have I been doing it thus far and what have I learned? 

Note: this is my experience of n=1. I’m not a healthcare provider, dietician, psychologist, etc. As they say in AA, “take what you need and leave the rest”: your situation may be entirely different. Please work with your treatment providers on what is healthy for YOU. 

Content warning: Discussion of eating disorder thoughts, body size and changes, and general food discussion. No numbers or weights.

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Reflections on a Year in Recovery

It’s been a year since I was discharged from Opal Food and Body after entering intensive eating disorder treatment for my third and hopefully last time. A year since I hit publish on a blog where I opened up about the silent battle I’d been waging for 20 years. A year since I felt like I got a new lease on life. A year since I finally felt like I could be me – ALL of me. 

And what a year it’s been.

I wish I could say it’s been all filled with sunshine and puppies and unicorns farting rainbows. At some points, it has been. At other points, it’s been, hands down, some of the hardest times and moments in my life. 

But as I reflect back on this anniversary, I embrace both how far I’ve come and how far I have yet to go.  So let’s start with the tougher stuff that I didn’t expect.

Content Warning: Discussions of eating disorder thoughts, anxiety and depression. No weights, numbers, or specific eating disorder behaviors discussed.

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Navigating Eating Disorder Recovery During a Global Pandemic

As I chatted with a friend on FaceTime the other week, I made the joke: “I dunno…maybe the silver lining of this pandemic is it will cure me of my eating disorder?!?”

While it was a joke (there’s no such thing as being “cured” of an eating disorder), for a few weeks, I had noticed that my eating disorder thoughts had subsided. Likely, the thoughts probably subsided because my old OCD habits and rituals had flared something awful, and I found panic around COVID-19 to be all-consuming. I was so caught up in my fears about catching a virus, that the fears about foods seemed to melt away. 

Clearly, it’s not that easy (as much as I wanted it to be). As I’ve settled into a new normal, and the OCD and fears around COVID-19 have quieted, guess what is still hanging in there? Yeah, the eating disorder.

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The State of Things: Fear, Anxiety, and Balancing Mental and Physical Health

When I was 6 years old, if I couldn’t get to sleep by 7:30pm, I would start crying hysterically. I was convinced I was going to die if I couldn’t fall asleep by then. 

When I was 7 years old, I was positive our house was going to burn down and I was on the second floor. I forced my parents to buy me an escape ladder and even refused to sleep in my room out of fear. 

When I was 8 years old, I learned about a thing called HIV/AIDS. I spent several months unable to play with any other kids on the playground for fear of touching a cut of theirs. I started to wash my hands several hundred times a day until they cracked and bleed. I was petrified of other people.

When I was 10 years old, I became intensely afraid of becoming pregnant (let’s ignore the fact I didn’t start my period until I was 14). I read an article in YM Magazine about a girl who got pregnant from a toilet seat, and I refused to use public bathrooms for years. I wouldn’t let my dad use the bathroom I used in our house. I couldn’t leave the house some days because I refused to sit on chairs in public for fear that there could be sperm on the chair that could somehow impregnate me. I was paralyzed, and I couldn’t go anywhere.

(Yup, I shit you not. That one really happened…ask my poor father).

Shortly thereafter, I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I went to therapy. They put me on meds. Things slowly got better as I started to face my fears and dispel the fear of the unknown.

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2019: A Year of Rebirth

On paper, 2019 probably looks like a rough year for me. 

Fractured calcaneus two weeks before the Barkley Marathons (making that four stress fractures in three years)? Check.

Spent three months in an eating disorder treatment facility? Check.

DNF’ed both Big’s Backyard Ultra and World’s Toughest Mudder? Check

Still didn’t land that Pop-Tarts sponsorship? Cheeeeeck

Thankfully, paper lies. Because despite all of that, I will forever look back on 2019 as one of the best years of my life, and that has nothing to do with running. Was it terrifying, extremely hard, and humbling as shit? Absolutely. 

But it’s also the first time in 20 years that I finally feel like me. Where I feel like what I put out externally matches up to how I feel internally. And where I finally felt like I was able to start to live again. 

Without fear.
Without apprehension.
Without preconceived notions of what I “should” be or “should” do.

And that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. For me, 2019 was a year of rebirth. 

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Big’s Backyard Ultra: Just What I Needed

Running Big’s Backyard Ultra was a gamble for me: it’s not exactly an easy race to return to as my first ultra in over a year since injury, undergoing eating disorder treatment, etc. I knew that. It would have probably been “wiser” to do some shorter trail races, and slowly build back up confidence in my body. But then again, taking the traditional route has never been my M.O.

So why run it? 

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Let’s Talk About Our Feelings

I was a colicky baby. A temperamental child. I was prone to tantrums, and expressed myself violently through a wide range of emotions. I felt, and I felt HARD: fits of anger, hours of crying. I felt, and I let everyone know that I was feeling.

I was an anxious and fearful child, and I expressed that.  But somewhere along the way, I learned that explosive feelings weren’t a good thing. That to be “normal”, I needed to mask these feelings. And considering I didn’t know how to appropriately express them in a socially acceptable way, I tried my best to bottle them up. But bottling them up did nothing to alleviate what was going on internally.  

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Where Do I Go From Here? The Ever-Evolving Relationship with Sport

September is a month that brings up a lot of feelings for me. It’s the start of the championship season for obstacle racing, with Spartan Race World Championships kicking it off. 

It’s a month for me with a lot of memories, most of them really great. But it’s a month with a lot of painful ones as well – years of being paralyzed by the fear of not winning, and years of being sidelined not being able to compete. And this is the first year where I’m voluntarily not running it – not due to injury, but out of choice. While I shifted my focus from obstacle racing to trail and ultras a few years ago, I always kept one foot in the obstacle racing world. For the first time, I feel like that foot is slowly letting the door close, and I don’t know quite how to feel about that. And this feeling isn’t limited to obstacle racing: I’ve been out of competing long enough now at…ANYTHING…that I’m aware of the thought that I’m sheepish to even call myself an athlete. The idea that I no longer know my place is unsettling for me, and my mind has been pummeling me with questions and insecurities and doubts surrounding it.

What would have my path been like if it hadn’t been riddled with stress fracture after stress fracture? Was I ever really that good, or did I just get into the sport early on? Where do I fit in now in the athletic world? Do I want to? And what’s my path going forward?  

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Our Bodies, Our Responsibility, and the Media

(Content warning: This post contains my thoughts and feelings around my body and pictures of me. There are no numbers, behaviors, or weights.)

In early 2017, Men’s Health reached out to me to feature me in a story about obstacle racing. As part of that, there would be a photo shoot. I internally cringed a bit. I’d had a tenuous relationship with photo shoots for years, but a different kind of guilt was emerging this time. I knew that I was in a rough patch with my eating disorder, and I was aware that I was not comfortable in my body at the moment. Namely, I thought I was too lean. While the story wasn’t about my body (it was about tackling your first OCR), I felt a sense of guilt that my image would be attached with the story – that I could be projecting an unhealthy ideal. 

I almost backed out of the shoot, but I tried to remind myself that the responsibility was on the magazine, not me, to vet its images. But is it? Where does the responsibility lie? 

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The Recovery I Needed

In March, after sustaining my fourth stress fracture in the past three years, I wrote that it was time to take a step back and re-evaluate – to stop “fighting the water.” I’ve fought like hell these past few years to try and keep myself healthy and running like I love to do. And while I was tired of fighting for many reasons, internally I knew I had one big fight left in me. Because there was one thing that I hadn’t tackled head on in a very long time: my eating disorder. 

I’m not dense: I’ve known for a long time that I’m the living, walking example of RED-S (also known as “the female athlete triad.”) I’ve known that probably a huge reason that my bones keep breaking is because I have a 20-year history with anorexia. But I wanted to be that person that could right the ship on my own. I’d been in and out of treatment so many times in my life, I wasn’t ready to admit that, in my mid-30’s, I was STILL battling it. There’s an awful sense of shame in feeling helpless to fix things when you pride yourself on being self-sufficient and able to do hard things. There’s a paralysis that comes with the cognitive dissonance of KNOWING what you need to do, but continually falling short of that.

But the hardest things to fix are the things that we don’t want to admit to ourselves. And I finally admitted to myself that I couldn’t do it on my own.

So in April, I took a leave of absence from work and headed to Seattle, where I’ve spent the last three months at Opal Food & Body Wisdom, an eating disorder treatment facility. 

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