My hands slipped on my sweaty quads as the sun dotted the trail through the trees. Mud-stained calves strained on the incline, and not a word was said. Rocks scattered the trail, and as we turned the corner, hoping for a reprieve, an audible sigh was heard behind me. The climb continued. We moved forward — upward — rhythmically, sweat dripping down our single-file pack-lined backs. We reached the trail marker, our typical turnaround, and I wanted to keep going. To extend my longest run to date beyond 18 miles. To allow my ego the high of its first 20-mile run. My friends knew better and talked me into the earlier turnaround, because I’m racing a 50K this weekend.
And I’ll be the first to admit I never thought I’d say that.
It’s “just” a 50K.
Only 31 miles. I’ve managed to surround myself with ultra-runners — the kind that run hundred-milers multiple times a year — so a 50K seems minor, like a casual weekend jaunt. But it’s not. At least, not for me.
I never thought I would have the ability to run more than 13 miles, let alone race 30. In high school, my cross-country teammates joked about my breaking body — how I shouldn’t be allowed to run more than 10 miles at a time. I’ve spent more time on the sidelines injured, than I have training. I’ve endured eight stress fractures, a bout of rhabdo (muscle tissue breakdown, due to extreme overexercising and dehydration), and years of amenorrhea. I’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis and an eating disorder. I’ve seen countless physical therapists, strength trainers, dietitians, and coaches. I’ve been told I could never run a marathon, because my body would break.
I’m not running a marathon, I’m running an ultra.
This is actually my second attempt at a 50K.
Earlier this spring, I set out to run the North Face 50K in Washington DC. I started training in December and quickly fell into the familiar trap of compulsivity and control. Over the holidays I forced my family to shift schedules for the sake of my runs. I was numb to my body’s aches and subtle signals and narrowly focused on achieving each week’s miles, no matter my fatigue. As the mileage increased, so did my restriction. I have a tendency to do this. The harder I train, the more I crave control. The dialogue between my eating disorder voice and my authentic self was heated. It was as though I was in the third person, watching my health and confidence silently unravel. I knew I should be eating more. I knew I should bring fuel for each long run. I desperately wanted to eat more. But I didn’t. I was afraid. Afraid of fueling, afraid of confrontation, afraid of myself. I consciously and deliberately made the choice to restrict. The control, the fear, the fleeting sense of satisfaction. It’s addictive.
About six weeks out from the North Face 50K, I experienced severe pain in my hip flexor. I tried to run through it, but also worried the pain was another stress fracture in my femoral neck. This happens. You ignore the pain until you wake up in the middle of the night and frantically jump out of bed to do the single-leg hop test. It was just a strain combined with very inflamed legs. I missed the race and gained some perspective. But I’ve been injured enough to recognize the false sense of perspective, when you’re too quick to say “I’ll do better next time.” It’s easy to fall back into old habits. It’s hard to change. It’s hard to heal.
As I look through my training log before the hip flexor incident, I see notes about hunger and dead legs, anxiety and waning motivation, but I also see signs of growth. One week, in all caps, I wrote “Eat on your runs, Samantha!” Another week: “Fueling is the key to happy runs.” Despite the restriction, despite the injury, despite the fear, I’m healing. Since embarking on this ultramarathon journey — and taking to the trails — I’ve seen greater glimpses of recovery, hope, and strength. I’ve strung together weeks free of disordered behaviors and thoughts. My inner dialogue is shifting, and I’m noticing my disordered voice and tendencies without judgment or complacency. I’m running by feel and prioritizing playfulness over training. I’m recognizing my fears and separating my authentic self from my disordered voice.
I keep a tally on my fridge of days I eat intuitively, and I’m beginning to recognize hunger pangs and respect my body’s cravings. I’m removing the isolation and have found the courage to ask for help and accountability. I’m no longer allowing my disordered voice to lurk in the shadows. I’m facing my fears. I’m allowing myself to be brave and vulnerable. I’m healing.
This race is a milestone in my recovery.
It’s building newfound trust in my body and in those around me. It’s teaching me to bend before I break, to play instead of train. It’s exposing my limitations and revealing glimpses of my potential strength. This race is a huge step toward healing.
I don’t know what will happen this Saturday, but the fact that I am healthy enough to stand at the start line is a feat in itself. I wouldn’t say I’m prepared to race, but I am prepared to adventure. I’ll be the one smiling nervously, likely adjusting and readjusting her pack, stoked to spend a day running in the woods.
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