How trail running is helping me recovery from my disordered eating

L9P Community Post: Leandra Bitterfield

“Holy shit, this is delicious!” No, I’m not eating a thoughtfully prepared plate of food, or even a basket of French fries. There are no white tablecloths, or even forks and knives. In fact, I am at an aid station at mile 15 of a trail marathon, and I am eating a Smuckers Uncrustable.

And I am proud. I am proud because I’ve already run 15 miles. I am proud because I have 11 to go, and I’m feeling pretty damn good. But most of all, I am proud because I am eating a Smuckers Uncrustable, without a single thought of how many calories I’m eating, the fact that it is full of ingredients I can’t pronounce, or that it contains a lot of ingredients I previously told myself I can’t eat.

Running and body image are a weird thing. We look at pictures of the speediest runners and see thin legs and bony clavicles. We see some ultra runners hawking the Paleo diet as their secret to success and others saying vegan is the way to go. We read articles about what the top runners eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and think, Is that what I should eat too?

We often have a singular image of what a runner looks like — a sleek ponytail and toned legs. But trail running takes that image, rips it to pieces and rubs some dirt in it. It was that sleek ponytailed runner that sat on my shoulder while I counted calories in and calories out. She was there when I would bonk in the middle of shortest runs and when I tried my hardest to break a 10-minute mile but came up short because my legs were too weak.

We often have a singular image of what a runner looks like — a sleek ponytail and toned legs. But trail running takes that image, rips it to pieces and rubs some dirt in it.

The trail runner is sleek ponytail’s antithesis. The trail runner is my newish running friend who turned to me one day and said “Hey, wanna run a 50K?” The trail runner is the 5’1” friend, running alongside the 6 foot tall Ironman athlete. The trail runner is the Ironman athlete who arranges group runs for the newbies training for their first 5K. The trail runners are the group of friends who waited on a chilly October day for me to finish my first 50K, an hour after they had finished.

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I love trail ultras because when we are running more than 26 miles, gaining thousands of feet of elevation for more than 6 hours none of us are those stock photo runners. We are humans. No one can run for 6 or more hours without eating, and if we make it without pooping, it’s a lucky day. We need social support. We tell jokes on the trail, we thank the aid station volunteers instead of running past and crushing a paper cup without looking back. And when we reach a low point, we know that someone will be there to give you that boost to make it just a little farther. And a little farther. And a little farther. Until we cross the finish line where the beers taste way better when shared with new friends and old running partners.

For a long time I identified as a “runner” or “the healthy one” in the group. I reveled in comments like “oh, you’re so healthy” when I skipped the nachos, and “you’re so good to run every day” when I dragged myself on a lackluster run on an empty stomach. The love from the trail running community and the peace that I find on the trails has allowed my identity to morph to that of a human first and a runner second. I am human and I need food, lots of it, to succeed. It’s this identity that allows me to forget calorie counts and scales and to enjoy an Uncrustable on the trail just the same way I enjoy dessert on a day that I decided to skip the run. Trail runner has freed me to enjoy life and all it’s prepackaged sandwich glory.

And here’s my list of unglamorous trail runner truths that keep me coming back to the woods.

  1. Runners of all shapes crushing 50K’s. Seriously, you may have been hot out the gate but you know who has better endurance than you? That 70-year-old man in a cotton tee shirt and sneakers he bought the year you were born.
  2. Runners reaching sweaty hands into bowls of pretzels and Skittles somewhat deliriously, chugging flat Mountain Dew and begging race volunteers for ice in their water bottles
  3. The BEST aid station snacks, including but not limited to: Pop tarts, bacon, cheese quesadillas, hot chocolate and fresh fruit.
  4. Pooping in the woods. Enough said.

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