Finding Resilience

This is part of Lane 9 Project’s essay series; an anonymous essay of recovery, reconnecting with yourself, and running. We welcome all forms of expression, story-telling, and connecting. If you want to share, anonymously or otherwise, we want to help.


The day before the Drake Relays steeplechase, I went out to dinner with my teams’ throwers. While my fellow distance running teammates ate vegetable sandwiches and dry lettuce, I went to an Italian restaurant and ate like an athlete.

My choice to jump in a van with four strong, healthy women and their coach to eat, rather than nervously nibble on greens and toast felt like an act of defiance. It felt like rebellion, and I felt angry. I hated that to do what I knew was right for my body, I had to be an outlier. I resented the fact that I had to justify all my choices about food and exercise against the choices of my teammates in an upside-down world where restriction and obsession were the norm. For an athlete recovering from an eating disorder, I was fighting an uphill battle.

I resented the fact that I had to justify all my choices about food and exercise against the choices of my teammates in an upside-down world where restriction and obsession were the norm.

In high school, I struggled, as many girls do, with the changes my body went through in puberty.

I experienced a classic presentation of the female athlete triad: disordered eating, amenorrhea, and stress fractures. I had a few successful seasons, but my last few years of high school I was chronically injured and by senior year, my running had plateaued. For me, reaching the point of “weight restoration” in recovery from an eating disorder meant the bodily changes I had delayed by restricting my food intake earlier in adolescence finally happened. While my body adjusted, my running performance fell to the wayside. Despite the stagnation in my performance, I was lucky enough to be given a chance by a Division I program, and I walked onto the team with high aspirations of going far.

It took until sophomore year of college, but as I continued to grow and mature, my body got stronger and I got faster. Before long I was faster than I had ever been, despite weighing more than I ever had in high school. Suddenly, I found myself on the varsity squad and with a higher level of competition came an elevated level of pressure to perform. Although nobody told me directly how to eat or exercise, the overall culture of my team made me question my choices. I was torn. I wanted to maintain the habits of self care and recovery I had worked so hard for, but the social norms established by my teammates could have made it so easy to slip back into my patterns of disordered eating. That’s how I found myself, on the eve of my big race at the Drake Relays, surrounded not by fellow distance runners, but by throwers.

The eve of the big race

The night prior, we ate as an entire track team, much to the chagrin of my distance running teammates. Most of the other distance women ordered salads without dressing because they were required to order something, while I satisfied my hunger with pasta. I knew this was the fuel I needed to to run my best, but as the fastest girl on the team sat beside me eating lettuce, I felt like a failure for eating carbs. I had been in her shoes just 5 years before, and although I knew I didn’t want to fall back into my disordered eating patterns, I left dinner feeling sick to my stomach with guilt.

If you want to share your story, get in touch with us through the form or by emailing Lane9Project@gmail.com.

Race Day

When race day finally arrived, I was ready. All of my training logs and workouts told me I was prepared to run fast. But as any steeplechaser knows, the key to running fast is confidence, and after days of stressful meals and situations that left me uncomfortable and emotionally worn, I started the race feeling like a failure. As I finished the race in my slowest time of the season, I knew something had to change. Frustrated and defeated, I tearfully told my coach how much my teammates’ behaviors had upset me that week. With nowhere to go, I was forced to face an environment that was incredibly triggering toward my eating disorder, and it showed in my performance. However, as I cried on the side of the track, holding my spikes in my hand, my coach urged me to, “Just ignore it. You can’t let it get to you.”

Social norms are powerful.

It’s impossible to ‘just ignore’ a culture that embraces harmful disordered eating behaviors. While I should have been celebrating my success, in running and in recovery, I had been wishing that I was still actively engaging in my disordered eating behaviors. Weeks later, standing on the podium at the conference meet, I could only think about how big I looked next to a struggling teammate. Even though I ran faster and placed higher; in my mind, she still won. The eating disorder still won.

Over three years later, I sat across from a college teammate at a pizza joint in Portland, Oregon, eating salads and waiting for our pizza. I was stopping through on my way out of town for my second marathon, and we found ourselves looking back on that Drake Relays trip and talking about our individual experiences. She told me how she struggled that weekend, with knowing she needed to eat to fuel her race but afraid to eat any new foods when we went out to eat as a team. She realized after dropping out of her race with some gastrointestinal issues that she was in too deep, and that something had to change. Over her slice of pizza, she said, “I wish someone had reached out to me”. When I told her how I felt during that trip, and how I had gone to our coach after the race, visibly upset and knowing something needed to change, we realized what a missed opportunity that weekend was for us to have a dialogue.

I wish someone had reached out to me.

Why didn’t we talk? I knew what was going on. She knew what was going on. We both independently talked to our coach about it. It was hurting us both. And yet, nothing changed.

Resilience

After we both graduated and moved forward, we started to finally get it all out into the open. I was able to talk to her about how worried I was when I saw her start to struggle, but how I didn’t know how to pull her out when she fell in too deep. We built each other up as we made the transition from intense collegiate runners to casual marathoners who prioritize health over performance. We struggled together through the accompanying physical changes that can wreak havoc on the mind of a woman who faced an eating disorder in the past. We talked about everything, from breaking out of unnecessary food restrictions, to changes in our bra sizes, to donating our old running clothes that didn’t fit anymore to Goodwill. When either of us was having a bad body image day, we’d shoot each other a text, and we’d send back encouragement that it would get better. We embraced our newfound femininity (Boobs! Regular periods!) and broadened our interests beyond running, exercising, and obsessing about food. We found yoga, meditation, and therapy when life got too hard to handle.

In many ways, my teammate and I support each other more now as comrades in recovery than we ever did while racing together. Being able to openly talk about our struggles and move forward toward a shared goal of a healthy relationship with food, exercise, and our bodies has made us both more resilient.

I want collegiate runners to have a space for open conversations throughout their careers, rather than after graduation, like I did. Young women need people they can trust to help them do the best thing they can for their bodies in a loving, understanding way. In college, I felt like I couldn’t talk about it because I thought that wanting to eat enough calories, menstruate, or rest when I needed it made me look like I wasn’t trying hard enough. No pain, no gain, right? Now, years later, winning a conference championship or an NCAA title at the expense of my long-term health isn’t worth it.

Winning a conference championship or an NCAA title at the expense of my long-term health isn’t worth it.

I often wonder why my coach never said anything and brushed of the concerns of myself and my teammate. The bitter part of me says that it’s because the culture of eating disorders that surrounded our team supported her short-term interests. We were “fit” and we were fast, regardless of how we got there. But the human part of me, the one who also stood by and watched my best friends slip away, wonders if she, like me, just didn’t know what to say.

Getting it out in the open, as my teammate and I did years after graduation, is the first step to having the tough conversations needed for a culture shift. Sharing stories and forming alliances with women across the country through the Lane 9 Project can help empower women to help each other, like my teammate and I have done. I hope that together we can help other women achieve that level of support for each other, and help them be brave enough to speak up.

Being a competitive female distance runner shouldn’t be synonymous with engaging in disordered eating patterns.

One distance runner eating dinner with the throwers is an anomaly; a whole team of distance runners eating to promote health is a paradigm shift. Let’s change the culture, together.


Are you an active lady or lady health activist, coach, mentor, parent, or healthcare provider? Join our community and newsletter.

If you want to share your story, get in touch with us through the form or by emailing Lane9Project@gmail.com.

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