Rachael Steil was a 6th and 7th place NAIA All-American in cross country and track for Aquinas College and now coaches high school cross country in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is the author behind the book Running in Silence, and blog of the same name, which transparently documents her battle with anorexia and binge eating disorder, and ultimately her road to eating disorder recovery. Now, Rachael is an advocate for speaking out about eating disorders to break down barriers to treatment, correct misconceptions, and end the stigma of eating disorders for those at any body weight who struggle to speak up.
I (Sara) first heard of Rachael while reading a Women’s Running article, written by someone I connected with during my brief summer stint as an Ohio Lane 9 ambassador. I was intrigued by her story and the similar past we shared. On a whim, I decided to friend her on Facebook and am so glad I did. Her passion for helping others recover from and understand the complexities of eating disorders is strong and inspiring.
We (Hannah and Sara) were lucky enough to steal Rachael away for a dinner on a Friday night in early December during her New England tour, where she planned a whirlwind week of speaking events at three colleges (St. Michael’s College, Boston University, and the University of Rhode Island). Rachael has an infectious positive attitude and friendly smile that instantly made our small group of Lane 9 ladies comfortable. We all connected over a delicious dinner of Boston seafood (and pizza) and had an honest discussion about the struggle to identify the severity of eating disorders while we are suffering from them, pressures facing women from all sides in society, and how to effectively fight back on the other side of recovery.
Rachael answered the 9 questions below for us and provided photos. We’re so thankful for the wisdom and passion she has brought to the Lane 9 Project community and wish her all the best in the future!
You mention your greatest achievement was not breaking a physical barrier, but a mental one. Can you talk about that mental breakthrough?
This mental breakthrough happened in my book Running in Silence: when I accepted myself at my largest weight, and at a time that I did NOT feel ready to accept myself. It meant the possibility of never racing as fast again, or never losing the weight I had gained from bingeing, or that I may not even run competitively in my future. And that even if those possibilities would occur, I would still be okay. If anything, I might be MORE than okay. So it was about overcoming the mental barrier that I couldn’t be “me” without running, or that I couldn’t be “me” without being as thin as I was before. It was about facing an uncertain future in the hopes that there had to be something better than the eating disorder and obsession with running “perfectly.”
Is there anything specific you can point to as being critical for your eating disorder recovery?
I now live by the quote “Do one thing each day that scares you” (Eleanor Roosevelt) because it makes such an impact on my everyday life. If I don’t go out and challenge myself, I will never grow. And that was huge in my recovery process because you HAVE to do things that are scary or uncomfortable to actually recover or get anywhere with recovery.
What inspired you to be an eating disorder speaker and advocate?
I knew I’d always wanted to become an author, and from a young age I learned that part of being a successful author was being able to speak well, too. Having written my Running in Silence book, I realized it wasn’t about going out to speak about my book or just read from it, it was about sharing the MESSAGE of the book, and about what we can do as a society going forward with this information that my book provided. So becoming an eating disorder speaker and advocate just kind of came to fruition over time, and I realized it was what I was most passionate about. I realized there was a whole area of eating disorders we weren’t talking about enough — specifically in sports, and that runners can deal with binge eating disorder, too — and I was ready to talk about it.
What is the most important message you really want to get across to the athletic community regarding disordered eating?
I want anyone to know that their story is important enough to be heard. We often think our own problems are trivial or not worth talking about, but anything that affects our mentality negatively should be addressed. Addressing our own problems will help us to be there for others. Also, that binge eating disorder is a common aftermath of having restricted ourselves of food, and that it’s okay to talk about this side of eating disorders, too — I know there’s a lot of shame and secrecy with that.
What role does running have in your life right now?
Running is part of what I do to coach high school cross country, and I run when the spirit moves me, or most often when a friend wants to get a run in. I don’t try to hit a certain mileage or time — I just run because I still love it. I NEVER run to burn calories or “stay thin.” Exercising is to FEEL GOOD.
What helped you get comfortable with your changing identity from a competitive runner to someone who just runs from time to time?
Having other things in my life to make me happy. It’s so important to have that balance so that if one thing crashes, you have other things to rely on to make you happy. It took a huge learning experience for me to feel that way (wanting all the control over running and food, having that crash, and seeing life could be even HAPPIER with other things in my life). I also realize that it’s not what we DO that defines us, but who we ARE. I call this a “core happiness” — relying on my personality/who I am to feel good about myself.
What are your favorite ways to take care of yourself and your body today?
I love running twice a week, biking to get to different locations, and I eat a VARIETY of food (mostly unprocessed, unpackaged foods because they make me feel great physically, but definitely including some packaged foods for convenience and enjoyment). I also try to make sure I get enough sleep and keep up with my social life (hanging out with friends and family a few times a week). This has made me the happiest than I ever was when I was running fast and winning races. It’s about REPLACING the disorder with something BETTER, which keeps me recovered.
How has becoming a high school cross country coach changed your perspective on eating disorders?
I was still in some denial of the prevalence of eating disorders, thinking that it didn’t really happen that often (you often feel like you’re the only one dealing with it — scary feeling). But even within my first year of coaching I saw how prevalent these issues could be with athletes, and I realized how important it was that I speak about it with the team from then on out. I’ve been working with Paula Quatromoni (DSc, RD) to learn about ways we as an athletic community can better identify eating disorders and know what to do to get the athletes the help they need.
What advice would you give to athletes who may currently be struggling with disordered eating and/or exercise?
As my book title states, I was Running in Silence — and not speaking up about my struggles didn’t help me. SAYING SOMETHING did. Talking about what I was going through broke the denial, reduced the fear and shame, and got me the help I needed. I was able to get support from my friends, family, and coach. I was able to learn about the tools I needed from my therapist and dietitian. I was able to BEAT this thing.
I’m no longer Running in Silence.
You can read more about Rachael’s story and her current life happenings on her website/blog http://www.runninginsilence.com/. If you are at a point in recovery where you feel comfortable reading about someone else’s eating disorder experience, you can get the book on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble.*
YouTube Channel: Running in Silence
Facebook Page: Running in Silence
*Ambassador note: Specific details and numbers contained in eating disorder memoirs can be detrimental to an individual’s healing process and result in unhelpful comparisons for those who are not fully recovered.