Eating Disorders in Running: Tough Dialogue Leads to Growth

“Sometimes, when you don’t talk about something, it seems like it’s something that doesn’t matter. If you don’t name it, it isn’t real. The problem is that it is real, and it has pervasive effects whether or not you believe it.” -Alicia Johnston

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By a strange twist of events, I have found myself in conversation about eating disorders in running. It started a while back when I was reading the message board on letsrun.com with the titled thread “Finding the proper way to discuss eating disorders/women’s weight issues on Letsrun.” Not surprising to many of us who’ve been in the sport for a long time, eating disorders are prevalent and quite complex. On the forum, many people had much to say about this issue. They were detailed. Emotional. Intelligent. Concerned. So many women had stories and even more people had opinions. Who’s to blame, if anyone? And why is there so much silence, shame, and secrecy? The general consensus is that, like the current issue of performance enhancing drugs, we need conversation and transparency so that athletes can thrive.

I conjured up my own memories and  wrote an email in to Robert Johnson on letsrun, and the email below was soon after published on the site as the “Email of the Week”:

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When I was in high school in California (graduated ’03), I always felt like eating disorders were glorified—not outright, but certainly in the fact that no one seemed to talk about it. There were many girls in those days who dropped a lot of weight (**names redacted** to name a few), but the focus was mostly on how fast they were rather than the sudden weight loss. All of us on the sidelines observed this performance enhancing approach. From our perspective they never “got in trouble” and they just kept getting faster and getting full rides to colleges. Why wouldn’t we give it a try? That was every runner’s dream. As teenagers we didn’t know the true battle they were facing. We just saw what seemed like an obvious cause and effect scenario: lose weight, run faster. Lose more weight, run really fast.
In high school I was 125 pounds, my natural fighting weight at a 5’7” middle distance runner. Even though I was becoming more aware of this weight loss performance phenomenon, I was too afraid to get caught up in it. I was recruited to run at **name redacted** as “a great potential” distance runner with just a handful of other distance girls. I had never really trained all that seriously and certainly never more than 20-25 miles a week. I started to show promise, but was also incredibly intimidated by these girls who had years of true distance training behind them. As we all ate together in the dining halls, I started to notice the eating patterns of another freshmen recruit and good friend. She ate only chicken breasts, egg whites, and lettuce. Out of nowhere, she soon became the #1 freshman in the **conference redacted**, and just kept getting better. Surely she was on to something. I later learned that at her lowest weight—when she was finally pulled from one meet—she weighed 89 pounds at 5’9”. Over the next several years, she suffered from severe anorexia and bulimia that eventually ended her running career. I started losing weight on a similar “healthy” diet. I was down to 110 at 5’7”. I was running fast but eventually succumbed to a succession of stress fractures and obsessive eating patterns. When my coach pulled me aside when some teammates noticed my weight loss he said, “You’ve lost weight. You healthy?” What do you say to that? “Yes…?” I said. He responded, “You just stay healthy and run fast, okay?” That was that.
I left **name redacted** after that first year, took a semester at my local community college, and transferred to **name redacted** because it seemed like a good fit. Initially, I loved it. Beautiful trails, great teammates, friendly vibe. As many know, after dealing with eating issues, it’s hard to get your weight back to normal and to relearn normal eating. Dealt with some ups and downs and similar coach conversations.
I regret that I never had the chance to confront the eating disorder. I wish one of the adults in authority—one of the coaches—knew how to approach eating disorders, how to talk about it honestly, how to take us out from the darkness and shame— so that we could have all become the athletes we had the potential to become.
My hope is that these honest forums shed some light on a very real and treatable disorder. When it comes down to it, the coaches are doing the best they can and so are the athletes. No one’s at fault. There is just such a fear and lack of transparency on the subject. But I think we are ALL responsible—coaches, athletes, parents, media—to acknowledge the issues and talk honestly about the problem so that athletes do not have to suffer in silence. The forum on Letsrun is the perfect opportunity for this conversation to happen. Thank you.
Where I am today:
I didn’t run for 5 years after college. It took me that long to appreciate my body and learn to eat normally. During that time I took up yoga and developed a stronger sense of mental and physical awareness. Since finishing college, I’ve been back to my normal weight: 125 pounds. I eat well and don’t obsess over food. After my first child I missed running and started up again. I’m now training for the **name redacted** Marathon.
I can’t thank you enough for Letsrun. I read it religiously every night when my kids fall asleep and I wouldn’t be up on the sport if it wasn’t for you guys. Your eating disorder forum is the best thing that’s happened to the site in a while. Okay, well, there are many great things about letsrun, but it’s a very relevant piece for serious female runners. Thank you on behalf of all the unnamed individuals you are helping. I hope you share more quotes, articles, and statistics on this topic in the future.
PS. What is interesting but not surprising is that eating disorders are viral on a team if they are allowed to be that way. Also, part of the problem is that it takes a very long time for a girl with an eating disorder to even admit to herself that she has an issue, so by then the damage is already done. However, there are always the handful of fast girls who do not succumb to the disorder even though it may surround them on a team. What I would love to see is a panel of those girls speak in front of coaches, teams, etc and talk about the skills they used to protect themselves from such a pervasive and sneaky disorder. Granted, some of the protective factors from something like that has to do with the way some girls are wired, but they could certainly talk about things within our control such as friend choices, self-talk training, and conversations with coaches. A forum like that could help open up candid conversations with athletes, coaches, and families. Like many topics, maybe transparency is the best approach with eating disorders. But I’m certainly not an expert.
From my personal experience, seeing a nutritionist was not helpful because it doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Food really isn’t the true problem and often times nutritionist perpetuate an obsessive approach to food.
Thanks for creating a space for these important topics.
~~~
unnamed
Several weeks passed after this email, and just yesterday, in the hubbub of Christmas week, the Producers and Anchor of NBC Bay Area, Kevin Nious and Vicky Nguyen, emailed me. They wanted to chat. They had read my email on letsrun, and although it was anonymous and all names were removed, they did some searching around the internet for terms I used, and eventually found my blog post (Internet is crazy but that’s another story!). Turns out they are doing an investigative report on eating disorders and NCAA female athletics. At first I was hesitant. I didn’t want to incriminate anyone, and I didn’t necessarily want to think about something that was such a dark spot in my past. After a day of thinking I kept coming back to something that kept ringing in my head. I work with young girls and teenagers–the very demographic at risk for these same issues. They deserve to know and be a part of this conversation. They deserve the best shot at healthy running. The young generation of girls should see women today break the unwritten rule of silence. So this was an open door. They wanted to hear my story, not because it’s unique, but because it’s common. It’s a small story in a much larger narrative. With that in mind, I was in.
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The crew arrived at my house this afternoon. They were friendly and made me feel comfortable, which was important because even though it’s been about 10 years, thinking of what I witnessed and experienced as a young collegiate brings me right back. Luckily, I’ve had enough space and years of maturity to be able to talk candidly and confidently. They wanted to know all the details, my experience, and what I witnessed. I talked about the slippery slope. Observing sudden skinny, fast runners. Starting to eat healthfully. Then you’re watching what you eat. Next thing you know it you’re obsessing over food. Then you find yourself restricting foods. Before you know it, you have a full blown eating disorder. I was fortunate to stop somewhere between the obsessing and restricting, but it was the pits. I can’t imagine the girls that find themselves in the depths of eating disorder hell and then to struggle with a lifetime of recovery and mental prison. I was careful to keep the discussion on why the issue persists and what we can do. It was intense, it was cathartic, but mostly it was an essential conversation. Thanks to some brave ladies like Crystal Nelson, Hannah Crist  and other anonymous women sharing their stories, there is hope for upcoming runners looking at their future careers. They will be equipped as they realize that there will likely be girls in their closest corners who will face these dark internal battles. And hopefully they will not have to face these battles in silence and shame.  Let’s continue to lift the veil, remove the shame, and foster healthy sport. Honesty, transparency, courage. These tough conversations lead to the greatest breakthroughs, and for all the young women in this sport, this is a tough conversation worth having.

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