Running through an Eating Disorder

NEDA Week Day 3: A (complicated) relationship with running

I started running when I was 12. The sport taught me resilience and the merits of grit and determination. During a time of social angst and growing academic stress, running was my sanctuary. It freed me from my anxiety and fears — every mile a reprieve from this internal battle. I relished my strength and marveled at what my body could do. There came a point, however, when things shifted.

The weightless sensation of flight became a heavy burden.

Running was a vehicle for perfectionism — the ultimate source of control over my malleable appearance. My reflection was no longer a strong, young girl capable of covering vast distances; it was a pudgy stomach and thick thighs. A flat chest and flabby arms. Grit and determination were replaced with insecurity and shame. I avoided mirrors — seeing my reflection caused too much shame and anxiety — and scales became a game of bait and switch. The reinforcement of a lower weight was intoxicating, but a higher number, even just tenths of a pound above what I deemed acceptable, was devastating. Every meal had an asterisk, every dinner plate a disclaimer reminding me of my inadequacies. I became compulsive about running, not for the joy of the sport, but to ease my conscious at the dinner table. Sometimes I left things upstairs at home, so I would have to go back up throughout the day — and burn extra calories. I was thirteen.

Photo: Jesse Fuller

It was also around this time that I started to experience immense stomach pain and discomfort after eating. Curling into the fetal position was commonplace following every meal. I tried all of the fads — elimination diets, vegetarianism, probiotics, prescription medications — to no avail. Food became psychologically and physically painful, and every thought centered on coping with a meal’s aftermath. It took five years to find relief — additional symptoms emerged and, after another round of testing, I was diagnosed with gluten-intolerance. I felt relief within days of changing my diet, but my relationship with food and my body had already deteriorated.

I kept running away.

I was diagnosed with my first stress fracture five days before what would have been my first high school cross country meet. We trained hard over the summer, sometimes reaching 60–70 mile weeks, and I thrived under the systematic and predictable environment. I felt strong and fit and was beginning to love my body again, not for its visible ribs or flat stomach, but for its strength and resilience. I ran well, and the sport became my identity, until I lost it.

Injuries rob you of normalcy and routine.

They force you to relinquish control and redefine your identity. I was not prepared for this. This initial stress fracture sparked an ongoing battle between my body and my mind. I lost my greatest expression of control and sought that same relief in other areas of life. Restricting food intake shifted from a satisfying practice to an addictive, compulsory ritual. I turned to schoolwork for distraction — studying six to eight hours a night. Failure continued to be my greatest fear; however, its expression changed. Weight gain was a failure. Anything below an A was a failure. My body was a failure. Without running I was forced to be still, to face these fears. My harsh internal voice gained strength and courage. What were once subtle, controlled reminders of my inadequacy became constant. I lost the strength to doubt this voice; I lost the will to fight. It became my truth. I am not enough. I will never be enough.

This was the first of nine stress fractures. This was when I fell off the ledge. I was fifteen.

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Samantha Strong writes about issues of body image, female athlete triad, perfectionism, and performance. She is co-founder of the Lane 9 Project, a community of active ladies and lady activists speaking out about women’s health, nutrition, fertility, and running. Follow her on Twitter @StrongSam2and for more musings visit her webpage.