Running to Recover: Heather’s Story

During my final semester of college, I ran myself out of an eating disorder. I didn’t run away. I didn’t run just to burn calories. I didn’t run because it made me sweat. I didn’t even enjoy running for a long time. But in January of 2008, I decided to run for 13.1 miles (a half marathon).

My history with running is complicated, at best. I played soccer in high school and, to me, the worst day of the year was the first day of our summer tryouts. We were supposed to run two miles in under 15 minutes; I could not. This timed two-mile run was followed in angst by our three mile Berg Park loops, which we ran a handful of times throughout the season. I considered these running experiences to be the closest thing to death that I may know as a teenager (which made me a very lucky teenager, but 14-to-17-year-old me was NOT convinced of that).

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Later, during my early college days, I did a few runs around the Penn State campus on the nice days. When it rained, I slogged through the allotted 20 minutes on a treadmill. (Have you been to Happy Valley? It rains A LOT.) I jumped into my first 5K as a freshman, at the peak of my eating disorder, not even knowing how far 5 Kilometers was. (Who measures things in kilometers, anyway?) It wasn’t remarkable, but I made it through. At the time, I saw running as an efficient way to burn calories. I didn’t care to go far or fast. I didn’t run another 5K until my senior year. The only thing I remember is that I ran it a little faster, and that a friend’s mom gave us both a ride. On the way, she told us about how she used to win half marathons, and even ran one while she was pregnant. “What’s a half marathon?” I asked.

A few months later I would get to know the half marathon very well.

My roommate Larisa ran her first marathon that fall. I was impressed, to say the least! Now that I knew three miles didn’t feel so hard to me any more, I wanted to challenge myself. So, I signed up for my first half-marathon. It was called “Just a Short Run” and I didn’t think that was very funny. I convinced Larisa to join me, then started training the next day. We had six weeks until the race.

My roommates and I were displaced that first week, as our apartment had spontaneously betrayed us by spewing water everywhere and subsequently growing mold up the wall like an ivy. It smelled like someone dumped the entire complex’s trash in our living room. So, the management sent us to their “model apartment” unit for one week, which turned into three weeks. They stacked our furniture in our kitchen, blocking all access to our full refrigerator, utensils, and pantry. This felt like a huge blow to our budgets at the time, but the model unit had snacks like potato chips and cheese crackers, so we survived.

It was a Sunday morning in January when I decided to try my first long training run.

I waited until mid-afternoon so that the sun could warm up the Valley just a little bit — if you’ve ever been to State College in the winter, you get this. I also waited because I wanted to make sure I ate enough food. I was concerned about fueling, and had no idea how many calories I might need in order to survive a one hour run. One whole hour! Of running! I thought it best to stock up on carbohydrates, just to be sure.

This is one of the first memories I have of eating without over-analyzing the calories.

I was only a few months away from a degree in Nutrition; I ate because I understood the science, and I wanted to give my muscles a fair chance to perform. I ate some oatmeal for breakfast, snacked on cheese crackers, and probably had some trail mix with M&Ms (rare, because of those fatty nuts). I remember eating vanilla wafers, specifically. I don’t remember thinking either “This might make me sick,” or “This is perfect one-hour-long-run fuel!” There wasn’t much (quality) to choose from, but I wasn’t picky. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to provide instead of deprive. I ate with a sense of gratitude, a new sense of wonder that food could influence what I’m able to do with my body. Soon, I’d be in complete state of bliss because as it turned out, I could run for one hour.

Miraculously, I made it through all sixty minutes of that run.

My knees were a little sore, my hands were numb, and my legs were tired, but I did it. Rather, my body did it and my mind watched in wonder. I went straight to the grocery store to buy food and I walked around in awe. I was hungry. I didn’t look for calories; I looked for fuel. I wasn’t even close to recovery yet, but I got a sense of what it might feel like.

A body that knows what it needs and a mind that listens, without judgment. A body that is strong and able, a mind that supports it.

Over the next two years, running gave me community, confidence, and pride.

Running helped me start to recover from my eating disorder. I wanted to fuel my runs. I wanted to make sure my body had the resources it needed to do what I asked of it. I made it through that half marathon because I fueled, I trained, and I took care of myself.

JASR, 2008 — Yes, this pre-race photo exists on the internet. V cold, tired, and unsure of our decision. But we made it!

I ran two half marathons during my dietetic internship, to stay sane and to make sure I did something for myself. I blogged about running, ran a few more races with friends, and met new people through both of those things. I joined a running group in DC; I’m still close to the runners I chased on the National Mall every Monday and Thursday night at 6:30 PM. I joined post-run happy hours and didn’t care that I had a beer and a basket of fried things for dinner on some Thursday nights.

It has become very clear to me that we don’t have to know our capabilities, but it’s important to explore them.

Running taught me that it’s OK to not know if you can do something.

I didn’t always know if I could recover, and some days I didn’t even want to. But I also never thought I would want to run 6, 10, 13.1 or 26.2 miles. I had to start small, tune into what felt good and right instead of controlled and manipulated, and build slowly. I kept running through my recovery because it helped me. I keep running now because it reminds me of how often we hold ourselves back. With every mile comes a new learning experience and with every stride I run deeper into recovery. I continue to challenge my body in a positive and respectful way and I take pause to thank it when it gets me through the task at hand. It has become very clear to me that we don’t have to know our capabilities, but it’s important to explore them. We don’t need to know how we’ll get to the end in order to begin.


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