Author’s Note: There’s no such thing as “outrunning” an eating disorder, which is a diagnosable mental illness. The title is hyperbolic, but indicative of my own experience using running to effectively treat and manage (not cure) anorexia nervosa and exercise bulimia/compulsive exercising. This article may contain triggers for some readers.
I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and exercise bulimia in early 2015—but, like many anoretics, this was no surprise.
Though without a previous diagnosis, I had tucked away an eating disorder for years, going from a healthy weight (thank you, metabolism) as a teen to 250+ pounds in college and then hovering to barely three digit numbers in my 30s. As anoretics, we know. I knew. Yes, there can be fine lines and big gray areas between “managing your weight” and a full-blown eating disorder. An eating disorder is a mental illness that you can’t “get rid of.” It’s an unfortunate part of you, and with you for life, kind of like being an alcoholic.
There are some alcoholics who get treatment and never have another sip of their vice for the rest of their lives. There are some who are off and on the wagon forever, and that’s a really bumpy ride. Still others can’t seem to find a good grasp on that wagon at all.
That’s kind of like anorexia.
To become successful at managing anorexia takes trial, error, and many times professional intervention. Considering I was simultaneously diagnosed with exercise-induced bulimia and laxative abuse, you may think running—sheer cardio—may not have been a good choice as treatment (and, certainly, my psychologist didn’t prescribe it). I stumbled into running, like many runners do. Well before my BMI slipped into dangerous territory, then very dangerous, a marathon had been on my bucket list. There was no good reason for it. I never considered myself a runner, and had never run more than the occasional 5k (and even then, not until I was nearly 30). It’s just one of those things you put on your to-do list, like skydiving or learning Spanish.
But here’s what I found: Running saved my life. Literally.
By chance, I started training via a Hal Higdon 26 weeks to 26 miles program at the same time I began seriously seeing a psychologist. Half of my hair had fallen out. Not even size zeroes of XXS fit, and I was “lucky” if I could find children’s clothes with freakishly long arms and pants that didn’t fall off. My thighs were the size of my calves, and my skin had gone to hell. I weighed myself every waking hour on the hour. If I was below a certain, arbitrary number, I was “allowed” to have a sip of water. If I was close, I would drive to the gym to sit in the sauna to force out a few more ounces because I was just that thirsty.
Anoretics, at a certain point, know they’re killing themselves, but we’re in so deep we can’t stop it.
I began running because I felt like it was now or never. With developing plans to move to Mumbai in a few years (where, due to pollution, heat and the sheer danger of running as a woman alone, I knew I couldn’t really train for a marathon), I knew I either needed to buckle down and train for a marathon now, or erase it from my list of things to do in my thirties.
If, of course, I would live through my thirties.
It was the one thing in a long time that had nothing to do with how much I weighed, how many calories I could burn, or how many inches I could shave off my frame.
Not once was I tempted to calculate how many calories I use up on a run. It was about the pace, the landscape (I can only run outdoors), and how I felt afterward. Admittedly, for the first three weeks, I began training while sticking to my anoretic, rigid “eating” regimen which included severe calorie restriction and heavy laxative usage. However, I quickly discovered I had a choice: Give up training, or eat so my body could actually train. I had already registered for the Portland, Oregon marathon. I had already told a few people about it. I’m not one to sign up to be seen as a failure, so the choice was made for me.
So I began to eat.
I chose foods based on how they would fuel me. Proteins to build muscle from those cross-training days of heavy weights. I ate whole, raw, local and seasonal. Almost instantly, my body responded. I could run harder. Faster. Easier. The seconds fell off my average pace. I began to weigh myself less often, eventually shifting to a twice per month schedule, which I’m told is “normal.” I watched muscles, especially in my legs, blossom. My cross-training, from spin classes to yoga, actually began to work.
And, yes, I put on weight.
It was all muscle, and I leaned hard on that fact. I went to a Bod Pod clinic to measure body fat, a much better indicator than my home scale. I was disappointed the first time when the technician wasn’t impressed by my slightness and didn’t comment on just how thin I was. He was used to training Olympic and pro athletes, and offered Bod Pod testing as a side gig. When I went back three months later, I got my reward. He was amazed in the right ways, telling me my body fat had shifted to a percentage achieved only by professional Crossfit women. For once, I was happy, proud even, to be seen as strong instead of just skinny—even as the scale moved up.
On October 4 of last year, I completed the Portland, Oregon marathon. I was eight minutes shy of qualifying for Boston, and even in my fiercely competitive nature, it didn’t bother me. That’s not what running was about for me, nor was it about getting thinner or writing down calculated calories burned.
It was about completion, wholeness. Doing the best I could in something that wasn’t governed by how I looked because of it.
In this, along with continuing support from a psychologist, I found my best tool for recovery.
I outran an eating disorder, but that doesn’t mean anorexia isn’t still tripping over my heels.
It doesn’t mean it won’t catch up, keep pace, and pull me close again. Still, for now, that’s enough.
The word “run” is the runner-up in the English language with the most meanings and definitions, and isn’t that fitting? Such a short word, not even big enough to be a big, bad, four-letter word, that can mean and do so much. However, so can “eat.” So can “fat.”
We can put an incredible amount of power in these tiny words, but it’s the actions behind them that can make all the difference.