Sunday, July 24, 2016

Training on Empty: Chapter 14 (Possible TW)

Possible trigger warning with mention of behaviors and numbers.

PART II – Black

Chapter 14 – The Comeback

“The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop but the mind must be strong. You always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy...It is not age; it is not diet. It is the will to succeed.”  – Jacqueline Gareau, 1980 Boston Marathon champion

The relationship between coach and athlete is a deep and complicated affair. It takes great skill on the part of a coach to show unconditional support to an athlete and view the athlete as a whole person, not only as an athlete. The only way this can occur is if the coach has no emotional attachment to the performance of the athlete. Focusing more on the athlete’s health than on her performance is rare, but once a coach looks beyond the end result to the athlete’s higher good, he can expect greatness. A coach who uniformly equates good performances with success, on the other hand, is courting disaster. Unfortunately, this is the most common type of coaching – from gymnastics to swimming – and while it may produce short-term success, it does not allow for long-term healthy careers in sports. I even heard of one runner whose coach made her get off the airplane ahead of him, because he called her performance at the Olympics an embarrassment and he no longer wanted to be associated with her. Once a coach realizes that his athlete thinks the world of him, it’s very tempting to push her to her limits instead of allowing her talent to emerge slowly.
Somehow I got it into my head that there was an unspoken agreement between my coach and me that more was better. When he would tell others I couldn’t run easy or always did more than I was told, I took it as a compliment, that I should continue to push the envelope when I ran. My coach called himself sensible when it came to training. He had led several teams to state victories and several individuals to state titles. I sometimes heard other runners talk about running programs that were a little on the insane side, so in comparison, our program did seem sensible. Once, while warming up for a race early in my high-school career, I met a girl from another team who was the perfect example of how not to train. She told me her coach had her run a race a week ago on Saturday, do intervals that following Monday, run a hill workout Wednesday, and do a time trial Friday, and now here she was warming up for the race on Saturday. She finished far back in the pack, behind most of the girls on our B team. She was obviously fatigued before the gun even went off. My coach was careful to keep us from doing hard workouts too close to race days, but at the same time there was an enormous amount of pressure for us to perform. In addition, ours was a high-mileage program with no complete days of rest.

I didn’t find out until later that nearly every top cross-country runner at Fairview had some sort of eating disorder. There were other girls on rival teams who also looked far too thin. Most of the girls on the team during my senior year struggled with food issues. Two girls on that very team developed severe anorexia later in life that nearly killed them both. My coach was never overly vocal about weight, but he made some definite implications that you had to be thin to win. For some reason, it seemed reasonable to him that girls standing 5’3” tall could retain health while weighing under 100 pounds. A friend of mine on the B team was told that if she lost weight, she would have a better chance of making varsity. She was 102 pounds at the time.

As I sat in the hospital with my fractured pelvis and growing fears of gaining weight as a result of not running, the thought occurred to me that I might never run again. I tried desperately to push these thoughts away, but they would continually creep back and terrorize me. Once, when I was a sophomore, my coach told his friend that inevitably when a girl runner becomes a senior, she gets fat and quits running. I was standing right there when he said it. In a grand effort to prove him wrong, I decided that if I was at risk for losing the ability to run, at least I would not gain weight.

My hospital stay was only a week long, but should have been longer. I weighed 94 pounds upon entry and by eating one meal a day and occasionally throwing up dessert. It was the first time I made myself throw up since that one awful afternoon shortly after I first became anorexic and my mom insisted I eat that hard-boiled egg. It seemed almost sensible to throw up at the time, even though I knew it couldn’t be good for me. Instead of being discharged from the hospital, I left against medical advice. I walked out the door weighing 92 pounds. The head psychiatrist wanted to keep me in the hospital until I gained weight. His methods of treatment did not sit well with me. He wanted to reward each pound I gained with an increase in the amount of freedom I had. He called this “behavior modification”; I saw it as his way of trying to control me. I called my parents and told them I wanted out, that I needed out. I begged them to get me out and informed them that this was not the place for me, my peers being drug users and dropouts. Eventually, I convinced them I would continue to rest and get better on my own. I was still honing my manipulation skills despite my increasing if reluctant awareness that I was too thin.

After several days at home, I woke up one morning not feeling quite right. I stood up and started to walk out my bedroom toward the hall only to find that the room was spinning. I grabbed for the wall in an attempt to stay upright. The thud against the wall woke up my mom, and she came rushing to my side. I had nearly passed out. We both knew it was from lack of food. She coaxed me to try and eat something, and I cried as I accepted a bowl of cereal. Tears streamed down my face as I spooned the cereal into my mouth, yet at the same time I allowed the food to soothe my frayed nerves and tired body that had been crying out for nourishment for so long. I felt a little better after eating, but there remained the problem of my injury.

Sometimes in life one is lucky to have someone reach out or make a difference. Several times now, I have been so lucky. When Lisa, a good friend of mine who just happened to be my rival from another high school in Colorado, heard that I was injured, she went to talk to her coach. I suspect she was also struggling with anorexia, but it was something we never discussed. She was at least as thin as I was and had odd eating habits, like peeling long strips of the inside of a banana peel off to eat slowly before she ate the banana itself. She had heard that the inner peel of the banana contained a great deal of nutrients. The entire process was mesmerizing and took an astonishing 15 minutes to complete. It was the slowest consumption of a banana I had ever witnessed. Lisa’s coach told her that without me there to compete, her chances of winning state in cross-country the next year were excellent. She told him the win wouldn’t mean anything if I wasn’t there, and in a gesture so unbelievably kind and caring she came to visit me, get-well card in hand. I was at home, out of the hospital, but I was still not running. I was in tears as I explained that the doctor had said I might never run again. With two full weeks of rest, my bone still ached when I walked. Lisa took my hands in her own and said not to worry. She knew I would be back and, in that moment, planted a seed of hope that would germinate in my mind until it grew into reality.

A month and a half later, eight extra pounds on my still small frame and worry suffusing my soul, I went to see my coach. I told him I was sorry for not listening to him and that I wanted to work with him again. I assured him I could lose weight, and he said that with good training the weight would take care of itself. At 100 pounds, I hardly needed to lose weight, but I had raced well the year before at a lower weight. I assumed that my coach’s comment meant that with training, my weight would drop. Immediately, I felt fat. I promised I would do whatever he said. I had learned my lesson. I did not mention I had developed a little problem of occasionally binging and purging.

Winning a 5K in high school.

* * *

After speaking to Lori Fitzgerald's mother recently, I felt it was OK to let people know that I used the name Lisa in place Lori. Several other names have been changed throughout this book, but this is one I wanted to share, as Lori was a remarkable and unbelievably kind individual. 

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