Monday, July 25, 2016

Training on Empty: Chapter 17 (Possible TW)

Possible trigger warning with mention of behaviors and numbers.

Chapter 17 – My Secret

“Success is not measured by what you accomplish but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.” – Orison Swett Marden

I never told my coach about my problem with food. I kept it a secret from nearly everyone except my family, and that was only because my sister caught me throwing up in the sink after sneaking into the kitchen early one morning to binge and purge on ice cream, something I did when I was feeling either extremely stressed out, overly tired or hungry when I didn’t want to be.

My coach agreed to take me back on the team, and we started a training program to get me back in shape to race. Soon I began running a little bit at a time. My pelvis was holding up nicely. No more sharp pains plagued me, and I could walk with a normal gait again. I had missed my junior season of track, but summer was approaching and I knew I could train in the mountains with the team to get ready for my last year of high school.

At my first big cross-country race as a senior, I was terrified. I had established myself as the top runner on the team again, but my confidence was waning. There was a new girl on the running scene I had never competed against. She was solid and fast and swam varsity on her swim team in addition to running both cross-country and track. Her father was a former military man and dictated all her workouts. On her supposed days off, she did pull-ups and extra sets of intervals under her father’s supervision. She eventually developed severe asthma that cropped up during and after races.

I was so nervous at the start of the race that I could hardly breathe. It seemed that no amount of yawning could fill my body with enough oxygen. My legs felt heavy and tired. I tried to keep my focus away from this new threat, but my eyes kept wandering to her warm-up movements. Just watching her, I started to have some self-doubt, wondering if I even wanted to attempt to keep up with her. She looked fast.

When the gun went off, I felt overwhelmed as I found myself in the middle of the pack. The new girl had shot out to an early lead, and I could barely even see her in the distance. I tried to keep calm in the face of rising panic over perhaps not being the runner I’d once been. Soon, however, I started to reel in the runners ahead of me and settled into gradually closing the gap between the leader and myself. Toward the end of the race I was running side-by-side with her, and all of a sudden I felt it: A switch turned on and I was back. I surged, giving everything I had, and passed number one to take the lead. As I lunged for the finish, the fire that had lain dormant throughout my injury was burning fully inside me again. I crossed the line just a few seconds ahead of second place, but that was all it took for me to know this was going to be my year.

My relationship with my coach felt strained, but I did as he asked – usually. I had learned that rest was not a bad thing. I felt it was important to take days off even though my coach was a bigger fan of easy days than complete rest days. Unfortunately, my days off would sometimes lead to binges and occasional purges as well. I constantly felt fat at just around 100 pounds. My weigh-ins caused me growing anxiety, and I sensed that my coach was concerned about me getting too fat. Originally, my coach weighed me because my parents had requested that he keep an eye on my weight.

Everyone seemed concerned that I might lose too much weight, but once my weight was over 100 pounds, I was convinced he was worried I would be too heavy. Whether this was in my head or not, I’m not sure, but I convinced myself that it was the case. In my mind, the occasional purges helped the weight stay off, but the reality is that purging rarely helps with weight loss. What purging offered me was some occasional and temporary relief from the pressure. What it took away from me was my sense of self. I was a more relaxed runner overall my senior year, and this unhealthy eating regime did not prevent me from having a stellar season, but I experienced tremendous guilt trying to hide my problem and worried excessively about how forcing myself to vomit would affect my health. Despite the terrible way in which I treated my body that year, I set a course record on every course I ran and won the state meet, becoming the first girl in Colorado to ever win states twice in a row. During the off-season I entered a few road races, among them one in which I ran an incredible 35:04 that established a new course record in the Run for the Zoo 10k in Denver. After a night of stress-related binging and purging – which in my case really meant eating what others would consider normal amounts and purging – I won the Midwestern High School Cross-Country Championships in Wisconsin and again qualified for Nationals in San Diego. I was, however, starting to feel more fatigue as the overly long season of racing dragged on. I ended up seventh at nationals and felt ready for a break. Unfortunately, track season was lying in wait, so my break was much too short.

By the time spring track season started I had already run under 11:00 for two miles indoors. There was no real indoor season for Colorado high school athletes, so my coach had me run some races at the University of Colorado all-comers meets. It was an exciting day when I broke 11:00, as my sister, who was rarely able to attend my meets due to her busy schedule at school, happened to be sitting in the stands. As our own high-school track season wore on, my general fatigue grew. I was undefeated going into the state meet, and my coach was determined to have a new state record in the two-mile for us. What should have been a walk in the park turned into a long clumsy jog around the track. My downfall actually started the day before the race; I was too fat and I knew it. I tipped the scale at a whopping 102.

Fearful of the added weight, I asked my coach if the one or two extra pounds would affect my race the next day. “It will probably slow you down,” he said. I had no idea how to take that statement. I felt so guilty that I threw up what I ate that night. I was so distressed by the time the race rolled around the following day that I ended up losing sight of my goal of setting a state record. From the gun, I got out in front and just settled. I ran comfortably. The battle in my head raged on – come on, pick it up vs. just finish the race and be done with it. About three-fourths of the way through the ordeal, in mid-stride and as I was heading into the turn, I caught sight of my coach and I knew I would soon have to face him, face myself, my fatness, my apathy and my failure. I thought about Kathy Ormsby, who in the 1986 NCAA championship meet had run off the backstretch of the track two-thirds of the way through the 10,000 meters, trailing the leader by only two or three strides at the time. She ran out of the stadium without even visibly slowing and jumped off a bridge in an attempt to kill herself. Though she ended up surviving her 40-foot fall, she lost the use of her legs and is now confined to a wheelchair. It’s a bitter irony, but as hard as it probably is for most to believe, Ormsby claims that she is happier now than when she was under enormous, self-imposed pressure and stuck in her obsessive training. By the time my foot hit the ground I felt detachment. “Fuck it, I’m tired,” I thought. I tried everything possible to pick up the pace, but had nothing to give. My body would not respond, and my mind wavered. I finished in over 11 minutes, and when I faced the man who had led me to greatness while watching my suicide, I saw the disappointment on his face. I felt like I was an absolute failure. I had won the race, yet my perception was that I totally lost in his eyes and, as a result, in my own. I still had one last race to get through in the summer – a two-mile national cross-country race. I finished fourth in another apathetic showing. I had reached full burnout at age 18.

Despite all the conflicts I had with my high-school coach, in large part I still looked up to him, even after this final race debacle. This admiration continued throughout high school and even into my college career. Shortly before I graduated from high school, I was given the chance to speak in front of the student body and faculty after winning an “outstanding athlete of the year” award. Instead of offering anything profound, I told the audience what I thought they wanted to hear and said I owed it all to my coach. While I will always appreciate the way my coach helped me achieve success in racing, today I feel sad that I was unable to acknowledge how hard I worked at the time. I also regret that I discounted the stresses my coach placed on my young shoulders. There was a part of me that felt undeserving of the attention I received, even though I had many standout moments as a runner, especially that year. This feeling likely stemmed more from my own troubled soul than from any objective lack of accomplishment.

Warming up at the Kinney National meet.

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