Chapter 8 –The Running Years
“To give anything less than the best is to sacrifice the gift.” -Steve Prefontaine
Janis Joplin once said the only time she ever felt beautiful was when she was on stage singing. Often, one can find beauty by living in the moment. In doing this, we are offered a way to forget ourselves. We can feel weightless and have no thoughts of the future or past, experiencing the world at large and connecting to the universe. When we move past our calling into compulsion, though, the beauty is lost.
I placed fourth in the women’s division in my first road race, a two-miler, one mile uphill and the other down. I was 14 years old at the time. Just a few months before the race, I had started running with Danielle. By the time spring rolled around, I was eager to run track. Danielle and I quickly proved to be the top athletes on the team and even led track practices every now and then. Despite my terrible hunger and occasional weakness from not eating enough, we made running fun. We often led the team through drills, stopping to do a few crazy somersaults on the grass as the rest of the team stood nearby and wondered whether or not they should follow suit.
Danielle was a muscular 800-meter runner with great strength, and I was a lanky long-distance runner. The two of us trained in the hills, running on dirt trails and venturing out into the wilderness. We had several basic two- or three-mile loops that we ran and occasionally ran as far as five miles. I would eventually settle on the longest race available in junior high school, the mile. In a short time, I had developed a passion for running that was unstoppable. My inability to hold back almost cost me a friendship, when I agreed to run a race with a friend and couldn’t resist the urge to charge ahead and leave her behind. Fortunately the girl understood that my love of racing was too strong to be harnessed. Like a racehorse, I couldn’t wait to get into the middle of the competition, and when I tried my first mile run in practice, I busted out a six-minute-flat performance completely alone. The coach was impressed. At the end of the year, Danielle won the 800 and I set a new district record in the mile by running just under six minutes. Later that spring, I ran a 10-kilometer road race on a challenging course in around 40 minutes. All of a sudden I was known as “the runner,” and high-school coaches were swarming around me.
During the summer after graduating from junior high school, I received letters from the two main high schools in Boulder: Fairview High and Boulder High. Both coaches wanted me to run for their cross-country team. I was flattered and couldn’t wait to join a team and have a new coach. I opted for Fairview mostly because all of my siblings had gone there, and a few people I knew around the neighborhood had also attended. Danielle was accepted to a private high school in the mountains, so we agreed to keep in touch by writing letters and visiting on holidays. I was sad to see her leave, but at the same time I was looking forward to a new school and the chance to compete on a well-known high-school running team.
Without my knowledge, my parents had gone to talk to the coach at Fairview out of concern that I was too thin and training too much. He assured them that his training methods were reasonable and safe. He let them know he would watch out for me. At the time, I was running about 20 to 30 miles a week. Eventually I would develop full-blown anorexia athletica in which running, a preoccupation with food and diet, and compulsive rituals would rule my world. Anorexia athletica in distance runners sometimes goes undetected, because it’s common to see very thin people in the sport. In general, those who suffer from anorexia athletica often no longer enjoy their exercise, and feel obligated to perform. Before I reached this desperate state, though, I loved my sport.
During my first season of cross-country it immediately became apparent that I was the fastest girl on the team. I respected my teammates, idolized my new coach and wanted nothing more than to please everyone by running well. Being a people-pleaser is not uncommon for anorexics. I knew my coach was experienced and had coached other successful runners. He found that my strength was long distance. He bumped my mileage up to 40 to 50 miles per week. I often trained with the boys’ team and quickly became a running sensation. As a newcomer, I was undefeated in races. I even made waves in co-ed races. My greatest joy was competing against boys and showing them who was boss. One of my favorite events was a small meet in which teams had to choose three runners, including at least one girl. Our team did a first-through-third-place sweep, with me placing third overall. In general, I was modest and shy and very afraid of failure, but once I got on the track or cross-country course, I was free and at one with my body. However, just as I was discovering this wild new power in me and embracing my rebellious side with a “fuck you” attitude, I was slowly becoming more compulsive about both my training and my eating.
Once I started winning races, the newspapers were all over my story. Unfortunately, it meant that some of my private life spilled into public view. Without realizing that an “off the record” comment meant that it could still end up in print, I was a little too forthcoming with information. The day after my interview for the local paper, I saw in bold headlines that anorexia had led me to running. My secret was out, but I was doing my best to keep the fact that I was struggling under wraps. I had a military-style routine that was strict and disciplined. I woke up at 5 a.m. every day for a small breakfast and calisthenics. I had a small sore on my back from doing sit-ups on the carpet – I didn’t have enough meat on my bones to protect my lower back. After exercising, I rode my bike to school carrying only a skimpy sandwich for lunch, had track practice after school, then rode my bike home for an early dinner that was the same every single day: a small portion of chicken, vegetables with low-fat dressing, and two cookies with an enormous amount of ice cream (I’m afraid to think how thin I would have been had it not been for the large quantity of ice cream I consumed). Any straying from my routine caused me great upset and sometimes resulted in tantrums. These included excessive frowning, stomping around the house and occasionally yelling. Again my parents approached my coach and begged him to intervene. He looked them square in the eye and said, “Well, she must be doing something right, because she’s winning races.” At first, my parents, who had my best interests in mind, thought my coach could be their ally and might talk some sense into me. At this point, however, they knew they had lost any chance of reaching or rescuing me.
The more my parents suggested healthy eating and moderation in training, the greater the conflict between us became. I looked up to my coach and began to distrust everything my parents said. My destiny was running, and I wasn’t going to tolerate anything that threatened to get in the way of that future. Strangely enough, it was only when I became a good runner that I got some respect from my father for what I felt was the first time ever. He seemed proud, yet my anger at him only increased. I became a bit of a prima donna. I was demanding and grumpy before races and wasn’t afraid to take out my stress on my dad by glaring at him or simply being rude. To everyone else, I was sweet and kind. Nobody knew how deep my anger ran.
By the end of my very first cross-country season, as a sophomore, I was feeling the pressure. On the day of the state meet, I was bleeding from the rectum from eight small ulcers that were forming and would go undetected until I was in my twenties. I would develop severe bleeding hemorrhoids later in life due to so much straining, not only in an attempt to clear my colon before a run, but due to incorrect breathing and extreme physical effort in general. I tearfully stood on the starting line, pale and 98 pounds. After a slow start, I found my stride, but it was too late and I ended up fifth. Although I vowed to do better the following spring, track season was a repeat of cross-country. After an undefeated regular season, I lost the state meet by placing second in the 3200 meters, just behind a girl who outkicked me in the last 100 meters. It seemed unfair that she sat on my tail the entire way, only to sprint past me at the very end. I wasn't used to tactical racing. I broke down and cried on the infield. I didn’t care that the cameras were on me; it felt as if my life were over. No amount of consoling could ease my disappointment.
A few days later, I had an epiphany and decided I would never let such a thing happen again. I needed to train harder and become the best; that was all there was to it. Once again I vowed to become more dedicated. I wouldn't get caught up in someone else's race and was driven to run the way I wanted.
Already I had become somewhat antisocial, not eating at food-related events, avoiding going out with others and training mostly alone. My increased determination to succeed in running caused me to become isolated from the team, and saw me training more on my own and avoiding team activities. My teammates tried in vain to include me in fun runs to the ice-cream store and other social events, but I politely refused. I didn't even go in the restaurant when the team stopped to get a bite after one cross-country race. Instead, I waited in the car while the team had fun eating and socializing inside. My mind was on races to come, and I was convinced I had to keep training harder in order to win them. Nothing was going to get in my way, certainly not an easy run to get snacks with friends when I could be doing a long, hard trail run.
The summer before my junior year brought ample opportunities to partake in road races. Before summer even arrived, my coach put me on a program to get me ready for the Bolder Boulder, held every year on Memorial Day and one of the biggest 10-kilometer road races in the country. I did mile repeats and intervals more suited for my endurance-based talent. I was much more in my element with the longer races, and popped a low 36-minute 10k at 5,300’ altitude for a ninth-place overall finish in one of the largest races in the United States. I was running with the big girls now, and I was ready for it.
At age 16, I was becoming a fierce competitor on the roads, but I also had my eye on the mountains. One race in particular intrigued me – the Pikes Peak Ascent. This August race starts at the base of a mountain with a peak that lies more than 14,000 feet above sea level and climbs 13.32 miles to the top. My coach agreed to help me train. With a huge increase in mileage and remaining dead-set on controlling my food intake, I saw my weight abruptly plummet to 92 pounds. Strangely, I felt strong and confident. My life soon revolved around the race. Severe bloody blisters on my feet and worsening fatigue every morning did nothing to deter me. My training times were remarkable and I could hardly wait to get to the starting line. I spent so much time in preparation for the race that I never once considered what would happen after the event. All I could visualize was getting to the top of that mountain as fast as possible.
With a few more road races under my belt and countless hours of training behind me, I ran the race of a lifetime, a race that was dreamlike in nature and left me in a heap at the top of the mountain. I collapsed into the arms of race officials, hyperventilating and nearly passing out as my foot crossed the line, setting a new women’s record. Two hours and thirty-nine minutes after I had started, I became the youngest women's winner of the Ascent, and shortly afterward, I was placed on a stretcher and given oxygen, my legs aching and my chest burning. I was smiling, though, knowing I had reached my goal. Race officials were alarmed at my thin appearance and, perhaps with me in mind, established a still-standing rule that nobody under the age of 16 could enter the race. They were convinced that the race was too grueling. As for me, sitting on top of the mountain with my biggest victory yet, I had no idea that soon I would be heading over the edge. It wasn't my young age that was alarming; it was the illness that was slowly swallowing my life.
|The Bolder Boulder 10K 36:17|
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