Those of us who have gone down the path of compulsive or disordered eating and running only to fall off the deep end know there can be a grace period. I talk about this in detail in my book, so I won't go to great lengths to explain it here. Suffice to say that you can temporarily run well while living an unhealthy lifestyle. Hell, in my case, I set records, won a bunch of races and became one of the top mountain runners in the country while battling a severe eating disorder. I say battling knowing full well that for several years, I had no intention of changing my compulsive ways while I was on top.
Part of me understood that feeding my addiction couldn't possibly lead to longevity in the sport, but, like so many people in the throes of an illness, I justified my crazy actions, in my case by pointing out that I was still running well. I was aware enough to make sure I didn't encourage others to be as thin as I was. I knew I was sick. It was obvious. Sure, I can look back and say, "Wow, I ran some amazing times and races," but I can also look back and imagine how much better I would have been had I not been so lost in the disorder, the compulsions and the strict eating habits. I can say without a doubt that I did it all wrong, but I am glad I never encouraged others to engage in unhealthy behavior. I never focused on my weight when talking about my running, because I had at least some experience with running better when I was heavier. I was a stronger runner at a more sensible weight; there's no doubt about that. I was just too afraid to move away from the idiotic idea that I had to be thin, not necessarily in order to run well, but because it was some kind of strange and very powerful internal driving force, a very detrimental one. I had competing and conflicting goals: one to be thin, the other to run well.
If I'm honest, though, I was aware on some level that what I was doing wasn't going to ultimately help me reach my full potential as an athlete. People who had gone down a similar path did too and even tried to warn me. I felt like I couldn't help it. When I was confronted, I came up with all kinds of rationalizations, excuses and bizarre explanations about how I was different. I tried to convince myself and others I would keep running and winning despite what people said. That was before my body and even my mind, to a certain extent, starting suffering from the long-term effects of not eating right. An ugly truth about eating disorders that people don't like to discuss is the aftermath, the issues that people face even after years of recovery. It starts slowly, an injury here, another one there, tightness or weakness that isn't appropriate for someone so young, more races avoided or missed, and less stellar performances exhibited. My solution was to bump up the distance, but that ultimately made things worse. I could place in a 15K, but I knew my low 35 and 36-minute 10K days were gone. I knew I was no longer close to the true elite field, even in the mountains. It took time to get there, but I knew what was happening as my times suffered; I just couldn't figure out how to switch course.
In the end, I let the compulsions win. The results were disastrous. My experiences taught me a lot, though, and I had to change in order to save myself. My goals now are to take care of myself and be more present. I am accountable now, but my mind can still get caught up in the fears and lead me down the frantic thought path if I'm not careful. During times of increased stress or injury, I have to be very careful about how I'm treating myself and thinking about myself. My friend, Tonia, wrote this piece after her recent hip surgery. It's a beautiful post about how important it is to love and respect ourselves, especially during the hard times we face, something I'm still learning as I enter another rocky period with severe nerve and foot pain, a complication after the manipulation on my right foot. Pain changes how you view yourself and makes you question who you are. It's an uncomfortable position to be in. I'm struggling lately, not just because of the discomfort, which can be unbearable, but because I'm forced to think about my identity and rediscover who I am without something that helps keep me grounded and feeling OK in the world. That's not an easy position to be in, but when my body won't cooperate, I have no choice but to adapt.