Sunday, July 24, 2016

Training on Empty: Chapter 13 (Possible TW)

Possible trigger warning with mention of behaviors.

Chapter 13 – Over the Edge


“The sudden disappointment of a hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfillment of that hope never entirely removes.” – Thomas Hardy
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill


In the aftermath of setting a new record at the Pikes Peak Ascent, I experienced both the highest high and the lowest low of my life. I read in the local papers that my coach was quoted as saying that I could have run faster if I had not started out too fast. I was convinced he was disappointed in me. What I failed to see in that same article was that he had also stated that I was quite possibly the best female mountain runner in the world at the time. Somehow I missed the positive statements and focused only on the negative or what I perceived as negative. Years later when I reread the article I was shocked that I didn’t remember the incredible compliment he had given me.

After putting 110 percent of my blood, sweat and tears into something and reaching my goal, I had no idea what to do next. Where do you go and what do you do after you have reached what seemed impossible? The thought that I would have to train harder sank into me like a stone to the bottom of the sea. How could I possibly train harder than what even I was beginning to sense was already too much? To me, improvement and moving forward meant only one thing – more training. Never once did I consider training more intelligently or efficiently or in some way differently instead of simply increasing the time and effort I spent working out.

I never went to a dance when I was in high school. I stopped socializing early in my first year on the cross-country team after a late night out when a few of us who had gone to a concert were a bit off the pace in our workout the next day. Our coach told us that we needed to ask ourselves what was most important to us. For me, of course, running was at the top of the list, and my coach’s statement clearly implied that if I wanted to be good runner, I should not stay out late. As a result, I further isolated myself from my friends and peers, and this in turn catalyzed an increase in the obsessive behaviors I was beginning to show – behaviors that, while unquestionably odd, I was convinced would help me become a better runner.

My rituals were becoming patently bizarre and, as is typical of obsessive-compulsives, included lots of counting: my steps, the number of sips of water I drank, the number of times I entered and left a room. In addition, I was obsessed with the times of day at which I ate. I could only eat at certain times of the day despite the fact that I would wake up late at night with my stomach growling for food. I would often dream of eating or missing a workout, my two biggest fears. Like many anorexics, I grew to love cooking because it was a way to eat vicariously by serving food to others. I got all the pleasure of the food’s aroma and aesthetics without the added calories. I longed to be carefree enough to indulge, but I wouldn't ever allow myself to do so. I imagined myself going out to a restaurant and ordering a normal meal or eating a big fat slice of cheesecake, knowing these scenarios were pure fantasy. I felt trapped and limited, but I experienced a tiny bit of satisfaction in knowing that I was in control of what I ate.

From the time I was young, my mom had always made home-cooked meals. They were not what I would call gourmet, but on special occasions and holidays she would go all-out and the whole family would sit down to dine. I loved watching activities in the kitchen, my mom fluttering around checking the oven temperature and stirring what was steaming in the pots on the stove. However, I reacted poorly to the tension in the air that accompanied these family get-togethers. As with most other families, we often got into arguments or slightly harsh banter during holidays and general get-togethers. I tended to assume guilt for anything that didn’t go according to plan, even if it had nothing or little to do with me. For example, on one Thanksgiving my mom kept reminding everyone not to open the oven door, because the racks had been put on backward and the pies cooking inside were bound to slide straight out unless the procedure was carefully executed. My brother forgot and opened the door as I was standing there, and the hot pumpkin pie slid right out onto my feet. Of course, much chaos ensued and lots of yelling occurred. I decided the entire thing was my fault, because I had worn sandals, not the covered shoes my mom had told me to wear earlier. The pink burns on my feet and legs were minor, but my guilt ran deep. Fortunately, and to the relief of the family, the apple pie was still intact and salvaged for our dessert.

Later, when I became anorexic, I realized that Thanksgiving is an anorexic’s nightmare. In fact, many holidays are. While most people spend the day giving thanks (in theory, anyway) and eating large mounds of food, I spent it trying to figure out a way to avoid the confrontation I'd face when I pushed away the food on my plate instead of eating it. For me, an excessively long run before any holiday meal often solved the problem. That way I felt less guilty about picking at the food on my plate.

Despite some trauma around meal times as a child, I grew up loving to cook. It became such an escape for me I even considered becoming a chef. Often I would make elaborate meals for others. Desserts were what I loved to make most. Our family had always been big into desserts. When I was little I remembered that dinner was just a distraction until the dessert cart rolled into view. I also remembered that with an alcoholic father, meal times were often chaotic and embarrassing, especially when eating out at restaurants. Though I did eat ice cream, I rarely allowed myself to eat outside a select rotation of predetermined meals. Instead, I would create rich, decadent desserts for contests and for other people. I won a few chocolate-baking contests and spent hours and hours perusing cookbooks and cooking magazines, imagining what it would be like to try some of the pictured dishes. I could spend the majority of the day in the kitchen, immersed in baking, and let go of some of the feelings of stress and guilt I often experienced. However, as much as I loved to cook, it was no substitute for running.

After the Pikes Peak race, with cross-country season just a month away, my coach told me to take a week off. I was heading into my junior year with hopes of winning the state meet, and I was frantic at the thought of resting, knowing that my daily routine would be disrupted. My body was tired, but my mind was overly active and I was becoming agitated. I rode my bike to ease some of the tension of complete rest and ran a little so I wouldn’t forget how to run in a week. I was so thoroughly tired of this tedious lifestyle that I wished I would get hit by a car, yet even when given permission to have a break, I couldn’t do it. I just wouldn’t allow myself the rest I craved; I couldn’t even take a full week off at the request of my coach, a man I respected and trusted at the time.

After another undefeated regular season with a few course records in place, I entered the state meet with confidence. Somewhere along the crazy route of compulsive running, I had emerged an intense competitor. Though I was meek and kind off the track, I was fiery and wild in competition, often making extremely bold moves like darting to the far outside to pass people on the track or leading races into full headwinds. My goal was not only to win but to push myself as hard as I could. Even if I was in the lead, I wouldn’t allow my pace to slow. I won the state meet and soon afterward became the first Colorado girl to ever qualify for the national championship in cross-country.

The national race took place in San Diego, California. I was shocked when, at a welcome dinner and presentation featuring PattiSue Plumer as the guest speaker, I walked into a room of 31 other girls just like me. All of us had dreams of the Olympics or various other running titles. Some, like Suzy Favor (now Suzy Hamilton) did go on to reach the Olympics. I was sad at the thought that I wasn’t anything special here. However, I offered myself some comfort knowing that none of these girls were the kind of mountain runner I was. The big difference with Suzy was that she seemed to be having fun. While the rest of us wore serious expressions, Suzy seemed to be able to enjoy the moment. A trip to Sea World was included as part of the pre-race activities for those of us who had qualified for nationals, and it was Suzy who led the rest of our team through the rain to see the sights. Everybody else seemed to be conserving energy before the big race, afraid to let loose, but Suzy was all for seeing the sights while she was there. I felt overly aware that I was much more a loner than many of the others, opting to stay in my hotel room instead of joining the others on the beach on the last night there, something I regret now. I wish I had been able to be more outgoing back then.

The race was intense and I fell into last place from the start. I worked my way up to the middle of the pack by passing as many girls as possible in what I considered to be a short and exceptionally fast race. I wasn’t exactly happy with the 15th place finish, but I also knew that 5k was not my best distance. I didn't have the leg speed that these other girls had. Despite my middle-of-the-pack performance, I figured and hoped that with yet more training I could improve and possibly even win the next year. I paid great attention to the speech that the winner gave after her race, when she described how her strategy was to keep pushing the pace up and over the hills instead of relaxing into a slower pace at the top. I imagined how it would feel to be giving a similar speech after winning a big race. I wanted to be in her shoes.

I was heading into the winter with even more determination than before to train harder. Then, while I was on a trail run with my coach, out of the blue he dropped a bomb. He flat-out said that I was out of control. He gave me an ultimatum: Either I take a break and train according to his plan or I was off the team. That was it. There was no talk of compromise or ideas on how to help me do as he demanded; it was an either-or situation. What could I do? I was hurt and felt rejected. In addition, I was already deep into my routine and unable to retreat, so I took the “I’ll show you” road and decided to train on my own.

For my coach, there came a point where he knew I was lying about my training and eating. He was forced to step back and throw his hands in the air, because there was nothing he could do. I was so headstrong that I couldn’t fully appreciate his concern for my health and his worrying that I was overtraining. I was convinced he was using reverse psychology in order to motivate me to train harder when, in reality, he was trying to prevent me from getting another injury or illness. At one point the following year he agreed with my parents that I should see a counselor, which I did for several months, but before then I was determined to do things my way. I assume that my coach always had my best interests at heart, or at minimum wanted me to continue to run well, but because I was so caught up in my illness, I couldn’t see that. I continually focused on random comments, not just from him but from others around me, that supported my distorted thinking. Anything that didn’t fall into my warped sense of reality, I either discarded or ignored outright. That said, it was difficult to get anyone to understand that I needed help resting. The training I could handle, but I wanted someone to hold my hand through the resting phase, something most athletes are not taught. For some athletes, dealing with uncomfortable feelings that arise during between-season breaks can be the hardest part of training. I simply did not know how to do it, and nobody was willing to help me weather the storms created in my head whenever I had to rest.

I spent the next few weeks building up my mileage on an increasingly sore foot. My limp was visible, but didn’t come close to stopping my training of up to 90 miles a week plus biking, one swim session and weight training. I felt so lost at the time, but was convinced that my only option was to run more. Eventually, the continual strain on my pelvis from the improper landing of my sore foot caused my pubic bone to fracture. In the middle of a run, I felt a shooting pain so intense I thought someone was stabbing me. Rather than stop, though, I hobbled the rest of the five miles back to school. I continued to train, wrapping my entire pelvis in ace bandages to lessen the severe pain. I could hardly walk down the stairs at school, yet I refused to stop running. The pain was terrible and often I would cry on my runs. Eventually, after much arguing, I allowed my parents to take me to see a doctor. The fracture was no hairline mark on the x-ray. Instead, it was a big fat line right there on my bone that was approaching a full break.

The news hit me like a freight train: If I didn’t stop, I might never run again. I tried desperately to quit running, but I was a mess and couldn’t make it through the day. I lost focus in school and spent most of my days crying. Even when I did attend class, I couldn’t concentrate. I was terrified to eat, and when I did eat, I cried out of fear of gaining weight. Finally, my parents decided I needed help. They took me out of school and put in a mental hospital for teenagers. On my first day there, the other kids and I sat in a circle and introduced ourselves and stated why we were there. Most of the kids were experimenting with drugs, having trouble at home or stealing things, many of the very things I had been doing at age 13. When my turn came, I thought how strange the situation was and almost had to laugh, because my response seemed so silly: “My name is Lize and I can’t stop running.”


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