Learning to live - running and ED recovery
Warning: Contains potentially triggering Eating Disorder related content.
With the hilarious and honest blog of the wonderful George Bright winding down to a hiatus, I think it’s time for me to shuffle forward. George’s blog tells of his experience training and executing incredible feats of athleticism alongside the ups, downs, lefts and rights of his mental health journey. With people like George around I always felt there was someone doing the work for me. Of course... there aren’t and there never were, because my story is different.
I kept diaries in earnest from a young age up until I was about 18. This means that I can look back and chart the exact day that I had noticed my relationship with food substantially deteriorate. 30th October 2006. I was 14 years old and I had just started to make myself sick.
Initially, I tried to starve myself. I tried really really hard. I kept food diaries where I would map out days at a time and try to stick to ridiculous rules. I visited dark and disturbing spaces on the web that promote and celebrate eating disorders. The inevitability of restricting food intake is that when you break out of the restriction, a binge is often triggered. The BEAT website talks about binges in bulimia: 'During a binge, people with bulimia don’t feel in control of how much or how quickly they’re eating. Some people also say that they feel as though they’re disconnected from what they’re doing.' Following a binge comes guilt, shame and self-loathing which for me were all related to a perceived loss of control. For those with bulimia, binges can be followed by some form of purging - trying to rid the body of what we've just ingested in some way or another. I was 14 the first time this happened and I thought to myself - Hey, it's OK if I don't stick to restriction because now I can purge.
I had been self-harming before my disordered behaviour turned to food, wearing a jumper at school in the height of summer so I could keep the sleeves pulled down, the wool of which kept catching on the fresh scabs and making me wince. I was raging against a feeling that I was fundamentally unacceptable. I needed to control me. I needed to make me as small and unobtrusive as possible. I needed the pain and sadness to stop.
But I didn’t sit down to write today to break my heart anew for little Lucy. No. I’ve always struggled to be completely open with my family in this area of my life, and I hope that in some way this post might tell them some of the things that I can’t in person just yet. And for everyone else, I wanted to share the story of how exercise changed me, showed me the path to recovery.
Running, an origins story
I started to run after my first heartbreak in 2011, deciding that it was time to do something for myself, to make me feel good. I started with a 1 mile loop on the Downs in Bristol and slowly extended the distance. Of course, the running fed into my eating disorder, but it was also nurturing a very timid sense of self worth.
By 2013 I had entered into my first half marathon and through the training I made some discoveries: Running made me feel good, strong, fit. It made me a little bit more relaxed with food (not by much, but a little bit). It changed the way my body looked. I felt more in control of bingeing and purging if I knew I could run.
In 2014 a close friend told me that I looked strong and lean; but there was a concern in her eyes, a questioning in her voice. I realised in that moment that although my body had noticeably changed, the way I felt about it had not. I was leaner than I had ever been and yet I felt the same discomfort, disgust and revulsion.
In her questions I saw a truth that I had never fully acknowledged, not least because it was terrifying. My body was not the problem, the problem was with my mind. A few weeks later after a late night post-binge-and-purge-gym-trip I wrote to her. I was exhausted, hysterical, desperate. I was in crisis. She came and stayed with me that night and many others. Her tenderness dispelled a deep fear of being rejected in my most vulnerable state. I organised a meeting with a University councillor - I made small steps towards living.
REDS - Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports
From 2013, until much later in my running development when I entered the London Marathon in 2016, I started to train properly but with a serious energy deficiency. My relationship with food and my body was full of fear, anxiety and pain. I found solace in running but I also found a way to ‘compensate’ for the day’s intake. I was exhausted. All. The. Time. I would fall asleep anywhere and everywhere, much to my then-partner’s dismay. My self-awareness was so minimal that I did not connect my eating and exercising behaviour with my inability to stay awake.
When I binged and purged I was furious with myself. When I felt anxious at buffets, I was furious with myself. When I couldn’t run to ‘compensate’ for eating, I was furious with myself.
Unsurprisingly this fury came out sideways, as it so often does, and struck the person in my immediate vicinity - my partner. I didn’t understand what the anger was or why it was happening. I had told him about my struggle with bulimia and he was thoroughly supportive. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the understanding of myself required to make real progress.
Returning from travelling in Central America in October 2015 I looked very unwell. I have photos from the end of that trip but I haven’t looked at them since the day they were taken. They make it clear to me how divorced from reality my perception of myself had become. I vividly remember anxiously ruminating over the stretch marks that had appeared on my breasts which I was certain were due to gaining weight. The reality? They were from sudden and extreme weight loss. This did not even occur to me at the time. I could not see the truth even as I stared down at it.
Meanwhile my running went well. I seemed to be fairly good at it. I had not yet made a connection between fuelling and performance. Why? Because I did not want to. I breezed through my first marathon in 03:46:03 without hitting a wall or slowing down. As far as I was concerned, there was no issue to address.
In the sweltering summer of 2016, after a night of unrelenting hysterics and time well spent on the phone to The Samaritans, I told my sister what I had been going through. She nudged me in the direction of my second therapist. I was not desperate to get better, I was desperate for a break in the cycle. This turned out to be motivation enough to get me through some incredibly difficult months.
With the help of my therapist and a dietician, I gradually began to eat in a more acceptable way for my activity levels. That December I ran another marathon, this time an incredibly muddy and challenging trail race in Dorset. I crossed the line as first female in 03:51:20. Months of tiny baby steps towards feeding myself properly were taking effect. This body of mine could do some pretty cool stuff when I fueled it right, eh?
Tri-ing a more rounded approach
The end of 2017 brought another heartbreak, a new therapist and a desire to push myself in a different way. I had taken my running to extremes - getting much closer to the sub 20 minute 5k I’m still chasing and running 100 miles in 3 days on the West Highland Way - and I was thirsty for new challenges.
I trained hard for the Paris Marathon in Spring 2018, ran a corking 20 mile race in Lydd a month beforehand, but was ultimately disappointed. I overheated, broke down and sobbed all over my now-partner Paul who shepherded me for the last 12km of the race. I finished in just over 4 hours. My aim had been 03:30:00 and I had been ready for it. I was distraught.
I tried to return to training too soon after Paris and sprained my ankle warming up with a GoodGym group. Foolish, embarrassing and abyssmal for my mental health.
Swim, bike, run. I’d always thought it was so freaking cool to combine all three. The ultimate in well-rounded athleticism (in my mind, at least). Still nursing a tender ankle, I signed up for the Brighton Olympic Distance triathlon and with the help of George set about a completely new kind of training plan.
What I loved about tri-training was how strong I felt, how my brain was challenged, how out of my comfort zone it pushed me. I found the bike terrifying and frustrating and relished being back in a swimming pool on a regular basis. I still couldn’t run very much (ankle sprains are a toughie!). But above all, this special combination of training for a new discipline, regular therapy and stability in my personal life had an awakening effect. In the darkness, patches of light broke through.
Running, triathlon and body image
I had long struggled with imposter syndrome when it came to running. I don’t ‘look’ like a typical distance runner. I’ll never have a super-lean, light body type. Not without returning to unhealthy days of yore, and then I wouldn’t have the energy to perform. I still struggle with this, but in triathlon it seems a different story. In the world of triathlon you see larger, muscular guys like Vincent Luis hammering it home ahead of Jonny Brownlee in Super League Triathlon (edge-of-the-seat tri racing in crazy formats). In December 2018 Kristian Blummenfelt - who commentators often refer to as ‘stocky’ compared to the other athletes - set the new 70.3 world record (03:29:04). In triathlon you see people of all shapes and sizes excelling and most importantly, delighting in their sport. Running will always be my first and most enduring love: There’s nothing quite like putting on your trainers and getting out there on your own two feet - exploring, finding your own rhythm.
But triathlon, now here was a space for me. A space for me to feel strong and able, to work on my weaknesses and sharpen my strengths. Triathlon has taken my blossoming relationship with my body to a new level of appreciation and wonder.
Since that conversation with my sister in summer 2016, I finally feel like I’m on the right road. I’m on it because I’ve chosen to be on it and it’s the right time for me to find it.
Exercise and Recovery
Running started as a way to feed my disorder, to compensate and try to avoid making myself sick. But running also allowed me that breakthrough in 2014, and it showed me how I could benefit from proper fuelling in 2016. After some injuries and periods of rehabilitation, running taught me how to inhabit my body, something I had been so terrified of doing before.
Running gave me space to think, breathe, dream. Whilst in some ways it has been inextricably wrapped in my eating disorder, in other ways it has shown me the truth about my mind and body. My journey with myself continues in many guises, one of which is my new love: triathlon.
Am I recovered? It depends what ‘recovered’ means to you. The fact that I have written and published this speaks volumes to me. I am ready to write my story, in the hope that it reaches someone that needs to read it.
I am an official supporter of #TrainBrave a campaign to raise awareness of the risks of eating disorders and RED-s, as well as provide resources for clubs, coaches and athletes. Find out more about #TrainBrave on their website.