Sometime this fall I hit rock-bottom. I was scraping the barrel of fitness on a sunny weekend trail run, with my heart gurgle-beating in my chest like it had sprung a leak from trying so hard. My breath, constricted in tight lungs, made a little wheezy sound when I tried to tell my friends to leave me.
I had to stop and walk because my mind shouted WHAT THE FUCK and MAYBE YOU HAVE A HOLE IN YOUR HEART and THIS IS SO SLOW—delusions, because maybe I’m just massively out of shape. I also heard YOU’RE TOO FAT, SO HEAVY. FEEL THAT BACKSIDE JIGGLE? THE ARM WINGS WIGGLE? THE EXTERIOR QUAKE AND SHAKE WITH EACH STEP? A chicken and egg debate, blob-demon shit-talking. The problem is there’s an ounce, or a few, truths in being a heavier runner, but how does that science help my heart-hurt or serve my spirit? Right?
I used to weigh 99, lean for my stature but not skinny enough to be hospitalized or thrown into a recovery program. I kept the scale, first, on a white tile floor under the skylight in a decaying attic apartment I shared with a friend in North Portland after college, and, then, in a wooden cupboard in a short hallway in a homey, dark-paneled Corvallis apartment. Each morning I’d step on, holding my breath, after or before and after my run, checking in on an arbitrary measure of my self control.
During an interview at the university where I became an assistant cross country coach, the head coach, who’d recruited me in high school, called me out.
“You’re leaner”—or did he say skinnier, lighter, fitter—“than you were before. Are you OK? Are you healthy?”
“Yes,” I said, both scared and flattered. “I eat healthy. I battled some demons in college, as many do. But when I came home, I stopped drinking so much and started sleeping more. I eat whole foods, practice yoga, and run regularly.”
Accurate? Yes. The whole truth? No. Whether I knew it then, I proved my worth with my weight. To myself, and to whomever I hadn’t been enough. Them, too.
When I ran—cross country, indoor, outdoor, summer mileage—it wasn’t fast enough to be the best, or even among the best. I wasn’t consistent or competitive enough in college to make a national-bound, let alone All-American, team, but I tried.
When I restricted—just oats, Cliff Bars, fruit, vegetables—it wasn’t enough to appear to be starving.
When I binged—pizza, frozen mango margaritas, just once a horrifying incidence of stealing my roommate’s succotash—it wasn’t enough to satiate me.
When I purged—sneaky double runs, sweating late-night on the elliptical, hour upon hour at the underground gym, sticking my fingers down my throat—it wasn’t enough to feel cleansed, ahead, or even even.
When I was praised for my weight—“Wow, you’re disappearing before our eyes!”—I hadn’t shed enough.
I tried to quit running once.
I’d returned to New York City for cross country practice before my junior year of college. A myopic dysmorphia mortified me in my skin. I’d gained ten, 20—what felt like 50—pounds despite running every day at least once and strength workouts and counting calories and dieting and purging. None of it was enough. I’d lost control and now everyone would know.
Fear gripped my throat when I saw the team, all lean and tanned and lanky and graceful, floating around gravel trails, across grass, up hills, down straight-aways like gazelles whose hides were stretched perfectly taut across angular skeletons. Our workout included 200-meter strides after a hilly run, and we accelerated around a burnt-orange track in groups of three and four, alternating leaders, and I wanted to die or at least shrink into the earth or evaporate into the hot summer air. Sticky humidity made being a larger version of me even more uncomfortable. My back chafed against my sports bra, my thighs rubbed together and bunched up my shorts, my lungs wheezed, restricted by panic and embarrassment and shame.
A kind senior with dark curly ringlets said quietly, “Hey. Are you OK?” I started crying. I said nothing; I thought she wouldn’t understand, but she did. So did my other teammate, an underclassman, who I sat next to during the coaches’ post-workout talk. For every pound I’d gained, she’d lost at least one off a tiny frame. EDs are cruel, scheming year-round to sabotage our goals, dreams, potential.
That week, I went to my coach’s office to explain my appearance and excuse myself. “I don’t deserve to be on the team. I’m taking up space,” I said, admitting to restricting, bingeing, and purging. She stood up and walked around her desk to give me a hug. She said others struggled, too. “Stay on the team. I need your help with the underclassmen. Let’s take a break from racing and focus on training, getting strong, building a base.”
Somehow she thought I was enough. I stayed on, and committed to logging mileage and leading B-team workouts. I attended weekly visits to the nutritionist, doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist—a crew of people from the university’s eating disorder team. They helped me tackle a confounding disease, not succinctly specified. The so-called female athlete triad, or whatever the diagnosis was, leached my bones of density, wracked my hormones, and left me teetering on the edge of my identity.
Over time, I accepted what I knew in theory: anorexia and other EDs don’t promise improved performance. Whether a runner is durable or delicate, losing weight doesn’t guarantee a good race. If, at first, it appears to be a surefire shot at success, results often fizzle. A host of issues, including season-ending injuries, nightly hot sweats, and listless depression, may crop up in ED’s wake.
I don’t know, really, what paces I was running at my lightest, a few years after college. I was too busy coaching to race. Pre-dawn and sans GPS, I flew and trudged and splashed in Oregon rain, turning to the prolific lichen, rising muddy waters, covered bridges. I loved those dark, dreary, damp, luminescent roads. What a monkish time. It was also a scary time: living alone in a quiet mossy valley, hearing creaks and freaking out, getting texts at 3 a.m. from the head coach with updates about the team and fretting about young athletes, going to Portland for Daddo’s oncology appointments. It was also fun, joyful, busy—a golden gift to coach ambitious, sweet women and to learn from stand-up adults on the coaching staff.
Between college, coaching and now, I ran marathons. In Eugene, I ran 2:53, an effort wherein I dug deep to finish with shut-down quads that were protecting a stress-fractured foot. In the lead-up to and through the race, my body was in limbo: fueled by a heartier diet, trained by an inspiring mentor-coach, made stronger on Syracuse’s hills and tracks, yet still reeling. The pain in my foot marked my fifth or sixth stress fracture, a symptom of osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis.
The finish was far off what was then the US Olympic Trials B qualifier—my goal—by more than 5 minutes. My family cheered me on that day, bundled up and giddy along the course, and for that I was grateful. But the day didn’t fill me up. It made me wonder and pine for more.
I knew I was going to suffer—not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually—when I purged. I knew a fog, a dense cloud of guilt and bottomless disappointment, would move in, obscuring my vision and heart and any sort of internal compass.
I went ahead anyway because I thought I deserved it. I thought I needed to reset, to balance out some shit I’d done, to repent for a binge, excess, or misstep. I felt I was falling behind, even though my competitors were no longer tangible, just imaginary.
It was that real monkey bitch one-stepping me. I thought and still think I can catch her. The purges perpetrated the cycle of awfulness that is spinning still so far out of control that I don’t know where to look or how to get out. Maybe I still think I deserve it.
Body dysmorphia and a corresponding cascade of negative commentary in my head has persisted as long as I can remember. Discomfort—a squirmy, hopeless sensation—pervades my experience in my skin-sack of tissue. Somewhere, sometimes, I’m grateful for my able body, but ED is a loud close-talker, always interrupting with vitriol, always undercutting my existence. It persists even to this day, as I avoid mirrors and scales and immediately get rid of unzippable jeans and allow myself too many treats and pretend that I am OK, because I am, really, functioning in a society that welcomes stereotypes, diets, body shaming—a tiny privileged corner of the universe where such superficial things bubble up, obscuring the real world.
Years ago, a college teammate said, “But there are kids starving in China—how can you eat too much, or not enough, knowing that?” She asked as if I were unaware, without guilt, or able to rationalize my addiction. Believe me, I said, I know. That’s why I’m ashamed and disgusted, I thought, yet still captive, paralyzed by genetic rhythms and old habits.
We keep choosing, over and over, what might satisfy us. Each day, each breath is a choice, whether conscious, and it is work at best and a fight at worst. We must tap at our hearts, let our minds become willing, pick up the pen and write, find the trailhead and go.
Here, now, is enough.
That pre-start-gun-shot moment on the line when all you’ve got is where you are.
A second in a hot studio when your eyes find one point of focus in the mirror, perhaps themselves, and you breathe slowly, however contorted your arms and shaky your legs.
A few minutes near a bald eagle that sits massive and regal on a limb in a city park tree and cares little about you, swiveling its head side to side, scanning for something out of sight.
An hour to put ink to page to see what flows out, rises and falls, evaporating in an instant, only to emerge in descending big, fat, splatting droplets that will rise again a soft dew.
A 40-minute silent run just below the falls that tumble through an expansive lava field, along the Deschutes, a river into which we put Daddo’s ashes; they have floated the water, come to shore, blended with the cinder we tread, running trails along banks where hawks swoop and fish.
One minute on a trail when you hear a breeze whoosh through pine tree tops and hear hummingbirds’ chirping whirs flitting around a stream-cut green valley in foothills of the Rockies as you labor uphill.
A westward evening commute with views of wind blowing snow off stark ridges backlit by a setting sun that glows orange against a clear blue sky, Denver’s hallmark. That is enough to open up and fill my heart with a vast azure, closeness and wholeness, the views and expanse, the sanctity of earth that nourishes, grounds me here.
Here, now, I am enough and feel that in my bones and heart and my soul echoes that it is full, strong, vibrant.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of disordered eating, call the National Eating Disorders Association’s helpline at 800-931-2237 or visit https://www.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Carey fuses her passion for running, writing and adventure in Denver, Colorado. A member of the Oiselle Volée who loves exploring the Front Range, she works at Backbone Media as a senior PR account manager and has nearly two decades experience in the running and outdoor industries.
Twitter + Instagram: @elizabethwcarey