You should know this about me: I am neither a born runner nor a natural athlete. In fact, my journey to becoming a runner was far from a straight and easy path. There were many twists and turns and setbacks along the way.
This is the story of how I stopped listening to the voices in my head that said I could never be an athlete, took my life back from an eating disorder, overcame injuries, learned to love my body and self, and became a runner.
|Age 17, and definitely not as happy as I look|
You see, for a long time I hated my body. I thought it was too slow, too ugly, too weak, too fat, too uncoordinated. I decided long ago that my body was NOT that of an athlete. Eventually, I began to blame a lot of other problems on my body too, for some reason thinking that an imperfect body was responsible for everything that was wrong or hard in my life. Crazy, I know.
At some point during high school, I decided that the perfect solution to all of my problems was to change my body, or more specifically, starve myself. In the midst of the confusing storm of adolescence, I was grasping for control in any place I could find it. Unfortunately, I found it in controlling my diet. I thought if I could just starve myself enough to obtain the perfect body, everything would fall into place in my life. Of course I was wrong. Even as the pounds melted away, I liked my body and myself less and less. In fact, I grew to hate the person I was becoming—a shadow of my former self. Luckily, after a while I began to realize that what I was doing was completely wrong and that no amount of weight would make me happy. So began the painfully emotional process of anorexia recovery. While I gradually stopped restricting, learned to eat again, and worked on recovery, I still didn’t love my body and continued to feel uncomfortable in my skin.
It was during this time that I first laced up a pair of running shoes, at least without a PE teacher telling me to get moving. It was a Saturday afternoon towards the end of high school, and I was an emotional basket case to say the least. It is an understatement to say that I was stressed out between college decisions, projects, AP tests, and a general, crippling anxiety over graduation and leaving home for the first time. Not to mention, I was trying so hard to recover from my eating disorder, but was realizing that it would be much harder to dig myself out of the whole I had created than I’d expected. I was ready to get my life back under control, but no one had told me how difficult it would be, and just making it through the day was a challenge at times.
I’m not sure what exactly triggered the melt down, but suddenly I was crying face down in my pillows, feeling completely overwhelmed. Somewhere between recovering from my eating disorder and surviving the end of high school, I was losing it. Something in my body started telling me that I just needed to get out and get moving, and things would all be better—at least for a while. I wanted to run. Run away from my eating disorder, run away from school, run away from exhausting relationships, run away from the immense pressure I had for some reason placed on myself. So, I put on pajama pants (the only remotely athletic attire I owned at the time), my worn-out gym shoes, and hit the ground running.
I could not believe how instantaneously my mood shifted—instead of feeling like I was being crushed under the pressures in my life, I suddenly was in complete control. I will never forget the high I experienced the first 5 minutes of that run, and how easy it was to forget all of the things that had moments earlier brought me to tears. I didn’t exactly run a marathon that day (maybe a mile, tops), but it felt incredibly different than any running I’d ever done before. Instead of feeling drained at the end, I felt elated. It was a completely new concept to me—that I could enjoy running. Not to mention the fact that my brief run that day and the high that followed may have been the first time since childhood that I celebrated my body and all it could do for me—imperfections and all.
Over the next year and a half, I continued running from time to time, but was far from consistent. One week I’d decide, “I should get in shape,” and I’d hit the track or the treadmill 4 nights in a row. Then, my feet wouldn’t see the inside of running shoes for weeks at a time. Those first years of college weren't the best time in my life. For most of my sophomore year I teetered dangerously on the verge of an anorexia relapse. While I wasn’t losing weight at the rate I had before recovery, I was unhappy and thought changing my body would change that. So, Eating Disorder? Meet Running.
I learned quickly that I could capture that same feeling of success that I had once had obtained by starving through running. I wasn’t over-exercising, but was using exercise in the same way I had used restricting in the past. At my college’s rec center, I remember staring at the “Calories Burned” count as I’d jog on the treadmill. I’d easily grow frustrated when my body’s ability would not match the unrealistic expectations I had for it. If I had to walk, or if the “Calories Burned” wasn’t as high as the day before, I’d get angry at myself and blame my “useless” body. Then I’d decide it wasn’t even worth the effort because clearly I would never be an athlete. I was running for all of the wrong reasons, and had completely forgotten that high I felt that Saturday afternoon running in my pajama pants.
With the help of a counselor and some therapy, I began to work through some of my disordered thinking, finally addressing years of demons that, while I thought I had conquered, had actually just been pushed out of sight for a bit. I abandoned running for a while. It had gone from being a refreshing and enjoyable activity to one that filled me with feelings of inadequacy and failure. As a person working so hard to embrace their body, any activity that made me hate it was one I wanted no part of for the time being. I had learned the truth once and for all: I was not a runner. I was not an athlete. Shrugging my shoulders, I moved on to other things.
I lived on the high of my first race for quite a while before I began contemplating any future race endeavors. In fact, as I completed my student teaching and embarked on my first teaching job, running once again fell onto the back burner. Towards the end of my first challenging year as a teacher, my mind wandered back to running. On recommendation from friends, I started the Couch 2 5K training program and loved every second of it. The whole idea of interval training and starting with short bursts of running padded by longer walking breaks was new to me, a person who had previously believed that “training” involved running as long and far as you could before you felt like you were going to die, then repeating the following day. C25K was just what I needed to show myself that, yes, I could be a runner.
I ran my first two 5Ks that summer, and while both were tough, they both were wonderful. I felt, for the first time, that not only was I a runner, but an athlete. That July, a silly whim found its way into my mind…then grew into a notion, then an idea, and then a goal…I heard about the Disney Princess Half-Marathon, and started thinking, “Wouldn’t that be fun!” Then suddenly, almost before I knew what I was doing, there I was, registering for it and buying a book about half-marathon training. I decided that months later I would be running 13.1 miles, about 10 miles more than I had ever run before. Wow. While a little part of me thought that this was a pretty ridiculous goal, especially since I had only just run my first 5K that month, another part of me knew that this was exactly the kind of goal I needed
However, less than a month after I registered for the half-marathon, I set off on a routine run only to feel a sharp pain in my right shin. After a mile and a half I was hobbling, unsure whether or not I would even make it home. It turned out this awful pain was a stress fracture. I expected to be off running for a month or so, but it took far longer than that to heal. I had only just started truly loving running when suddenly it was taken away from me! It wasn’t until months later that I was able to start putting on my running shoes again and hitting the roads. Even then, I couldn’t run more than a minute or so before taking a walking break. I was determined to take it easy on my tibia while still starting running again, so I was careful to take it slow and take plenty of breaks. It was frustrating—but mostly, it felt amazing to be running again.
Coming back from my injury, I approached each run with two underlying thoughts: I respect my body, and I will do the best I can. I knew that if I didn’t listen closely to my body, I could undo the months of healing my bones had been working on. I also knew that jumping into race training after months off was going to be challenging even without the injury in the equation. I decided that I would simply give each run what I could, mentally and physically, and that that would be enough. “I am enough,” was one of the many positive mantras I carried with me during my runs. Gone were the days of calorie counting, the “shoulds” and “if onlys,” and the anger when I couldn’t reach some unrealistic goal. No longer was I running to "cancel out” any sweets I ate during the day or as a means of “fixing” my body. Even injured, I was not broken. “I am enough.” What a radical thought.
During my training, I realized that I truly was different. It had been six years since I’d begun the process of anorexia recovery and three years since I’d felt I could consider myself “recovered.” Yet here I was, experiencing an entirely new sensation. Not only was I working my body hard, but I was appreciating with a brand-new sense of respect every step I was able to run. No matter the time, the miles, or the number of walk breaks—I was running, and I loved my body for it.
For the first time, I truly understood how much more powerful self-love is than self-hate, and saw the effects it was having on my mind and body.
|After my first half marathon|
Running was different after that. Of course, that’s not to say that every run is a fantastic run. Regardless of how much hard work I put into my running, I certainly did not become a “great runner” during this process. Honestly, I will never be one, and that’s okay! I can just be me, Amy. Now, no matter how long the distance or tough the run, the exhaustion and obstacles cannot distract me from the profound sense of appreciation and gratitude I have for my body. Look what it allows me to do even after all I have put it through in the past. How can I be anything but grateful? Empowered by this new sense of purpose and confidence, not only did I complete that half-marathon, but kept on running and finished eleven more races of varying distances that year.
The biggest accomplishment though, wasn’t the medals or the miles run. It was the fact that I had learned something very important about myself, something that will change my life forever. I learned to never let myself be the only thing that holds me back. That it's important to set goals so lofty they leave you literally shaking. That when you believe you can, you will find a way. That any forward motion should be celebrated. That self-love gets you further than self-loathing every every time. That I can, I can, I can...
Thank you for letting me share my story with you. :)
**If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, get help.
There is hope, and there is something better waiting for you.**