According to a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa. This week, I am excited to introduce our second guest writer on “Life with ED” to show us what life can be like as a college athlete when you throw ED into the mix.
By a NCAA Cross Country athlete who wished to remain anonymous
My legs aching, I trudge up the final hill of the final cross country race of the season. The last stretch. That make-or-break moment where you push past empty and finish strong or let the pain get the best of you. “Don’t let anyone pass you!” my coach shouts. “If you drop any more places we lose!”
I could feel my body giving out as the finish line came into sight. One runner passes me. Then another. And for the last 50 meters of the race, it seems as if the entire field of athletes – all looking strong, fit and thin – sprints past me as I move toward the finish line at little more than a walk. As I fight back tears, my thoughts are consumed by the crucial mistake from the night before: a cookie. Eating that cookie, among the cucumbers and leaves of spinach, destroyed my chances of performing well.
The competitive athletic world in college can put pressure on student-athletes like myself in ways that can crush the love of sport and life. As a collegiate runner, I’ve learned how hard I can push myself on the track, in the weight room and in the dining hall. My obsession with my body started quietly as I prepared for my second cross country season. After my freshman year, I had big dreams of being All-American and representing my school at NCAA Nationals. I picked up eating habits that I believed were healthy in order to prepare for the upcoming racing season. From closely following the paths of top runners across the globe, it seemed that I needed to lose at least ten pounds after a summer of intense training in order to be at ideal racing weight. I started to pay more attention to my diet, and how it impacted my running. I also became incredibly aware that the girls who were beating me were thinner than I. Much thinner. So I decided to lose weight. I ran hard, I cut out food that I deemed unnecessary, and I was rewarded for it.
When I got to preseason training, my coach told me how fit I looked and allowed me to run with the top group of runners. Keeping up with their training program was hard. I always felt one step behind and couldn’t figure out how to translate my drive for success and grit into effective racing. My solution was to further idealize those who crossed the finish line first and focus on the physical aspect of their achievements. I completely cut processed sugar out of my diet. I tried claiming to be gluten-free in efforts to avoid carbs without teammates asking questions. I ate chicken and raw vegetables for every meal and became depressed.
Soon after, I developed a chronic injury that cannot be resolved without surgery. While I could still run with manageable pain, it was hard to imagine a future in which I could compete at the same level I once did. Learning this completely broke my identity as an athlete and my vision for future success.
After deciding to wait for surgery until after my collegiate career, I dealt with my injury by controlling everything I could in order to live with the weight of the uncontrollables that lay heavy on my shoulders every day. My friends and family saw me become a more serious student who took more alone time in order to keep up with a rigorous workload. What they did not realize is that my time alone turned into missed meals or purging when I ate something that wasn’t in my self-prescribed meal plan. I confided in a boyfriend who reaffirmed my habits by telling me I looked great a little thinner and that my eating routine could only get me higher up on the podium during competition season. He supplied rice cakes and seltzer water to help control my appetite when I truly needed someone to save me from myself and push me to get help.
A pattern began of getting healthy and training well during summers, whittling down during the cross season, and consistently burning out just in time to blow up at the really big meets. I always ran my fastest at the pre-season time trial, and although I ran at important invitational races my freshman and sophomore years of college, I did so heavily bandaged and weary in order to appease my coach. I briefly sought help from a nutritionist on campus after I lost my period for many months and grew worried. For me, food is inextricably linked to control. The nutritionist asked me to loosen my grip on my body by eating complete meals, including sweets and carbs. I did what she said but turned to binging and purging as a way to cope with the immense guilt I felt when my calorie intake did not match the number on my watch after practice.
My relationship with running and exercise took a drastic turn for the worse. Instead of a stress reliever, working out became an inevitable part of my day that I couldn’t skip without feeling immense guilt and anxiety. It took me a long time to acknowledge that I was exhibiting classic disordered eating and exercise habits, and the narrative of my disorder has continued to this day. But through counseling and nutrition plans, I’ve been able to build new habits and loosen the grip I once had on my diet and body image. My coach’s emphasis on results pushed me to compromise my mental and physical health to achieve what might be simply not possible for my body. I have many regrets, but waiting to seek help out of the fear that I would seem weak and disappoint my coach is the biggest.
As I work towards lowering my athletic expectations for myself and finding pride in my body, I find that relying on the incredible network of support helps me see myself with great clarity. My current boyfriend has helped me finally to see the beauty, strength and resilience in my body. Having someone who cares if I eat and notices if I skip meals gives me a reason to stay on track. I eat with intentionality so that I can fuel myself through grueling workouts and so that I can be there for those who saved me from myself. I’ve rediscovered the joy of running and that is one thing that I will never let go. After intense rehabilitation for my injury, I finally feel the drive to run that I once did but this time, it’s purely out of love for the sport.
With my feet pounding the sidewalk and my face warmed by the setting sun, I feel great appreciation for my body and pride in its ability to take me places that I never could have imagined. I’m thankful for every step, drop of sweat and aching muscle that has made me a stronger athlete and person. As I bound up the final road of my run, I can’t help but smile at the thought of all the happy miles to come.