Running on empty: eating disorders and women athletes

When I was in high school, I used to eat breakfast and then run up to the woods behind the Chan Centre at UBC. There, at the top of the stairs leading down to Tower Beach, I would force myself to throw up.

When I think back on these mornings, I can vividly remember the taste of half-digested Eggo waffles and the horrible sensation of my fingernails scratching the back of my throat.  I clearly see myself: knees bent, back hunched, my pony tail hanging over my face; I see how sometimes I would spit up into my hair.

I feel my heart racing, a mix of desperation and fear. How my chest would constrict and ache from the exertion of trying to purge what little food I had left in my stomach.

I remember how after I would run home.

In university, this routine changed. Instead of throwing up mid-run, I would binge and purge prior to leaving the house. In the quiet of an empty apartment, I would consume large quantities of ice cream, cereal, cake (if we had any), yogurt, and diet coke. Then, hunched over the toilet, I would puke. And cry.

Cry. And puke.

Then I would wash my face. Blow my nose, dry my tears, and check to see if any blood vessels had broken under my eyes and along the tops of my cheeks.

I would put on make-up before running. Smooth concealer over my skin and try to forget that the last thirty minutes had ever happened.

(Because every time was always The Last Time.)

Running after purging is scary.

Everything in my body would scream out that what I was doing was wrong. My legs were rubber, my head a haze; my digestive tract a battlefield.

The spastic lurch of my heart, as if it might actually punch its way out of my chest; as it might at any moment stop.


The long hours it would take for it to finally return to a normal, constant beat.

I am sharing all of this today because I am training for a marathon.

I am sharing all of this today because sometimes it is hard not to have an eating disorder.

(These two things are not mutually exclusive.)

Sometimes it is hard to be kind to myself.

Sometimes I run very long distances on little to no food, and then ignore recovery meals.

Sometimes it’s just really hard.

But sometimes it’s not.

And most of the time now when I run long distances, I am fueling my body correctly, and eating and drinking post-run, and also eating proper dinners, and breakfasts and all of these good things.

And while I want to love this, and jump up and down and proudly proclaim “I HAVE DONE IT!” – I can’t.

Because even though I am doing all of these good things, and so much of me is so happy to do all of these good things, there is still a small part of me that is telling me that they are bad, and therefore I am bad for doing them.

We don’t ever talk about athletes and eating disorders.

I think there are many reasons for this, and all of them come down to communication.

The first? We rarely ever talk about women athletes.

Sure, we’ll marvel at Serena’s domination, and yes, there’s always an Olympian du-jour when every two years or so our collective attention is briefly diverted to amateur athletics. But for the most part, our sports discourse is dominated by men. By the Lebrons and the Jeters and the Crosbys – by the men who are the untouchables of their leagues. And honestly, based on how progressive the conversations we have about these sports and their players are (hint: not progressive at all) and how slow their respective professional associations are in responding to the massive ills plaguing their leagues (molasses going uphill on a winter day), I am going to go ahead and assume it will be a cold day in hell when we broach the topic of eating disorders in the NFL.

Second, we rarely talk about eating disorders.

And I mean really talk.

Sure, we wax eloquent all of the time about how SO! MANY! women have problems with their bodies, and about how girls begin starving themselves as young as five. Every spring, a European fashion week will “pass legislation” (what does that even mean?) prohibiting models with BMIs under 18 from walking in their shows.

And of course THE MEDIA. The media, the media, the media.

We talk about the media all of the time: what an evil force it is in our daily lives. How it warps our social consciousness, perverts our expectations and demands the impossible of ourselves, our aesthetics and our desires.

And none of this is wrong.

But what really kills me is that none of these things actually says anything.

None of this really means anything.

It does not even begin to scratch the surface of what it’s like to live with an eating disorder. It does not articulate how devastating it is to be anorexic or bulimic, and it certainly does nothing about finding ways to help.

It pays lip service to a problem, but then just stops.

So that people listening can think, “Oh. That’s so sad.” And then just go on, living their lives.

Every time I hear things like, “In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa,” or “4% of women will have bulimia in their lifetime,” I just hear facts, unchangeable and constant. It’s like I am almost expecting the reporter to finish off by saying, “and that’s all I have to say about that.”

And if we’ve resigned ourselves to this reality, then what really is the point in talking about the specifics and particulars of the diseases? Why go through all of the trouble of making people uncomfortable?

Unfortunately, the immense shame and stigma shouldered by many individuals who have eating disorders only adds to the silence.

I am only now capable of talking freely about my struggles because I no longer have the energy to hide from them. I also hope that by being transparent about my experience, others too will feel comfortable doing the same. The more we speak honestly and openly, the less the stigma, and the deeper the understanding by the wider populace.

Unfortunately, getting to this place is very hard.

For years I did everything I could to keep my anorexia and bulimia a secret and hide it from friends and family. I know a lot of it had to do with my perfectionism and my anxiety, but my fear was also born out of the fact that I didn’t think anyone would be able to help.

I didn’t think anyone would be able to understand.

And this was not unfounded. Because eating disorders are so misunderstood and so little talked about, you get really enlightened people who immediately dismiss you and your attempts at articulating what it’s like to live with one, who say things like “just eat a sandwich!” or “but you’re skinny already” or “I don’t understand how you can live like that.”

Which, amazingly enough, doesn’t help.

It just makes the whole situation one huge negative feedback loop.

Finally, I think we have such a hard time talking about eating disorders and athletes is because of our weird inability to divorce the idea of exercise from weight loss.

Which really narrows our scope when it comes to how we look and talk about both exercise, and us the people who are doing the exercising.

Because if we’re not lifting weights to get strong, or running to train for a race, what are we doing?

Are we doing something bad?

Probably not.

Society tells us no. Society tells us that the more weight we are losing, the better.

But only if we are exercising? (And eating our Special K?)

For me, I find this way of looking at things to be really detrimental.

Because when we think like this, that exercise = weight loss, we are again dismissing two really important things: one that moving our bodies can be exactly just that. An activity – void of anything and everything else.

And if that is not the case, why are we celebrating, and how are we celebrating, and are we actually judging and why are we judging?

When and how do we decide that exercise for weight-loss is unhealthy vs. otherwise?

And are we so afraid of that otherwise, that we just bury our heads in the sand and find ourselves inadvertently cheering on eating disorders?

(Eating disorders disguised as exercise = weight loss.)

I don’t know.

All I know is that this is complicated stuff.

I that I truly believe that it just comes down to how badly we need better communication around this issue and how we need it fast.

We need real information, and we need real stories.

I would personally love to hear from women athletes, period. But I would also love to hear from ones who have had eating disorders, so that I can hear how they cope when they are training.

I want to know what they do when they find themselves needing to eat more because they are running more, and lifting more, and what they do to be okay with this. I am interested in knowing how they marry social expectations over what they should look like, or their own internal body image struggles, with their desire to dominate.

Their passion to win.

Because going through things alone is really hard.

No one ever talks about it.

So I’m here. Talking.

Because it’s so hard.


I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes

So I originally wrote on Friday that M and I were planning on hiking Mt. Seymour on Saturday – a fab hike for an early August day. However, as it is wont to happen in life, our plans changed and we ended up taking on another venture – running from our house in New Westminster to M’s parents’ house in Surrey (which according to “Google map my run” is a distance of 16.45 kilometers).

They recently had their carpets redone and needed help moving a boatload of furniture back to its original positioning, so we were happy to (literally) run over and help out.

Now, Vancity is enjoying its first real heat wave of the summer, and to say that this run was stinkin’ hot might be a bit of an understatement.

We left at 9:40 am and even then the sun was a-blazzing. The one section of the route that afforded us some shade was the part when we ran up King George Highway under the skytrain; after that we were cooking.

I’ll just come out and say it: this was not the best of runs.

In fact, a lot of it was pretty miserable.

It became obvious pretty quickly that M and I were interested in running our own runs, and were not all that interested in running each other’s runs.

This made for some pretty heated commentary along our path (and quite a few sprints, stops, and starts at that.)

We are both highly competitive, highly focused people – and as such, sometimes we start out so fixated on what we want to get out of somethings that we forget how important it is to work together as a team and be open to blending (or at the very least bending) our expectations.

Because seriously, hashing that stuff out on under the blinding hot sun, halfway through an almost 17 kilometer run is not only frustrating, but also exhausting.

Expending that much energy on emotions leaves you with much less juice to finish off those final clicks – it’s pretty darn mentally draining, and as any runner will tell you, that’s a huge component of finishing your race.

Or, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, “Running is 90 per cent mental, and the other half is physical.”

By the time we arrived at M’s parents’ place the two of us were completely done.


Please see exhibit A for confirmation:

However, communication wise we were a-okay, tip top, lindy hop.

And the crazy thing is, we still ran that stupid run in less than an hour and fifteen minutes. I can’t help but wonder what we would have done it in if we had actually liked each other during the run!

Alas, that is another question for another day.

After cooling down and drinking litres and litres of water, we changed into some non-sweat soaked duds and moved some bloody-giant wooden furniture around (or how I like to think of it – playing real-life doll house.)

Then it was time to return home, shower up, put on a cute sundress (only I did this – M donned a sweet t-shirt/short combo) and hit the downtown waterfront.


Once there we found a lovely spot for some NYT crossword, patio and Caesar action (I’m pretty sure that M and I are the only nerds out there brining crosswords to bars, but whatever, I’ll take it.)



This, two days after writing about how I have a strange penchant for mispronouncing Coke, and here we are: VINDICATION.

Also, whoever wrote this should probably spend more time proofreading their work.

But seriously, I almost died when I saw this. Maybe they read this blog and were hoping I’d read this as I walked down Columbia Street?

I can only hope.

I can only imagine.

In final news we have been watching the everliving heck out of the Olympics. As I sit here typing this we are getting ready to watch France and Japan square off in the women’s soccer semi-finals, and we are of course looking forward to Canada taking on the USA later this afternoon.

Seeing Usain Bolt win yesterday was epic, I don’t even understand how gymnastics works, and I want the abdominal muscles of every single heptathlete in the competition.

I believe the question I asked M last night before we went to bed was:

“Do you think if I exercised six days a week and only ate one dessert a day I could have abs like that?”

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

What about you cats? What’s been shaking in your neck of the woods?