Exercise is something that is considered healthy. Not only does it benefit us physically, but also mentally. It is a good tool to use for stress management and can also help people manage various types of psychological issues. It’s that adrenaline produced by exercise that can bring out the competitive nature in exceptional athletes and motivate others to live a healthier lifestyle. Even people who joke to have an exercise addiction is something most consider to be admirable. The drive and determination it takes to train multiple hours a day for a certain sport is a quality that is both respected and envied. It can be hard to understand that even too much of a good thing can be negative. I’ve struggled for years with an exercise addiction, and it’s something that’s been terribly difficult to admit. There are multiple signs that have shown me the amount of exercise I was engaging in wasn’t healthy, and the steps I’ve been taking the past several months to put an end to it has definitely been more of a challenge than I thought it would be.
When I started running, it came from a healthy place. I was a freshman in high school who just wanted to be in better shape. The first running loop I created in my neighborhood was 2.5 miles. I remember liking the feeling when I was done, exhausted but proud of what I had accomplished. I liked the way my body felt, my muscles were tighter and being dehydrated made me feel lighter. My clothes began getting baggier and the compliments started coming in.
“You look great!”
“Have you lost weight? I’m so jealous!!”
“You’re such a fast runner!”
The praise motivated me to run harder and eat less. I liked feeling small and light. My mood started to become dependent on the endorphins from running- if I wasn’t able to run that day I would become depressed, irritable and angry. 2.5 miles turned into 5 miles. 5 miles turned into 10 miles. Once I started my sophomore year of high school I was running 10 miles. Every. Single. Day. The compliments stopped and instead people were starting to worry. My doctor placed me on exercise restriction but that wouldn’t stop me. I would do anything to exercise- before school I would run up and down our stairs 100 times while my parents were still sleeping. I would come home from school and immediately go down to the basement to do aerobics. There were even Sunday mornings where I would find an empty room at our church to run laps in while my parents thought I was sitting in the service with my friends elsewhere. The need to exercise consumed me, and the amount of calories I was burning coupled with the amount I wasn’t eating was taking a toll on my body that I was in denial of. My self-worth was 100% based on how many miles I ran that day, how little I ate (or how long I could hold off eating entirely that day) and the number of ribs I could count that were protruding through my skin.
After being diagnosed with an eating disorder the middle of my sophomore year, I began the road to recovery the summer going into my junior year. I was eating again, but was not willing to stop running. It was the only thing I still felt like I had control over and the thought of giving that up terrified me. As I started to eat normally again and put on weight, my doctor was okay with me running as long as I kept my weight up. I continued to run 10 miles every day, only allowing myself a day off once every 3 weeks. I dreaded every minute of it, but I couldn’t let it go because it was the only thing that allowed me to eat. Although I looked healthy on the outside, I was still fighting a difficult battle with myself on the inside. I told myself that once I went to college I wouldn’t exercise as much because I would be too busy. I was convinced that going away to college would make everything better, but it actually made things worse.
By the middle of my freshman year at Purdue University, I was running a minimum of 11 miles every day, some days I would run 20-22 miles with some upperclassmen who were training for the Chicago marathon. 3 days a week I would run at least twice per day- whenever I had a chance between classes I would exercise. The cross country coach saw me run by the athletic complexes, and impressed with my pace, invited me to join the team. Again, I thought joining the team would give me more discipline to run only the amount my coach told me to. Nope. I became worried that the workouts were too short and would run extra on my own, sneaking in treadmill runs at the Co-Rec and running off-campus so I wouldn’t get caught. The stress on my body lead to multiple stress fractures and other injuries that would put me out of running for months at a time. I didn’t know how to cope with stress and emotions without being able to run, and every injury was a trigger for relapsing back into my eating disorder. I coped with binge drinking, blaming my thrown up dinner on the tequila shots I took that night.
During my last year of undergrad I was finally injury-free and impulsively decided to sign up for the Chicago marathon. A reason to run excessively without giving a cause for people to comment that I was running too much?! Sign me up! After completing the Chicago marathon at a respectable time of 3:29, I decided it was my first and last. Two years later I made another impulsive decision to run the Arizona marathon (only because the entry fee was only $15 more than the half-marathon- I thought, why not??). Running that marathon 7 minutes faster than my first, I had qualified for the Boston marathon twice and decided to go for it. I thought Boston would be my last, I had over-trained and was going into the race mentally and physically drained. However, the year I ran in Boston was the year of the bombings. The events of that day were difficult for me to process, so I coped with the emotions the only way I knew how- running. I ran my next marathon less than 6 months later with another PR, and then after finding out that I was pregnant, took a 2 year break. When Carli was just 14 months old, I ran the Chicago marathon again and then just 5 months later ran the Atlanta marathon. Having had a lot of success in Atlanta (I placed fourth overall female with a time of 3:16) I immediately signed up for my 7th marathon, which would take place in Columbus, IN in September, just 6 months later.
I was able to surrender my eating disorder and body image issues to God years ago- but I’ve grasped onto my exercise addiction with excuses that allowed me to believe it was okay. It’s been easy to let myself thrive in the success I’ve had with marathon running, and I had big goals for myself when I started to train for my 7th marathon. I was going to run close to 3:10- I wanted to get faster and faster so that someday I could beat 3:00. I believed that this drive to be a faster runner was normal because all athletes are motivated to get better. I didn’t want to accept or consider that the success I wanted came at a price- not just the price of the relationships with the people closest to me, but also the price of my health. Even the price of staying in recovery from my eating disorder. Although I refuse to let myself fall into that place again, I’m realizing that training so intensely (the way I have been) can so easily open that door. I’m also learning that training for such long distances is a trigger, one that I’ve been in denial of.
There has been a transformation in my thoughts over the past several years that has allowed me to be at peace with food and my body. I didn’t allow that transformation to get in the way of my running, I wanted so badly to protect that because I was too scared to give it up. It was the one thing that my eating disorder had left to use against me, to stir up those feelings of inadequacy that food could no longer compress. I want my approach to running be similar to my approach to food- something that is healthy and well-balanced. I no longer want to use running as a form of punishment or source of self-worth. I don’t want it to be my only coping mechanism- something that I’m finding to be quite difficult but very rewarding all at the same time.
I no longer want to be defined as just being a hard-working, dedicated runner. I want people to know me as a good friend, a loving wife, a wonderful mother. Running still has a place, it always will. It’s just going to take a backseat to more important things in life.
I don’t plan on never racing again. In fact, I’m running a half-marathon with one of my best friends in early November. I have decided to resign from marathon running – I’m not sure if it’s going to be forever, but I know that right now I can no longer put so much focus on training for a 26.2 mile race. A lot of people who run marathons are able to do so without becoming so consumed by the training. I’m able to train this way for shorter distances, but it’s very hard for me to train for a marathon without running an excessive amount.
I decided to drop out of my 7th marathon just 8 weeks before I was due to race. Honestly, I’m just tired. I’m only 29, but my body feels like I’m 79 sometimes. It’s worn out and defeated. I enjoyed spending my summer running less and allowing myself to do other forms of exercise. I spent more time with friends and family. I slept in (as much as Carli would let me) and I feel refreshed. Although I felt a twinge of guilt yesterday morning when I looked at the clock and realized that I should be running mile 18 at that moment, I was at complete peace with my decision.