Running Dangerously


Photograph Courtesy of Chris Frezza

 

I could make a long list of all the things I love about running. So, here are a few:


The rhythmic sound of a whole pack’s footsteps and heavy breathing. The pleasure of trying on a fresh pair of trainers or spikes. The fulfillment of having a great run when you expected to feel like crap. The satisfaction of checking your watch after a hard rep and realizing you split it perfectly. The delight of hugging your teammate after you both PRed, and the euphoria when all your hard work pays off at exactly the right time.


My deep love for running, for my teammates, and for competition has motivated me for years and afforded me some of life’s highest highs. But a once-innocent desire to improve by “being healthy” ultimately spiraled me into dangerously disordered habits. Now, it leaves me picking up the pieces and fundamentally reforming my approach to the sport I love.


I want to share my experience with compulsive exercise, disordered eating, and the resulting injuries I’ve faced as a Division I collegiate runner.


Only a few close friends and family know about these personal struggles, so writing about them publicly is scary. But my hope is that, by sharing what I’ve gone through, I can help even one person salvage their relationship with food and sports — and avoid the physical and emotional pain that comes with disorder, and ultimately, injury.


For some background, I started running seriously as a sophomore in high school, which I guess is relatively late. I dropped 10 seconds in the 800 meters in just over four months, and ended my whirlwind of a season on the California state podium. The following year, I was among the top 800 meter runners in the country while only running 20 miles per week.


I realized I loved being competitive, seeing self-improvement, and of course, winning! I committed to run at my dream school, Duke University, and everything seemed to be falling into place. Early in my senior year, after my first summer of real base training, I was looking forward to a breakout cross country season.


Unfortunately, I only ran in three meets before a stress fracture in my foot due to a sudden increase in volume sidelined me for the first time in my short career. Even though I considered myself much more of a track runner, it was still bittersweet to be cheering from the sidelines as my high school team took second at the state cross country championships.


Throughout my rehab, during every long bike workout (assault bike, if you know you know) and swim session, I pictured the 2020 800 meter California State Championship.


Just as I was about to start working out healthy again, COVID hit.


I won’t harp on the “what ifs” of the 2020 outdoor track season because we all suffered that loss together. After setting an unofficial 800 meter PR in a May 2020 time trial, I was excited to transition to college training and racing. To everyone’s surprise (mine included), I had a great freshman fall cross country season at Duke.


Despite being recruited as “that 800 girl,” I adjusted well to higher mileage and 6k races. When we returned in the new year, I was thrilled to compete at both Indoor ACC Championships and 2021 Cross Country NCAAs in the span of two weeks.


The night before XC nationals, the mom of one of my teammates told me, “you are living the DI collegiate running dream you chased as a highschooler.” I realized that I absolutely was.


Photograph Courtesy of Chris Frezza

Immediately after the national meet, however, things started to go downhill. In late March, I learned that the slight hip pain I’d been running through for weeks was actually a low grade sacral stress reaction. Goodbye to my second track season in a row. Though this was a brutal pill to swallow, I still ended my freshman year grateful for the experience I gained all year and the races I had competed in.


And, I was hungry to pick up where I left off.


So, determined to conquer my injury and return to running better than ever before, I put my head down and worked. I hammered two-a-days on the bike, became obsessive about my core routine, and paid closer attention to what and when I was eating. Cross training offered both a release from the frustration of injury and a way to control my fitness and physique.


I told myself that the intensity I’d implemented was only temporary, and that I would back off as soon as I was running normally again. But as weeks passed and I slowly started running mileage, I couldn’t shake the urge to supplement training. By peak summer, I was running 55 miles a week (25 percent more than I’d ever done before), biking for an hour each day, and lifting heavy several times per week.


I knew I could be fast by doing what I’d always done, but I started wondering just how good I could get if I trained more — and ate less. To make matters worse, I was working an intense full-time job which required me to spend eight hour shifts on my feet, and created the perfect environment for strict food rules and anxiety to develop.


You can probably see where this is going.


I spent months at the mercy of very disordered behaviors surrounding food and exercise. (I will only describe them vaguely here, to avoid triggering others). Deep down I knew that something wasn’t right, but I reframed my worrisome habits as impressive self discipline and became defensive if anyone expressed concern.


I lost all flexibility in my life because everything revolved around eating “perfectly” and working out for literally hours each day. If I’d run, biked, and lifted “enough,” I would go to bed satisfied.


If not, I would spiral viciously into thoughts of inadequacy and often restricted food as a result. I insisted on doing most of my own cooking, kept a daily mental inventory of everything I ate, and routinely held back tears as I watched my mom put olive oil in a pan.


I’m ashamed to recall one specific night when I involuntarily broke down over bread. Yes, literal bread.


The irony is that while I thought I was in complete control of my lifestyle and the outcomes it would afford me in running, my disorder was, in fact, controlling me.


For a while, this obsession with “perfection” worked. I found satisfaction in my routines and validation in their results. In the fall I returned to school fit and excited to show off my hard work in cross country season. Everyone, myself included, was amazed by my improvement from the year before and the level at which I was now performing.


“That 800 girl” won her first collegiate race, dropped almost a minute off her 6k PR from only eight months earlier, and received All-ACC honors at a stacked conference meet. Reaching the success in running that I’d been chasing for so long was immensely gratifying and reinforced that I must be doing something right.


Photograph Courtesy of Chris Frezza

In reality, I was only digging myself deeper into a hole and beginning to break down.


It won’t surprise you to learn that my methods were unsustainable and eventually caught up to me. A week before my first indoor meet of 2022, I was diagnosed with a grade-4 stress fracture in my sacrum.


Yes, the stress fracture scale only goes up to four.


Not only was it my third stress-related bone injury in just over two years — and my second time “breaking my butt” in only ten months — but all my doctors and trainers told me it was the worst fracture they had ever seen.


It was devastating to lose yet another track season while supposedly in the shape of my life, and I was honestly freaked out to learn just how badly I was injured. Looking at the MRI of my cleaved sacrum, which is one of the largest and strongest bones in the body, was frightening and humbling. More than that, I was in excruciating pain, actually unable to walk for several weeks.


Often, injuries can feel as though the body has betrayed the athlete, but this time around I finally admitted that by underfueling and overexercising, I was the one who had betrayed my body. I had run until my bones literally broke. As crushing as the injury was, it represented my “rock bottom,” and I’ve seized it as a wake-up call and an opportunity for change.


I’ve since been diagnosed with Compulsive Exercise Disorder and Orthorexia, which the National Eating Disorder Association defines as “an [unhealthy and damaging] obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating.”


I’m grateful to my university athletics department for providing outstanding physical and mental health resources, and am lucky to be working with my nutritionist, sports psychologist, and a fabulous team of trainers and doctors to heal both my bone and my relationship with food and exercise. Learning to fuel myself adequately, especially while I’m not allowed to work out at all, is a challenge that makes me uncomfortable daily, but I’m really trying.


Sometimes when I start to panic, I visualize all the extra energy I’m consuming going toward my bone and helping it heal faster. I’m only halfway through my recovery period and to be honest, still a little afraid to run again. But when I am finally allowed back, I look forward to falling back in love with the process of training, but this time in a healthy, sustainable way.


It’s no secret the idealized runner body type and the belief that “lighter equals faster” plague our sport with toxicity. I thought I knew better than to fall into that trap, but still couldn’t help internalizing that dangerous mindset. While wanting to make my body look a certain way contributed to my disorder, my struggle was also a product of “the grind” mentality.


I genuinely enjoy daily training and busting my ass to become as good as I can be. It’s a major component of what we as runners do. However, even when my desire to be fast had developed into an obsession, I was regularly complimented on my admirable grit and my work ethic; in turn, I felt proud of my own sacrifice and dedication.


Of course, success in sport requires commitment, but you have to be able to distinguish between training hard to compete safely at your peak and training hard because you just can’t stop yourself.


By sharing my experience, I hope to help others avoid the pain I’m dealing with now. At the height of my disorder, I knew deep down that I wasn’t well. But the control I felt over my body, the outcomes I achieved in sport, and the fear of losing it all kept me from seeking help.


I got so good at hiding my issues with food so that I wasn’t flagged as a “weird eater.”


I was never hospitalized, never looked emaciated, and never skipped meals or went a day without eating. I appeared completely normal to everyone else, yet my disorder was still real, debilitating, and dangerous.


So, if you suspect you need to rethink your approach to training or fueling, or both, let me be your validation to make that change, now. If you’re reading this thinking it sounds familiar, or you wonder if you have a problem with food or exercise, I’m sorry to say that you probably do.


Photograph Courtesy of Chris Frezza

No disorder is too small to address, especially if it’s early enough to prevent long-term or large-scale consequences. More than anything, I wish I could go back and undo the year of strain I put on my body, and tell my younger self to focus on what is really important. Fuel and listen to your body, and be kind to it because nothing is worth sitting out of what you love most.


After all, it doesn’t matter how your uniform fits — or even how fast you might race — if you can’t run at all.



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