[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I entered college, and collegiate running, with vague but firey aspirations of greatness. Could I run fast enough to be very good? Did I have it in me? Running, up to that point, had proven to me that I was stronger than I thought. Running helped uncover layers of myself that I didn't know needed uncovering. Many runners have experienced a similar sensation, and that's one of the coolest things about our sport. Greatness is something many people probably think about, without considering the hours of work and uncomfortable dedication it takes to fully realize. Greatness requires showing up day after day and because I believed so hard that I could be great, I was ready to do just that.
I was pushed harder than I'd ever been pushed before, and I loved it. But I was also confronted with such intense body shaming that I started to believe that my body was the reason my times hit a plateau. I started believing that my very average form was "too large." My body was the reason that, after I made the All-Conference team as a freshman, my coaches said I "exceeded their expectations." They looked at my body, did not expect greatness, and told me so. That's a difficult belief to untangle.
But even after I reached my "fighting weight," which we all agreed was 135, I still felt pressure to lose more. My times plateaued and my body broke down not because I was too large but because I'd stopped eating enough, or at all. I was lighter than ever before, so why wasn't I getting faster? There is a very common cycle athletes, especially runners, go through that looks something like this: a runner is progressing slowly and, whether by herself or with the help of coaches, loses weight. She gets faster. She thinks that this is the correct trajectory, so she keeps losing weight. For a short time, she is very fast. Sadly, the very-thin-very-fast phase only lasts a few months and then her times plateau again. Maybe she even gets slower. Or, more commonly, her body breaks. Maybe she suffers a bone fracture (that's very common), achilles tendonitis, runners knee, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, hamstring injuries, or any number of other maladies. I not only experienced this cycle but saw it repeated over and over again, not just in my own teammates but in competitors as well. Sometimes, a runner would disappear entirely, nobody sure where she went. Usually, she was injured and never came back the same, or at all.
None of this is to say that losing weight can't or won't make you faster. I mean, it did make me faster, to a point. I've never felt the need to write about this because it seems obvious. But, if my "fighting weight," or race weight (find yours here or here), was 135 and that's where I felt strong and healthy, that's where I should have stayed. I didn't gain any speed or endurance by dropping more weight, I actually became slower. Problems arose for me because I believed that losing more weight would result in better performance. This was a narrative fed to me not only by coaches but by the culture at large. Getting very small didn't make me better because it wasn't sustainable. Another obvious reality is that shaming someone into losing weight isn't a great strategy for success. That's not my own belief either, but a fact backed by science and human psychology.
After graduating from college, I wasn't sure if I wanted to run anymore. I began seeing a therapist who helped me work through the root causes of my eating disorder. After some time spent adjusting to working life, I decided my love for running was simply too strong to die. I moved to California and began running on trails, which provided a new challenge and reignited my love for the sport. I've completed a handful of ultra marathons and there is nothing I love more than spending a long day cruising around a mountain. Many women I ran with and against never found their love for running again.
In addition to seeing a therapist, I also began working with a dietitian who helped me immensely. She broke down a lot of food related myths that were hampering my performance (like, "carbs are bad") and helped me time my nutrition around my workouts and during my races. She helped me reinvent food as an amazing performance tool instead of as an enemy. And without really trying, I've maintained the same weight for 4+ years. It would have been enormously beneficial to have had her help earlier, but we can't change the past, so why dwell? I'm looking forward to my own calendar of races, which includes the infamous Tushars Mountain 100k in Beaver, UT (check it out here).
My largest mistake as a younger runner may have been believing the myth that smaller = faster. I believed my coaches too much. I listened to other people instead of checking in with my own body, because I erroneously that it would make me better. I didn't know any of this as an 18-year old but I know that now. And I hope, that by speaking up about our own mistakes and experiences, my generation can show younger women that their greatness doesn't rely on their body, or what other people say about their bodies. It just doesn't. That's another hill I'm willing to die on.
P.S. Follow some of my favorite women runners: Sally McRae, Amelia Boone, Kara Goucher, Alphine Tuliamuk, Allison Felix, Courtney Dauwalter, and Catra Corbett. Read Alexi Pappas book, Bravey, listen to the Trail Running Women podcast, follow Strong Runner Chicks, Running in Silence, and the Lane 9 Project. Find a group of trail running women near you at Trail Sisters and Black Girls Run or volunteer for Girls on the Run.