My Feminist Eating Disorder

The evening before I ran my 7th full marathon, I had an ample carb-loaded meal just like the ones thousands of other runners in the Austin area consumed that night. The only difference between their dinners and mine was that I threw up most of mine half an hour later. I dutifully had my night time snack as well: a bagel with peanut butter. This, too, landed in the toilet soon after.

I ran the marathon in 3 hours and 53 minutes. Not my best, but not my worst. The next day, as planned, I checked myself into full-time outpatient eating disorder treatment, also known as a Partial Hospitalization Program.

I have long considered myself to be an athlete. I am not necessarily fast or strong compared to other women, and I’m certainly not particularly talented. When it comes to the sports I enjoy outside of the endurance realm, like basketball, soccer, and ultimate Frisbee, I am noticeably clumsy and unskilled. I once played a game of one-on-one bball against my also-not-very-skilled boyfriend and made exactly one shot in the whole game. Nevertheless, athletic pursuits factor strongly into my identity. It was normal for me to place great importance on a 5k time or my bench press max. This sense of normalcy put blinders on me and the people around me so that before checking into ED treatment, I had no idea how problematic my relationship with exercise had become.

Things probably started to get out of control around my fifth marathon. I not only hit the sub-4 hour mark I’d been chasing for the past three races, but I surpassed it by 15 minutes. At three hours and 42 minutes, my time approached Boston qualifying range. If you had asked me four years ago if I thought I’d ever BQ, I would have laughed at the idea—I didn’t even know what the qualifying standards were back then. My first finishing time was too long by over an hour, and that was under the lax 2010 standards. So when the possibility of hitting 3:35 became a reasonable goal rather than a pipe dream, I told myself I’d do anything to get there.

Single-minded determination may have its appropriate times and places, but marathoning was not one such place for me. I welcomed this unhealthy preoccupation with open arms, and was especially glad that my BQ goal could overlap with my other obsession: losing weight. I had always considered myself too fat to be a marathoner, but I was damn sure I was too fat to be a Boston qualifier. I saw an article in Runner’s World magazine[1] asserting that for every pound you lose, you would cut two seconds off your mile time, simply by virtue of being lighter. Of course this came with the compulsory caveats about restrictive dieting, possible muscle loss, and so forth. But by the time my eyes reached that point in the text, my brain was already whirring through the math: losing one pound could cut 54 seconds off my full marathon time. Not insignificant, but five pounds would be four and a half minutes off.  And 10 pounds? NINE WHOLE MINUTES, gone! Using this very flawed model, I could do the same volume of training for my next race, and still BQ with three minutes to spare.

How hard can it be to lose 10 pounds, anyway?

Up until this moment of revelation, I had fit the all-too-common mold of American woman who is always trying to lose ten pounds (or more). But now I had my true motivation. I wanted a BQ far more than I had ever wanted to wear a bikini! Somewhere in my subconscious, I knew exactly how slippery a slope I was electing to slide down, but I convinced myself that weight loss in the name of athletic accomplishment was more excusable, more commendable, maybe even more feminist than getting skinny to wear tighter clothes or please a man.

The motivation worked, in a way:  I skipped breakfast and lunch with a renewed fervor; I avoided processed food like I avoid most heterosexual men. I restricted like this while maintaining a training schedule similar to that of an amateur professional athlete, just at a slower running pace. Yet the weight loss didn’t happen. I’ll spare you the gory details here, but as my eating and exercise habits became more and more suspicious, my weight stayed exactly the same. This pushed me to more and more desperate measures, until I didn’t know how to live without them.

I actually tried to check myself into treatment a week before the aforementioned marathon in Austin. I was nearly successful, until I mentioned that I would need the Saturday off to travel to Texas and run for four hours straight. The case manager across the desk from me laughed, and then shuddered when she realized I wasn’t kidding.

“You really believe you are healthy enough to run 26.2 miles without passing out, considering how little you’re eating and how often you’re vomiting?”

“No problem,” I said. “I do it all the time.”

 

[1] More on Runner’s World and the eating disorder-industrial complex in later posts!

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