Calories are a Girl's Best Friend
by Laurel Park, Feb. 25, 2002
Calories are a Girl's Best Friend
A couple of weeks ago I read an interview with Amber Trotter, the young lady who won this year's Footlocker National High School Cross Country Championship with the incredible time of 16:24 (in my dreams!). Impressed as I was with her race, I was even more impressed to see her speak publicly of her struggle with anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder that unfortunately is way too common among high school and college runners. Amber admitted that while her condition was under control for the time being, she would always need to be alert and on the defense against relapses. As I've heard from so many other runners, anorexia is never really cured, but rather something they learn to deal with and control.
I've never had an eating disorder, so I have no first-hand experience with the hell that these victims (mostly women but also men) have endured. I have no inkling of the psychological demons that they must fight. But I do understand the desire to run faster, to win races, and to do almost anything to improve. Success is a seductive mistress. It's never completely satisfied, always demanding more of its servant. I also clearly recall the awkward transition from childhood to adolescence, the gaining of weight and appearance of curves that simply hadn't been there six months before. It's a difficult transition, especially in a societal culture that equates physical thinness with beauty (while at the same time pushing fast food and "super-sized" portions).
I don't recall ever hearing about eating disorders when I was in high school. I don't think it was discussed within our team, not out of denial or any such thing, but rather because it never seemed relevant. My teammates and I had no problem eating. We liked to eat. We scheduled social events around eating (our team ritual prior to a big meet was dinner at Big Boy's: spaghetti and hot fudge sundaes). We didn't take it to extremes and we tried to keep it reasonably healthy, but yeah, we ate. I never thought that any of my competitors had eating problems, either, although in retrospect a couple of them almost certainly did.
My first direct exposure to anorexia came in college, when one of my teammates was struggling with a severe case of the disease. "Sue" (not her real name) had been a state-ranked swimmer and in fact had earned a swimming scholarship to a prestigious east coast university. Her eating disorder developed during her sophomore year of high school, and progressed to the point where she required hospitalization. She recovered enough to accept the scholarship, but within the year had relapsed and on doctor's orders gave up her scholarship and returned home to Michigan. Prohibited from swimming, she began to run, and soon reached the same obsessive level that she'd had with swimming. She asked to join the cross country team, which my coach (a woman) reluctantly allowed, with the caveat that Sue continue treatment for the disorder. Her condition continued to deteriorate, and at the end of the academic year my coach had no choice but to dismiss her from the team. At this point her doctor was urging a second round of hospitalization, which Sue adamantly resisted.
I very clearly recall running into Sue at the library, several weeks after she'd been dismissed from the team. She wasn't angry or bitter. In fact, the saddest part of the whole situation was that she knew what was going on. Like most anorexics, she was very bright, very knowledgeable, very articulate. She knew she had a problem and that she needed help. She knew what would happen if things didn't change. "It's very frustrating," she said, twirling a highlighter in her skeletal hand. "I know I'm sick. I know I need to eat. But it's just so hard."
I don't know the end of Sue's story, but I'd like to believe that it was a happy one. She pledged a sorority and moved into the chapter house. The last time I saw her - about a year after the library encounter - she looked healthy. Although still very thin by most standards, she had clearly gained weight. More importantly, she looked relaxed, happy, in control. She smiled easily. Her eyes sparkled. Rather than keeping to herself and going about her business single-mindedly, she was laughing and joking with her friends.
Sue turned out to be the first of a number of anorexics that I've come to know. Some refuse to speak of their experiences, unwilling to re-visit the years of pain and frustration. Others are eager to share their stories, always on the lookout for the warning signs and "at risk" youngsters. They understand how quickly the disease takes over, and how difficult it is to fight. It's deceptive because initially, when they first start losing weight, they do run faster. Lighter bodies are easier to propel. But the line between fitness and excess is easily crossed. What started as a goal becomes a psychological compulsion. The road back is difficult, and things are never quite the same. In my 22 years of competitive running, I have only twice seen a recovered anorexic run as well as she did before getting ill. It's as if the body builds up a defense mechanism, determined that it will not allow that kind of abuse to happen again. Of course, by the time they recover, most anorexics have had so many injuries and illnesses (due to malnutrition), their bodies are too damaged to handle any kind of serious training anyway.
On occasion I am asked to speak to high school students about eating disorders. I feel completely unqualified to do so, so instead I focus on the things that I do know. Your body can't function without fuel. Healthy, consistent eating is the basis of successful racing. Choose foods judiciously. Drink plenty of water. Don't worry about how much you weigh (the only time I step on a scale is during my annual physical). Most importantly, don't equate emaciation with speed - it's not always a direct correlation (look, for example, at Ruth Wysocki, Maria Mutola, Regina Jacobs, Stephanie Graf, and Lynn Jennings, to name just a few). If you think you may be developing a problem, get help before it wreaks havoc with your life.
I hope to read many more articles about Amber Trotter in the coming years. I wish her a long and success running career. But most of all, I wish her health, happiness, and the ability to enjoy her running free from the demons of anorexia.