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Honed to Perfection

“Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t”—Jerry Rice. The quote is scrawled across the red brick wall beside my bed in white chalk. The last word is a bit smudged so that it now reads “what others ca” as opposed to “what others can’t.” Even though the written words are blurred, even though I don’t know who Jerry Rice is, I understand the message with perfect clarity. In order to perform the best, to be the best, I have to train for perfection. No detail is too small.

Distance running is unlike any sport that I know. It’s physical. It’s strength. It’s pain. It’s power: the power to focus, the power to overcome. During a race, you can’t sub out. You can’t rely on a teammate to run your race. It all comes down to how much you want to win and how much pain you’re willing to take. Technique and form can help improve your performance, but even a runner with terrible form can succeed if he or she can stomach the pain. You need endurance of both the body and the mind. You train your body to lessen the pain your mind feels. You train the mind to ignore that pain, so that you can push your body to new levels. The more fit you are, the less it hurts. However, the training is not limited to how many miles you run or how fast you run them. Runners need to lift, do core exercises, stretch, foam roll, ice, and all the other little things that make a champion. The quality and quantity of your sleep leading up to a race weeks in advance can affect race-day performance. What you’ve been eating on an everyday basis and the days just prior to a run can affect how you feel.

“Distance running is unlike any sport that I know… During a race, you can’t sub out.”

I hear so many runners and non-runners alike exclaim, “Runners burn so many calories that they can eat anything! The best part of running is that you never get fat!”

This is false; every serious runner knows that proper nutrition plays an important role in a runner’s training. If you always eat crap, you run like crap. To be the best and fastest you can be, a distance runner wants to be the lightest weight possible without being malnourished. The body needs an abundant source of energy to power it through all those miles. If a runner is malnourished, he or she could start consuming the hard-won muscles as energy. Anemia and electrolyte imbalances could set in and lay waste to months of training. On the other hand, shedding one more pound could mean shaving two more seconds per mile in a 5K. It’s your classic optimization problem: maximize performance by minimizing weight subject to constraints of adequate nutrition.  Reaching and maintaining that optimal weight requires self discipline, self monitoring, and a desire for perfection.

In a February 2006 article in USA Today, Nancy Hellmich explored the characteristics of an elite athlete, Olympic diver Kimiko Soldati. Hellmich observed that addictive personalities are commonly found among elite athletes, describing elite athletes as “driven personalities…almost obsessive-compulsive.” Similarly, a scientific study from 2001 on the psychology of athletes conducted by Roberta T. Sherman and Ron A. Thompson suggested that the traits of some “good athletes” are often associated with anorexia nervosa. Such an athlete would possess an utmost dedication to the sport, train through pain and injuries, and restrict one’s diet all in the name of peak performance. These same characteristics, willingness to ignore one’s body’s complaints of hunger and fatigue, are key to eating disorders (Sherman and Thompson 28).

“I remember my first runner crush… Her body was all muscle, no fat.”

Moreover, in distance running, a lean body is the stereotypical body type. The racing uniforms for female elite professional distance runners, consisting of just a sports bra and a bikini-cut bottom, highlight the toned perfection of their thin, muscled bodies. I remember my first runner crush. She was the top finisher for USA at the World Junior Cross Country Championships. Her body was all muscle, no fat. In her race pictures, every muscle in her quads was cut and defined. I wanted my abs to stand out like hers. I wanted my legs to be as chiseled as hers. I wanted to be as fast as her.

Towards the end of high school, I started to have some success in running after four years of running cross country and track. The 1600 meters was my main event. Once I began winning league championships, and then section championships, I believed it made perfect sense to begin controlling my diet. If I wanted to compete at the next level, I had to train at the next level, like the elite runners. I was already running more than 60 miles a week, building my muscles and endurance through two runs every day, and adding hard workouts, lifting routines, and other additional exercises. My high school coach always used to say, “A champion takes care of the little things. You’ve got to make the sacrifices.” I needed to optimize every part of my routine. I had the training, but I needed the weight, the diet.

According to journalist Hellmich, what’s called “disordered eating” affects approximately one in three female student-athletes. Eating Disorders Victoria, a company geared towards combatting various eating disorders, describes disordered eating as related but different from an eating disorder. Disordered eating encompasses a large set of abnormal eating behaviors that are characteristics of eating disorders, that when considered one by one, do not constitute a full-fledged eating disorder. Although not all disordered eating develops into an eating disorder, all eating disorders begin with disordered eating (“Disordered Eating and Dieting”).

After a somewhat disappointing start to my college running career for MIT’s varsity cross country team. I decided it was time to get serious about my diet. I began with cutting out all unhealthy foods. No chips. No soft drinks. No candy. No dessert. I went 6 months straight without even having a crumb of a cookie. I became calorie-obsessive.

“I began with cutting out all unhealthy foods. No chips. No soft drinks. No candy. No dessert.”

I counted and recorded the calories of everything I ate. I understood that food was a necessary fuel, but it was also fat, or an extra second on my mile time.  After consulting many racing weight resources, I set my weight goal to be 95 pounds and began to portion control. Every morning: plain 2% Greek yogurt, half a mango, a handful of raspberries and blueberries. Lunch: a little bit of rice, but mostly sautéed vegetables, maybe some tofu. Dinner: One bowl of rice, more sautéed veggies with a portion of lean protein. No seconds allowed. During this time, I also ramped up my mileage to roughly 12 miles per day. Extra miles meant extra calories burnt. If ever during the day I got too hungry to bear, I would allow myself a quarter cup of nuts, unsalted. I was constantly walking on the edge of hunger, but I was committed to perfection.

Such a constant level of control was not sustainable. Food consumed my thoughts. I was hungry. When was I scheduled to eat next? What would I eat next? In the college environment, the stress of balancing academics with extracurricular activities can be staggering. When studying late into the night, there was solace in an extra snack. To make matters worse, temptation was everywhere. All-you-can-eat dining halls and free food were arrows trying to pierce my defenses. Weak from stress and hunger, I was bound to crack. It was hard, almost impossible to stay in such iron control at all times. A small slip-up could be ignored perhaps once. But it was a slippery slope. Small slip-ups could add up over time. A larger slip-up, like a slice of cake, or an extra sandwich, could not be tolerated.

My first solution: if I ate more than planned for one meal, then I’d eat less later. This was hard, increasing my hunger and further loosening my control. My second solution: run more. I started going for third runs to burn off excess calories that I had consumed. One cookie meant one more mile. Midnight runs started to become part of my daily (or nightly) routine. But sometimes I was simply too tired to run more or it was too late and I feared compromising my sleep more than I already was. My existing solutions weren’t enough. I wanted a way to erase the mistake I had made, undo the damage.

I never expected to develop an eating disorder, which affect approximately 2-3% of athletes, not a huge figure (Sherman and Thompson 28). I had believed that disorders were for the mentally weak, the obsessed. I remembered in middle school watching a TV show where the main character, a gymnast, began to struggle with anorexia. How could she damage her body so? Couldn’t she see that she was thin enough the way she was?  And yet, in college after breakfast one morning, I felt so full, too full. I was disgusted with myself for being too weak to control myself and desperate to fix my mistake. Soon, I found myself alone in the bathroom contemplating the mechanisms. Touching the uvula would trigger the gag reflex.

“I never expected to develop an eating disorder.”

It was an unpleasant experience, trying to expel the contents of my stomach. Several attempts were necessary. Done, I felt disbelief that I had fallen to such an extreme, but I also felt something else, that dominated my emotions and soothed my nerves: relief.

In my sophomore year, I began to develop a new routine. I still kept my additional runs, just for a couple weeknights each week. At first, my stomach purges were infrequent, a last resort measure for truly evil foods like desserts and chips. Each time, I would tell myself that this would be the last time. Next time, I should just stick to my diet. However, next time came and went. Soon, I was deliberately vomiting about once per day. Some days, multiple times. Even when I did stick to my diet, I used throwing up as a method to cut a few more calories.

Eventually, I had to accept the fact that I had bulimia nervosa. According to the Mayo Clinic, bulimia nervosa is a “serious eating disorder marked by binging, followed by methods to avoid weight gain” (“Bulimia Nervosa”). Far before I began regurgitating my food as method, though, I was bulimic. My original method to attain my ideal running weight was running itself. During this time, my running was progressing as well if not better than before. Each race I ran, I clocked faster times. That season, I clocked a new school record for the 3000 meters: 9 minutes and 33 seconds. The time placed me number one in that year’s national rankings and number four in NCAA Division III history. Two days before that race, I purged four times in one day.

For many athletes with eating disorders, the turning point is when the disorder changes from helping performance to hurting performance. When the runner’s performance begins to suffer, when he or she gets slower instead of faster, that’s when the runner begins to see the disorder as a problem. Over one winter break, I ran with one of my high school cross country teammates. On our run, she confided that she was recovering from anorexia. She had lost 20 pounds. Even though she was a whole eight inches taller than me, we were the same weight. At first, she was winning her races. However, as she got thinner and thinner, she began to notice that she became cold too easily. She was shivering in ninety-five degree heat. At the state championships, she was only 200 meters away from the finish line, en route to a top-ten finish that would punch her ticket to Nike Cross Country Nationals, when she suddenly collapsed mid-stride, unconscious. That’s when her parents realized that she was underweight and took her to get professional help (“Running with Anorexia”).

For me, I never reached the point of collapse. Neither did anyone ever discover my disorder. My running was progressing beautifully. I had cut down to 98 pounds. I was discreet when I threw up. But I simply did not want to throw up anymore. Yes, I still wanted to be fast. Yes, I wanted to reach my optimal race weight. But no, I did not want to be bulimic. It made me so disgusted. It made me stressed. It made me sad.

“My running was progressing beautifully.”

I tried to end it on my own and succeeded for a day, then two, but on the third day, I cracked. I needed help. Even scarier than throwing up the first time, scarier than realizing I had a serious disorder, was telling someone I trusted. I needed the accountability; I needed someone to whom I couldn’t lie. Too afraid to tell my parents, sisters, or roommate – would  they be disgusted, would they think I was just crazy? – I told a fellow runner. He would understand my motivations, no matter how disordered.

With his help, and over many months, I overcame my eating disorder.

He would ask me a simple question, “How was eating today?” To which I would usually respond, “Good!” Such was the new routine. Knowing that he would be there, asking me about my eating, helped keep me in check at every meal and snack. He was holding me accountable. He had expectations. As with many other aspects of my life, I always strove to meet if not exceed expectations. But then came a day when my eating wasn’t good. When he asked the usual question over the phone, I hesitated but didn’t lie. I admitted that I’d eaten frozen yogurt, and then thrown it up.

There was silence for a moment, and then he asked quietly, “I don’t understand. Why did you do it?”

I tried to think of some explanation, the logic behind my thinking, but there was no logic. I knew the frozen yogurt wasn’t good for me. I knew I would hate myself for eating it. I knew that after I did, I would probably just purge it away. And yet, I still ate it. Every last bite. It was illogical. It was irrational. I had no response but: “I’m sorry.”

There was a brief pause. I expected him to explain my illogic, to tell me that what I had done was incredibly stupid. But instead, he responded quietly, “I’m disappointed.” There was no anger in his tone, just sadness and disappointment.

Somehow, the lack of explosion, the lack of anger, was terrifying. In the following silence, all I could sense was that deep disappointment. I had let him down. It hurt more than any extra snack I had consumed.  I never wanted to disappoint him again.

“That day, that conversation, was the last time I made myself vomit food I had just eaten.”

That day, that conversation, was the last time I made myself vomit food I had just eaten. Of course, my eating disorder did not suddenly vanish that day. After numerous meals, I still considered emptying my stomach. Sometimes, I tagged an extra mile onto the end of a run. A few times, I cried.  But, with time, I regained a healthier state of mind. Every time I felt the need to purge the foods I ate, I reminded myself that purging is dangerous. Purging is bad. Purging is not the answer. Before binging on desserts, I would remind myself that throwing up was not an option, so if I’m already full, don’t eat it.

Today, I recognize that moderation is the key to sustainability as a distance runner. No more extreme measures. Yes, I still want to be faster. Yes, I still want to be the best runner I can be. I want to shave a second or two off my mile time. Those desires have not changed. What has changed is my idea, my perception, of what it takes to be the best. I don’t need to deny myself every extra snack. I don’t need to be 10 pounds underweight in order to race my best. I find that I am still continuing to improve by training hard and focusing during my races.  A national title is still within my grasp, and I will do my best to attain it without the extreme diet. If later down the road I want more than an NCAA National Championship, if I want to be a professional competitive runner, I may have to begin dieting again. But, if that day does come, I will do so without purging, without bulimia. I’ll strive to be healthy.

Works Cited

“Bulimia Nervosa.”  Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.

“Disordered Eating and Dieting.” EDV. Eating Disorders Victoria, 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 04 Apr. 2015.

Hellmich, Nancy. “Athletes’ Hunger to Win Fuels Eating Disorders.”Usatoday.com. USA TODAY, 05 Feb. 2006. Web. 04 Apr. 2015.

“Running with Anorexia.” Personal interview. 17 Mar. 2014.

Sherman, Roberta T., and Ron A. Thompson. “Athletes and Disordered Eating: Four Major Issues for the Professional Psychologist.” American Psychological Association 32.1 (2001): n. pag. PsycARTICLES. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.

Author’s Note

The author of the essay, "Honed to Perfection," wishes to remain anonymous.