A Long Winding Road to Running and Recovery
A guest blog post from 2021 Race Ambassador, Caroline Brooks.
Now in the second year as a Detroit Free Press Marathon Ambassador, I am in awe of Detroit’s running community and the amazing people in it.
I don’t usually talk about why my relationship status with running is “it’s complicated,” but I wanted to proactively share parts of my story in the event it helps someone feel less alone.
I first want to acknowledge the fact that I am not a mental health professional, nor am I licensed to counsel anyone else who may struggle (or have struggled in the past) from eating disorders or mental health issues. I also want to warn any readers who may find this content triggering.
Like many runners, I spent my childhood playing sports. The competition was always something to pursue – more so, it was something to win. I always felt immense, crippling sadness if I wasn’t a winner because it felt I didn’t have control of the results and that I let someone down.
During this time in life, there was a lot of pressure to be a certain way – albeit physically, academically, or athletically. I was always the shortest and the smallest, but once teenage years hit, I felt like I lost control over my body. The one thing I could control was what and how much I ate, and if I kept it down. I would go through stretches when things went back to the status quo, but there was always the cycle of “control” that I’d come back to.
After high school and in college, priorities changed as they do for many. I stopped playing sports but would run around my college campus a few times a month to say, “I worked out!” “The freshman 15” is a true occurrence – and the uptick in adult beverage consumption throughout collegiate years didn’t help. I was a happy young-adult, but living in a sorority house kept the cycle going – though not as frequent.
I never looked as though I struggled with an eating disorder, but that doesn’t mean symptoms weren’t hidden beneath the surface.
But by the time I was in my mid-20s, I had lived and worked in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. I was waist-deep in a tough and competitive job, was in what I now know was an abusive relationship, suffered a terrible breakup, grew apart from best friends, wanted to maintain a certain appearance, got a new boyfriend that I thought only liked me because I looked a certain way at that time, and felt completely out of control. This was…the perfect storm.
What was once a healthy hobby turned into an activity that I could rely on to have control over. If I could run six miles one day, I’d try for more the following. I moved into an apartment with a basement gym so had an outlet for my habit just an elevator ride away. At one point, I was under 100 lbs. and running 10 miles every day while living on a strict diet of vegetables.
I ignored all dangerous warning signs, as well interventions from family and friends; then one day in the basement gym, I realized that enough was enough. I was seeing a therapist at this point who encouraged me to try yoga. Something snapped and I left the apartment, went to a nearby yoga studio, and anxiously sat for a full hour before the next class was available.
Since that day – the “enough is enough” day – life took a turn. I fell in love with yoga (even went through training to teach!), married the then-boyfriend who I was worried would lose interest, adopted two dogs, and finally got to a place where I could run again.
It took intense therapy. It took a village of supportive friends and family who stuck it out. It took finding small mental milestones that I could celebrate. It took years of baby steps to become healthier on the inside and out – sometimes one step forward and two back.
There’s a saying I heard in therapy, “exercise is a celebration of what your body can do – not punishment for what you eat or can’t control.”
Running is a sport where we track ourselves down to the second. It is a sport that control-driven people can turn in times when things in life seem out of control. Yet, it’s a sport that requires balance. We can’t stay run-ready or get those negative split times without proper fuel and recovery!
The dangerous cycle and anxiety are things I work on every day. That “celebration” has become a mantra that I start and end every run with.
My hope is that fellow runners are in the “celebration” category; for others, I hope they discover that there are ways to achieve goals while feeling empowered to put their mental health first.
If you feel like you may be struggling with disordered eating patterns or compulsive exercise, there are plenty of resources to turn to. Start with the National Eating Disorder Association, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/.