Friday, February 10, 2006

Inspired by Alison

Great post the other day here by Alison. For a while now, I've wanted to write a similar piece concerning eating disorders among male distance runners, a topic that doesn't nearly get the attention it deserves.

In the fall of 2004, I happened to be messing around online when I stumbled upon this article that Kemibe wrote for Running Times - an excellent piece full of lots of useful info that really hit home to me. Now, this is something I've only shared with about five people - even though many others close to me may suspected something or even picked up on it - but at the time, I was in the worst stages of my own struggle with eating and reluctant to admit to anyone - most importantly, myself - that I had a problem. Luckily, Kemibe's words, along with a well-timed injury and support from a good Friend, helped me to swallow my pride and get some help - and trust me, I needed it. And believe it or not, there are a lot of other male distance runners out there who need it as well, hence the reason for me sharing my story.

When I graduated from college in May of '04 I made the self-commitment to becoming the best runner that I was capable of becoming. Being the perfectionist that I can tend to be, I decided to cut all all the stops - I joined an "elite" post-collegiate club in Eugene, Oregon, went to bed early, made sure I got at least eight hours of sleep a night, ran twice a day every day, traversed soft trails, did my pushups and situps, got regular massage - you name it, I did it. I also came to the conclusion that if I was gonna be an elite runner, I had to look the part as well. At 5'8" and 145 lbs, I hardly classified as a fat-ass, but dropping a few unneccessary pounds in order to more closely resemble the ectomorphic African whippets I aspired to be like would surely get me going in the right direction.

Well I must've read the signs wrong, because the only direction I was heading in pointed downward.

In the effort to "improve" my diet, I more or less eliminated it instead - I cut out excess calories, ate smaller (and fewer) meals, eliminated unneccessary snacking, refused dessert and put nothing in my mouth after 8 p.m. I mysteriously developed lactose intolerance, all of a sudden couldn't digest meat, and drank more water than a friggin' camel. I counted every morsel that went in my body and capped my day's caloric intake at 2,000 (though usually much less than that) - no matter how many miles I ran. All this just to "drop a few pounds". Scary thing is, it worked.

By the time I moved out to Eugene in August of '04 I was down to 130 pounds. I successfully lost 10 pounds in about three months - Jenny Craig would've been proud. Problem was, I didn't have 10 pounds to lose. It didn't stop there, however. 1,000 miles away from home, not knowing anyone, and being broke to boot, the vicious cycle continued. The focus now wasn't on seeing how fast I could go, or how many miles I could run, but rather how many calories I could burn. It became a game, and a dangerous one at that. I got more excited by seeing a lower number on the scale than I did by seeing a faster time on my watch. And believe me, those numbers got low. I returned back to Massachusetts in September - homesick, broke, and a famished (for me) 124 pounds. Looking back, I was a disgusting mess - but at the time I didn't care. Heck I didn't even notice what was happening to my body - or my mind - for that matter, but luckily for me, I had friends and family who did.

People, no matter how much they care or how close to you they might be, often find it very difficult to approach someone who might be suffering from an eating disorder. In my case, it was no different. My parents noticed changes in my eating behavior, as did my family, friends, training partners and coaches, and the most common comment I received was along the lines of "you look like you've been doing a lot of running." Which I was, but it had a twisted purpose. 10 miles wasn't 10 miles - 10 miles was roughly 1,000 calories. Not the way you wanna be thinking if your true objective is to see how fast you can get, believe me.

Anyways, the downward spiral continued through the fall of '04. I moved back home from Oregon, joined a local running club, ran 100 miles a week, did a few workouts, jumped in some races and performed poorly in almost all of them. I couldn't figure out why this was the case, but surmised that it had to do with a training error of some sorts. I also weighed myself two or three times a day, couldn't fall asleep at night (and woke up starving when I did), continued to count every calorie, skipped some meals altogether and read every piece of nutritional literature - and food label - I could get my hands on. It all caught up with me, however, towards the end of November, when I started feeling some tightness in my left Achilles tendon. Of course, I tried to run through it - tough guys run through everything. A week later, I couldn't run a step. Hell, I couldn't even wear shoes the thing hurt so much. This tough guy had to suck it up and face the fact before him - I was out of commission.

With all sorts of free time now on my hands, I needed to find ways to fill the voids in my day. I bought a gym membership. I cross-trained fervishly. I read massively. I barely ate anything. One day, while gathering all the information I could about caloric needs for the injured, I came across Kemibe's aforementioned article and a light bulb went off in the black hole that was once my brain. I found myself relating to Steve, the subject of the article, and for the first time I questioned myself. Could eating really be my problem? Just a passing thought, but it stuck around long enough to get the wheels turning. While talking to a Friend one day, I was telling her of the Nancy Clark Nutrition Guidebook I had recently bought with a Christmas gift certificate. She blasted me for it and called a spade a spade. "Why did you buy that?", she asked. "Give me an honest answer." I couldn't, so I hung up the phone.

I called my Friend back the next night and apologized for my rude behavior. I also put into words all the thoughts that had gone through my head during the previous 24 hours and admitted for the first time that I had a problem with eating. It was taking over my life and all the free time I had on my hands due to not being able to run helped me realize that. We talked for well over a hour - an eternity for me on the phone - and I immediately felt much better that I had gotten everything out and had the support of a close friend to help me improve my situation. As comforting as all this was, I still had a long road ahead of me and I knew it.

Once I was able to start up running again in late February of '05, the demons inevitably returned - they always do. Those bastards weren't easy to fight off - heck, they still return from time to time - but I did my best to let them know that they weren't going to ruin my life. And ya know what? It worked. I became aware of what I was doing to myself and my body, though I wasn't always successful in recognizing it at first. I slowly started eating more - and more often for that matter. I stopped counting calories. I quit reading nutrition books like they were comic books. I stopped weighing myself. I allowed myself dessert again. And guess what? I wasn't as tired all the time, found myself in a better mood more often and didn't wake up with hunger pangs on a nightly basis. I also started running better and nagging injuries were finally subsiding. Life slowly started taking a 180.

But like I said, those demons always find their way back. They returned again this fall, and at first I wasn't very successful in fending them off. While I didn't completely revert to my old ways, some of my past behaviors did return for a while. Again, I got lucky. With the help of my parents, an old college coach who constantly checks in to make sure I'm taking care of myself, and a few close friends, I was able to recognize their unwelcome presence and get myself out of that downward spiral yet again. I now eat what I want, when I want and as much as I want - without feeling a bit of shame. Don't get me wrong, I still keep a close eye on my diet. As a distance runner, you need to. If you fill your tank with bad gas then the car isn't gonna run as effectively and efficiently as possible. The major difference now though, is that I no longer obsess about it. I enjoy food again. I can't remember the last time I checked a nutrition label for caloric content. The last time I stepped on a scale was a few weeks ago at a doctor's appointment. I'm happy to report that I weighed in at a healthy 134 lbs. But those numbers don't matter any more. The ones that do make their home on the face of my stopwatch. It's freeing, in a way.

But like I said, eating disorders - whether you're a male of female - are a vicious cycle. The trick is catching yourself before you get stuck in the downward spiral, because its a long, hard road that takes a while to return from if you happen to get yourself sucked out to far. The poiont I'm trying to make is this: Don't be afraid to look for help, and make sure to take it, because its certainly there. Slowly take your life back, you owe it to yourself.

This is just my story, and while I wish I never had to do so, I'm glad to share it. The problem of eating disorders among male distance runners is such an overlooked issue that people seemingly just don't want to talk about it. Frankly, this worries me. Hopefully, by sharing my own tribulations as well as triumphs with eating and running, I can bring some much-needed attention to the issue and help others who may find themselves in a similar situation.

That's it for this entry. Take it easy, but more importantly, take care of yourself.

Quote of the day:

All progress requires change. But not all change is progress.
-John Wooden


Anne said...

Thanks for sharing your story, which is a very personal one and powerfully written. Maybe it will help someone recognize their own issues with eating and lead them to get help.

Brad said...

Great story Mario. Sorry you have had to deal with all of that though. Thank you for sharing. Thankfully I have never had a problem with eating. Reading your story will hopefully ensure that I never do.

Dallen said...

Thanks for sharing. I really didn't realize that male runners did this. It seems to me like limiting calories would hurt one's perfoermance so much that no one would do it, unless thay really had weight to lose. Apparently I was wrong.

Mike said...

Hey man, it's great you could share that. Your point about no one talking about it is on the mark. If at all, it's done awkwardly and cautiously, but it's much better when someone comes out and says it like you just did.

I know you said sometimes it creeps back up on you, and I think this might give youa laugh...but here are the wise words of a certain Liberty star who told me the following when asked about his diet:

"I'll try and give this my best shot. When I was in highschool I was a vegitarian who ate alot of organic foods, and very little dairy products. Since coming to college I have fallen to pieces. I really don't eat all that healthy. I would guess I eat pizza a few nights a week, and deserts of some kind after most every meal. Fortunatly when you run 120+ miles a week you really dont need to worry about what you eat all that much."

P.S. if you're not sure this is the Geb pics/running logs Mike.

khaulein said...

Thanks, Mario. It's really impressive that you are willing to talk about eating problems when so many males have gone through, or are going through the same, but feel they must remain silent. I think the best thing for preventing others' from falling into the self-harming and painful behaviors is awareness.

I, coincidentally, wrote my story on my blog after reading Alison's post too.

Paige said...

Thanks for sharing, Mario. The courage evident in your recovery and honest recounting of your story is really inspiring.

l'emerodromo said...

2000 calorie al giorno per un corridore di elitè a mio avviso sono le calorie necessarie nei gioni di riposo attivo o riposo,
quando corri molte miglia e fai due allenamenti al giorno il fabbisogno sale a 3000-3500 meno quelle bruciate arrivi a 2000.
Ma un 3500-1500 è diverso da un 2000 e basta.
Comunque l'importante è fare tutto con moderazione e avere cura del proprio corpo, lo si può fare anche conteggiando le calorie giornaliere, ma non in modo maniacale e da perfezionista.
Io calcolo le calorie tra
spuntino pomeridiano
suddividendo il fabbisongno in
così facendo so già che quando ho mangiato carboidrati e proteine non ho bisogno di grassi e calorie superflue come i dolci.
Concludo con un elogio alla DIETA ITALIANA E MEDITERRANEA e una leggera critica al sistema alimentare americano.

Anonymous said...

Hey, man,
I never knew and for that I'm sorry. If you ever need reassurance that you're skinny enough just ask me to take my shirt off. We'll draw up a Venn diagram, and you'll be convinced. But in all seriousness, hang in there and if you ever need a pair of ears, you have my number. Hang in there,


corrado giambalvo said...

mario, a case of rare honesty and courage this account you post, coupled with what seems a genuine concern of the sport. Nice to witness. Amazing as it may sound, what you described is really not all that different to addiction to drugs or alcohol, except instead of running to consume you, you would have destructive social behaviour of sorts, fake popularity or work performance.

I think all runners of varying abilities and talent develop some sort of difficulty with food for all the reasons we know, plus the most important of all which ignorance.

Part of the problem that traps long distance runners in the eating disorder spiral are generalized references like 4 seconds less per kilometer for every kg less of bodyweight (-2secs/lb/km) which get unfortunately written up in fairly official literature. An overall picture where Health is the primary goal is fundamental. And evidently not promoted enough. Thanks again, Corrado

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