Running Through the Female Athlete Triad
Lane 9: a figurative, suffocating lane on the track that lures unsuspecting, dedicated, athletes into a self-sabotaging mindset of doubt, inadequacy, and worthlessness.
I began to recognize it my senior year of college, but what I didn’t realize until a year ago was that I’d begun drifting toward Lane 9 during high school.
I would forget my lunch or I just wasn’t hungry. In reality, I was starving. In time, I came to I enjoy the feeling of hunger, and satisfaction was a growling stomach and salivating mouth. Hunger made me feel light, and light meant fast. For many years my only definition of success was fast.
During high school, I fell in love with running. I fed off the power I felt in my legs on the final turn of an 800-meter race. I longed to collapse on the track after a tough workout, not an ounce of energy left to spare. The runner’s high became my drug and the Sunday morning long run, my church.
Despite my growing love for the sport of running, college robbed me of its joy. The adrenaline rush before a race was replaced by fear and anxiety. The post-race celebration morphed into tears.
The disordered eating pattern I developed in my teens escalated by 20 and I was undoubtably undernourishing my body. I never saw it as a problem. All I ever hoped to do was improve my race times.
As time went by and races got worse I began to punish myself with more food restriction. I believed thinness was the key to fitness.
At the same time, my self-esteem decreased and my negative body image increased. Not only was I no longer the fastest mid-distance runner on the team, but I also saw myself as the chubby teammate. The worst part of my weekend was always around 6 a.m. when I pulled on that skintight red singlet and faced my seemingly overwhelming amount of fat while simultaneously watching my teammates’ lean, thin bodies race around me.
My mental health was suffering and before too long, my physical health followed suit with the diagnoses of my first stress fracture. I was devastated but strangely relieved. I had grown to hate running and dread racing even more. An injury forced me to step away from running for a while and answered questions about my decline in performance. But at the same time, injury meant an inhibited ability to burn calories, leading to more restriction, more self-deprecating talk, and another self-esteem plummet.
After a couple months of rest and cross-training, I was back in my trainers ready to hit the pavement. I was determined to revert to the runner I was at 17 — confident, fit, and successful — but to my dismay I found myself running lap after lap in Lane 9.
For the remainder of my collegiate running career I ran in Lane 9; I cannot begin to count the miles I accumulated there. Upon graduation, while training for my first marathon, I developed stress fracture number two, and I felt defeated.
Despite the mental anguish, I pressed on. That’s the thing about runners: we’re stubborn. No matter how many times you tell a runner to stop, they refuse. I cannot express how grateful I am to own that personality trait.
I stuck with running when I moved to D.C. and met a great group of friends to run with. These friends were different. Suddenly, I thought I looked healthy and fit among other healthy and fit runners. I began running for the right reasons again, and I found myself looking forward to getting the miles in as opposed to dreading them. As running became fun and relaxing, I healed. Running was finally the tool I turned to as stress relief rather than my source to accumulate it.
When I learned of the female athlete triad, it made sense. The combination of disordered eating, menstrual irregularities, and bone loss described my experience perfectly. As I learned about the triad, the knowledge allowed me to heal further, and now I feel happier and healthier than I had for years. There are still hard days and every day is a choice to continue the path of recovery, but I can say with confidence that I am no longer a running in Lane 9.
As I’ve begun to share my story, I have learned it is not unique. The commonness of my story drives me to do something about it. Embarking on this mission with Heather and Sam is the culmination of three women with similar stories and a desire to change the stories of others drifting toward Lane 9.
Lane 9 is an avenue for women and girls to connect, to share stories, and to heal together. When we share our stories, suddenly we are not alone, and with that camaraderie, can come strength.
As a runner, a health professional and a friend, my goal is help women who feel the way I’ve felt and prevent others from ever feeling that way at all. Lane 9 is meant to shed a light on the unspoken lane so many women run in, a lane scattered with dangerous obstacles and impassable barriers. I am proud to share my story and help others realize there’s another path to take. Lane 9 is not the only option.
This post originally appeared on Medium.
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