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From Runner to Eating Disorder Survivor: How I Became More Than a Number

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

I have been playing sports since the age of four; being an athlete has always taken up a large portion of my identity. I remember growing up wanting to be a professional soccer player like Mia Hamm. In my room, I would practice her classic airplane move she would do following a goal. As I grew older and more mature I realized my dream would remain a dream, but my epiphany did nothing to squander my love for sports.

Since starting out with soccer in preschool, I have also participated in basketball, karate, ballet (that didn’t last long… sorry, Mom), cross country, and track and field. It was during my first ever cross country season that I found my first true love: running.

Hannah the Runner
I joined my high school’s cross country team at the age of fifteen, a young and socially awkward soon-to-be sophomore. To this day, I have vivid memories of running 6-minute miles with ease by my third week of practice. I had joined the sport to get in shape for basketball, but I soon discovered I had found my talent. As the nerdy kid who was always picked on, the feeling of being the best at something other than calculus was exhilarating.

By the time I joined track that following spring, I was hooked. That summer was spent running hundreds of miles; my junior year was spent chasing school records. I had truly become Hannah the Runner. Not only was it how others perceived me, it was how I saw myself.

By my senior year, I was getting interviewed at races and making newspapers. People in my area literally called me “Runner Girl.” I took it as a compliment. I placed seventh at states in cross country and third at states in track, clocking 11:04 in the two-mile. In February of 2014, something I had never expected to happen, happened — I signed to run as a Division I athlete for the University of South Carolina. I celebrated my accomplishments by running to school on Senior Bike Day and putting a little track emblem on my graduation cap – people would expect nothing less.

Hannah the Collegiate Athlete
Once I got to the college level, I realized something real quick — in high school, you are a big fish in a little pond; in college, you are a little fish in a very big pond, like Pacific Ocean big. What would have gotten me a state ring in high school got me 100th place at the SEC Conference Championship in cross country. It was extremely humbling.

That being said, my first year of running as a Gamecock was extremely successful on a personal level. I traveled the country, made the SEC watch list, dropped my 5 kilometer time by over a minute, and qualified to race at the Junior National Track Meet, hosted on arguably one of the most prestigious tracks in the country: Historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. At that race, I placed 7th in the nation for junior athletes (19 and under). It was a dream come true.

The success was addicting. The hard work was electrifying. I wanted to run more, race faster, qualify for the NCAA National Championship. I would stop at nothing to get there, even if meant restricting my food and dropping several pounds over the course of my first year.

Hannah the Number
As a collegiate athlete and a distance runner, numbers were my obsession. My time. My weight. The amount of calories I ate. The amount of calories I burned. Throughout my first year, while having my breakthrough season in track, I was running more, eating less.

Every meal had to be “walked (or run) off.” Any day with less than 3 hours of exercise was a bad day. I biked 20 miles on my “easy” days. I went on secret runs behind my coaches’ backs to burn extra calories, and spent hours in the gym lifting weights to burn off “excess fat.” Dessert was untouched. Any meal I didn’t plan caused either a panic attack or an eruption of anger. I ate alone when we traveled to meets. Half a turkey sandwich (no cheese) or a salad (hold the dressing). Based off my competition, thin meant fast. I had to be thin, had to be fast.

I weighed myself every morning, sometimes multiple times a day. The app My Fitness Pal was constantly open on my phone; food intake was tracked to an unhealthy degree. The numbers on the scale kept getting smaller and smaller. I was scared, but I told myself it was worth it. My coaches were happy with my performance. I got a scholarship because of it.

Little did I know it then, but by the time I was competing at Junior Nationals at the end of my first year in college, I was dealing with a severe eating disorder. To my coaches, I was Hannah the Rookie Runner of the Year. To my friends and family, I was Hannah the Emaciated Runner. They were scared, but I followed the encouragement of my coaches because to me, I was Hannah the Number. The lower the number, whether on the scale or on the track, the better I was.

Hannah the Self-Advocate
I knew something needed to change. I used to love food, but now it terrified me and occupied my life. I was losing friendships and drifting away from my family. Although I was still Hannah the Runner, I felt as if I was losing a more important piece of my identity: my very self. So I called my athletic trainer while I was home for the summer. I was scheduled with a psychiatrist as well as a registered dietitian immediately. It was then I realized the severity of my problem. It was then that I was determined to break free from the chains of my eating disorder.

Following the guidance of my psychiatrist and registered dietitian, I stopped tracking my food intake immediately and began incorporating more carbs and fats (a food group I had been avoiding completely) back into my diet. I began gaining my weight back immediately. But, more importantly, as the months went by, I gained my life back, piece by piece. My running on the other hand…

Hannah the Not-Runner
As I began to gain some much-needed weight and self-respect, my running started to go south. As someone who had never struggled with running before — as someone who literally identified herself as a runner — this reality was unbelievably hard to face. My coaches and some of the closest people in my life told me it was because of “all the weight I gained.” It infuriated me. Did these people not know I was fighting something that was both physical and mental? Did they not know how these comments could be internalized by a person who was fighting with everything she had to overcome an eating disorder?

I did not listen to them. I knew my weight gain did contribute to my slower running to some degree. Because I was finally reaching a healthy weight and body fat percentage, my body re-entered into puberty, a process that was halted at the age of 13 (when I started doing sports full-time). I became a woman, and I am proud of that.

This all being said, I know in my heart that the main reason my running career fell off a cliff was due to how much torture I put my body through. I ran it to the ground on no fuel for several years. My body was burnt out and it was only a matter of time before “Runner Girl” fell apart, weight gain or no weight gain. I am so happy I got the help I needed when I did because, if I didn’t, I would have been dealing with an eating disorder and grieving over the loss of my competitive running at the same time. It would have been horrific.

Hannah the Human
I resigned from competitive running in January of 2017. My last cross country season proved that my body just couldn’t do it anymore. The reality was so hard to face and caused me more pain than you can ever imagine. But I made it through.

During the past few months, I have been on a journey to “rediscover myself.” I have learned that I am so much more than just a runner. My identity now resides in my character and in my love for all the wonderful people who surround me each and every day. Finishing top 10 in a national-level 5 kilometer was quite an accomplishment, but it does not even compare to the feat of overcoming an eating disorder and falling in love with my body all over again.

If you are an athlete struggling with an eating disorder in the relentless sphere of sports, don’t give in to the false belief that thinner is better. It is not. It cannot be sustained. When you hear the small voice that tells you to go hungry, work more, eat less: ignore it. Ask yourself, is it worth losing your ability to have children (because you will if you starve your body for too long, I pray every day that this is not the case for me)? Worth the dozens of injuries that will occur? Is the year of glory worth not being able to compete at all two years from now because your body is completely destroyed? Is it worth the pain it will cause yourself and all the people who love you? From experience, I can tell you with 100 percent confidence, it is not.

Hannah Today
No longer an athlete, I still look for the victories in my life. The cheeseburger that was once thrown away began to be held with trembling hands, then grasped with excitement and joy. The body that was once a walking skeleton now stands strong and proud. The frame that once swam in an extra-small uniform now busts out of its seams.

I am so proud of the person I have become. I am so thankful for all the people who helped me through such a difficult time in my life, especially my registered dietitian, my psychiatrist and my friends and family.

Whether you are an athlete or not, an eating disorder is a very serious illness that requires treatment. I am living proof that you can overcome it, but it cannot be done without support. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please seek help through mental health services such as counseling and psychiatry. There are people out there who are trained to support you and help you on your road to recovery.

Love your body and respect your mind; it’s the best thing I ever did.

Hannah Giangaspro

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Originally published: July 24, 2017
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