The Weight Off My Back

I am one of the lucky ones. One of the ones who found running as an adolescent but still have a healthy relationship with it. One of the ones who had a healthy coach-athlete relationship where my coaches saw beyond the present and wanted us to have longevity in the sport.

Yet the adolescent mind could not help but wonder…if I hadn’t gotten my period at age 11, would I be faster? The fastest girls on my team were thin, pre-pubescent, and nearly all identical builds. I had hips, a butt, and had been menstruating for 4 years by the time I joined the track team. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was a different “build” than the traditional high school distance runner. But there was a time that I didn’t realize I was any different than anyone else.

I began running on the middle school track team, competing in the 400 meter dash most often. No one in my family was a runner and I had rarely run more than a mile at a time in soccer practice or in the high school mile. Our middle school coaches were not intense and let us pick our events; the 400 seemed like a good fit for me since I didn’t have overly quick startup speed and at the time didn’t possess much interest in running long distance. At this point in my life, running was a fun activity to enjoy with friends also on the team. I’ve always been competitive, but I knew nothing about fast times or runners’ bodies and I was primarily competitive with myself, or with others I knew from school but not much beyond that. For that reason, I was not a top runner in middle school, and at this point in my life, I was mostly focused on soccer anyway. This would continue through my freshman year of high school until I decided to make a change with my sports focus.

During my freshman year, I was playing travel soccer in the fall and it was expected that I would play high school soccer in the spring. In the time between travel soccer and high school soccer, I decided to join the track team and compete in indoor track. It was a good way to stay in shape between seasons and our girls’ track team was one of the best in the state. The culture I found in the team was unlike any other culture I had been a part of in a sports team. The coaches were serious, they were committed to bring out the best in the athletes and setting each of us up for success, but also a little goofy, forming strong relationships with many of the runners who had been on the team for multiple years. The girls were welcoming, kind, and dedicated. Because the track team was open to everyone, there was a wide range of individuals. I would argue it was one of the most diverse clubs let alone teams at the school and it felt like a safe place to be yourself, which in high school, could be hard to do. It’s a place where cliques vanished, stereotypes disappeared, and girls who would probably never talk to one another in the hall were suddenly old friends. Having been bullied online by a few of the girls on my travel soccer team (a story for another day), I finally felt like this was where I was supposed to be and felt like an integral part of the team from Day 1.

Unfortunately, once the winter season was up, I had a choice to make. Would I remain a part of the track team I had grown to love so much, or would I pick spring soccer, making good on the investment my parents had made into travel soccer to help me be able to make the high school team? I remember approaching the head girls’ track coach before practice one day, and letting her know that I had made my decision. I would be playing soccer that spring. I didn’t hold it together very well and distinctly remember crying as she gave me a hug and told me, “You’re always welcome back on the team. Many girls have gone the route you are choosing and have come back the year after.” I turned in my uniform and proceeded to have an awful spring, relying on only two peers on the team for support and knowing that chatter was always going on behind my back. I would come home from soccer practice and often go out for a run, logging a lap or two around the lake we lived on (just over a mile around) because I felt like I hadn’t gotten a good workout in; little did I know it was also a big stress-reliever at the time.

I quit travel soccer after that spring season and started running on my own, only a couple miles at a time without timing myself. I was committed to rejoining the track team that winter and when it rolled around, I decided I wanted to run with the distance crew. I had recognized that I didn’t have natural speed for sprints and had grown to enjoy running further distances. I started off running with some of the JV girls, but quickly realized that I had good endurance and was able to keep going when many of them would want to stop and catch their breath. I gathered my courage and one day asked the varsity girls if I could run with them. I had no business being there – I hadn’t proven myself yet and had only been racing in the shorter distance events at meets but I wanted to improve and I knew that running with people who were faster than me was probably the best way to do that. The girls were gracious and invited me to come with them. There was one varsity team but two groups that normally went out to run, one faster and one slightly slower. I started with the second group and was able to keep up, but was often a lot more gassed than they were, remaining quiet in the back as I was breathing heavily and letting the other girls carry the conversation. Gradually, though, I became more comfortable, joining in on the conversations when my breathing was no longer labored, and eventually being noticed by the head distance coach who encouraged me to go out for cross-country in the fall and to continue running with the girls over the summer to stay in shape.

It was a no-brainer. I was committed to the team and to the girls I was running with and felt like I had found the sport I truly belonged in. I was continuing to improve because I was doing something I hadn’t done before; there was a lot of room for growth and progression. I quickly became one of the top 5 runners on the cross-country team my junior year, happy that I was scoring points for the team (there are 7 runners who run in a Varsity race and only the top 5 actually score points for the overall team score). My body was changing as I was running more and more, becoming very lean and toned, and people were recognizing it. I remember my junior homecoming all of the moms commenting on how thin I was, as if it was a very positive thing, and liking the attention I was getting for the way I looked. I didn’t change my eating habits, and if anything I probably ate more carbs than I had before at carbo-loading parties we’d have before big invitational meets, but it was the first time I really started associating body type with running and recognizing that a certain look was considered “normal” for distance runners.

I went on to have a strong junior year in both cross-country and track, breaking 12 minutes in the 2-mile with 11:53 and running my fastest mile in 5:33. I claim no natural ability in running; truly this was the result of hard work and determination and it would has been the backbone of all of my training for years to come. I was also selected as one of captains for both the cross-country teams and track teams respectively for my senior year. I felt on top of the world, loving every minute of running and school, so I wasn’t ready for the changes that would happen on our team that next year, or in my mind.

During my senior year of high school, there were a few new faces on the Varsity team, girls who had either come out of middle school as strong runners or had made a lot of progress during the track season in the spring. I found myself just vying to stay in the top 7 that year and to be able to compete for Varsity. We had a very competitive, strong team; in nearly every other team in our area apart from a couple schools, a 19:23 3-mile athlete could run Varsity and be in the top 5 runners consistently. It was hard for me to take in mentally, but it definitely pushed everyone to be their best and continue to work hard. It also unintentionally bred a cutthroat environment. Instead of the supportive, caring group we once had, it seemed like it was everyone out for themselves. We were working together in practice, but we knew that every workout and every dual meet mattered for which of the “Top 12” (12 individuals can be listed on a Varsity roster but only 7 get to race in the Varsity race), would get to compete for the Varsity team on the weekend invitationals and which would run from the front of the pack in JV. I found myself often winning JV races that season as I was typically number 8 when it came to speed that year. It was heartbreaking to always be just one spot away from running the varsity race, but I tried to let it fuel me, crossing the line in the top 3 consistently in the JV race and trying to prove to my coach that I belonged on the varsity starting line. I had waged mental warfare on myself, and I saw other teammates crumble under the pressure to stay at the top as well. I remember protein powder infiltrating its way into our practices and having to take it immediately after we finished a hard workout or after a big meet. I also remember it being the first season we had a session with a sports psychologist and our coaches encouraging us to begin seeing him regularly. I felt weird asking my parents to pay for such a thing in high school so I refrained from going, but I started to question if part of the reason some of my teammates were improving was because they had someone to talk through the mental challenges of running with.

I think the darkest thing I saw, however, was a new obsession with weight. It wasn’t just by the girls on the team, it was by parents who subtly made comments when they thought no one else was listening, or other high schoolers who didn’t realize how far their words went. “Oh well she’s so tiny, of course she’s fast.” “She hasn’t hit puberty yet, as soon as she does, she’s going to slow way down.” I had already gone through puberty so I couldn’t change that fact, but I could control my weight from getting any higher. It was during this season that I became obsessed with weighing myself daily, thinking that if I could stay under 120 pounds that I would stay fast. At 5’5’’, the normal weight for a female is 113 pounds-138 pounds according to online research. I would hover around 118 pounds that season, within normal limits which is probably why no one had reason to question anything, but at this weight I sustained injury after injury that would plague the rest of my senior year. It obviously wasn’t a healthy weight for me to be at, but I didn’t realize this until very recently when reflecting on how I’m at my heaviest today have been running my fastest times because I am healthy and have let my body dictate where its weight should fall.

I’d like to make it clear, I’ve never had an eating disorder, I think back in high school I just wasn’t eating enough calories to fuel my body for long distance running. I remember in health class, we once went to the computer lab to do research on caloric intake. If we were to go back to the lab today, I could tell you exactly where I was sitting and at what computer I was sitting at, that’s how etched into my brain this is. We put in our height and weight into a website and it spit out an average number of how many calories someone with our body type should be consuming per day. It had an option to put whether or not you were active, but it didn’t quite specify how active. I selected the “active” option. 1800-2100 calories. So naturally, the 17 year old brain fixated on the lowest number only. In my mind, 1800 calories was the recommended consumption for a 5’5’’ female with an active lifestyle (to give you an idea, according to the registered dietician I recently worked with, I should be consuming 1800-2300 calories per day; 1800 is on the low end and is essentially for when my activity level is low, not when I am in peak training). Back in high school, I didn’t know any better, so I began following that guideline; if we learned it in health class, it had to be accurate, right?

The computer research should have been a harmless exercise, but looking back I think, shame on those teachers for having high school students researching this at a vulnerable time in their lives. I understand their intent was to help students make healthy choices later down the road when they were living on their own but high school girls, especially, are already so self-conscious about themselves during high school, and this was just one more reason for us to be. I began counting calories on wrappers, always opting for the non-fat or low-fat option when there was one, and at 17 years old I was choosing salads over cheeseburgers at fast food restaurants. While cheeseburgers are not necessarily the answer to a balanced diet, helping athletes understand that food is fuel is critical. I was trying to eat like the media was promoting in commercials (low fat or non-fat everything because all fat was bad for you – very, very false) or what others around me were eating, not like an endurance athlete should be. Without the right balance, bad things can happen.

And bad things did happen. Shortly before the cross-country state meet, I sustained a stress fracture in my foot and was in a boot for a month. I remember swimming to try to stay in cardio shape but falling into a deep sadness over muscle tone that disappeared and pounds that were added to the scale. It was around this same time that I had decided to become a pescatarian, a person who is a vegetarian but also consumes fish. The funny part is, I only like salmon and tilapia so really I just severely cut down my protein intake and increased carbs because I was hungry all of the time. I continued to eat like this for 4 years, eventually growing frustrated with feeling exhausted from not fueling properly and also gaining weight from eating carbs constantly, and added back in chicken and turkey to my diet. My energy levels returned and my weight started to normalize because I was eating a more balanced diet again. I think there is a right way to eliminate meat and still be an endurance athlete but as a 17-year old whose family did not eat this way, I had no idea what I was doing and how to eat properly to fuel myself (note this is not on them at all; I take full responsibility for irresponsibly cutting an entire food group out).

I struggled through my senior year of track after coming back from my stress fracture, but found myself in physical therapy later on for IT Band Syndrome which had gotten so bad that I once collapsed on the field while doing a stride during track practice because my knee just gave out. The signs were clear long before this incident that I should have taken a break, but I was stubborn and more than anything I wanted to get to the state meet and run around the infamous blue track. Instead, it was a season riddled by injury and frustration, and as a result I never had an opportunity to actually run in a state meet, which when I look back on my time in high school is the one thing I feel like I never accomplished (I would later feel the satisfaction I was searching for from this by qualifying for and running the Boston Marathon). I would continue running in college because I enjoyed it for both exercise and stress relief and later in my sophomore year, my weight started to increase, more towards where it probably should have been to be healthy for me. It took me a very long time to accept the changes my body went through, often looking back at old pictures from my high school running days and idolizing the way my body used to look.

I wish I could go back in time and throw out the scale in my bathroom at home. I wish someone could’ve told me that 1800 calories a day was not enough to fuel my body running and lifting 6 days a week. I wish it wasn’t assumed that anyone who had gone through puberty early would never make it at the top in high school. I wish that I loved my body then as much as I do now and could show my younger self all that it could accomplish when all of the pieces are aligned.

I shouldn’t have to be considered “lucky” that I made it out of the sport at a young age and still love running and competing today. I have quite a few teammates who were at the top and have either stopped running altogether or only do so on occasion and it makes me sad that something that used to bring them so much joy became a monster. I want the new normal of adolescent running to be all body types represented at the highest levels, letting girls’ bodies come into their own and not forcing them to fit a mold they weren’t meant to. I want to set that example for younger girls who might be following my running journey, and if I ever have the opportunity to coach high school athletes, to put a focus on helping them be comfortable with the body they’re in and celebrating what it can do for them. I would love for my own future children to be runners, and if they choose to be, I want them to be in environments that support them as people first and runners second. My life is better because running is in it, and that’s how it always should be.

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