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Twenty-Six Miles to Recovery

First I thought I could never run a marathon. Then I thought it would cure my eating disorder. I was wrong on both counts.

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By Taylor Ellsworth

11/25/12

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Running, like watching Dr. Oz and baking kale chips, has always been one of those things I associated with health-obsessed white-collar suburbanites who have excessive free time and a single digit body-fat percentage. Even when my eating disorder was at its most extreme, I wasn’t a runner. Even though running burns more calories than nearly any other cardiovascular activity—a quality that appealed to me above all others—I assumed, correctly, that it wouldn’t be safe, since stepping into a car or standing up from the toilet gave me heart palpitations and caused twinkly little black dots to appear in my range of vision. Besides, I cherished my Marlboro 27’s. In my fragile state, going for a jog sounded like a suicide mission. Instead, I spent hours frantically pedaling in place on the elliptical until the calorie-o-meter—one of my many fickle Higher Powers—displayed a number that fit my standards of “good enough” in all its questionable accuracy. 

After beginning my quest to recover from both alcoholism and my eating disorder, my health began to be a priority. I’d spent so much time self-destructing that compensating for lost time seemed natural. Eating healthy has always been somewhat important to me. I was a vegetarian for many years out of my love for all things furry, but even that crusade was eventually warped into a demented, malnourished veganism by my eating disordered mind. 

Three shots give me a buzz, so 12 will make me feel perfect; a 10k makes me feel good so a marathon will make me feel amazing.

Health-consciousness, under the guise of self-improvement, can rapidly transform me into a self-destructive spiral of calorie-counting, scale worshipping and less than rigorous honesty with those who love me—even in recovery. I’ve read stacks of books and a terabyte’s worth of blogs and articles on eating disorder recovery, nutrition and fitness. In theory, all that practical knowledge should’ve probably transformed me into the healthiest person alive at this point. Instead, I constantly fluctuate between self-loathing and begrudging acceptance, depending on a combination of how I look in the mirror (which I know is astronomically different from what other people see when they look at me), how much soul-crushing, normal-female-body-shaming media I’ve consumed that day and whether I pretend not to see the box of Oreos at my home group or eat six of them. Since finally closing the toilet’s foul porcelain lid and Listerine-ing the stomach acid off my teeth for the last time two years ago, my goal has been to improve my relationship with food to the mythical point where I come to see it as simply fuel. To erase the “You’re a fucking piece of shit who deserves to die alone without even a cat to snuggle” labels I’ve assigned to ice cream and brownies and the “This is the only thing you deserve” labels that I’ve given to carrots and broccoli. For someone with a brain as seemingly permanently eating-disordered as mine, this goal is not unlike aspiring to catch a unicorn and ride it to the end of the rainbow with Ryan Gosling—nothing but pure fantasy.

I started running because some of my good friends in recovery were doing it and they wouldn’t stop talking about things like IT bands, foam rollers, and fartleks; it was incredibly annoying not only to be left out of the club but also to compare their lean bodies to mine. And because I had recently begun to dedicate myself to working out three days a week after a gym-less few years in an effort to like myself a little more, running fit the bill.

All I had in terms of gear were an old pair of New Balances I’d picked up at Goodwill and a few baggy t-shirts. And the first time I tried to do the loop that encircles the river that runs through the middle of downtown Portland, I made it less than a mile before I decided I had to walk if I didn’t want to experience cardiac arrest, and the lack of support in my shoes left me with an incredibly achy Achilles tendon after that excruciating five minutes. I hated everything about running: the way my lungs strained to keep up with the rest of my body, the creak in my knees that accompanied every agonizing step and, worst of all, the pure shame I felt while I trudged my smoker’s body down the waterfront amidst perky, toned, Nike-outfitted runners who actually knew what they were doing—unlike myself. I hadn’t yet quit smoking, and though my venture into the world of running and racing was the catalyst for quitting, it took me almost a year to throw all my lighters away and give up the Marlbs for what I hope is the last time two months ago.

Despite my initial abhorrence of running, I felt deeply compelled to prove to myself that I could become one of those runners I saw on the waterfront. Maybe it was my competitive nature. I wanted to be better than, or at least on par with, my friends. Or maybe it was my body image and low self-esteem that told me I was worthless if I couldn’t even run a measly mile. Maybe some part of me craved the torturous experience—somehow enjoyed it. Maybe it was pure stubbornness, like Newton’s Law. I had set the ball rolling and it wasn’t going to stop. Whatever it was, I made the dramatic decision that I would keep at it until I could run five continuous miles; if I still hated it at that point, I told myself, I could quit and never pick up another pair of running shoes again.

In what seemed like an inexplicable physical feat, I surpassed my five-mile goal by training for and completing a 10k race. When I set that initial goal, I had no faith that I would meet it; after all, I’d never had enough confidence to set my sights on anything worth achieving before, so success was an utterly foreign concept. I was hooked on the intoxicating rush that running provided by continually beating my own bests and pushing my body past its largely imagined limits. The connection that had begun to fuse between my body and my mind was unlike anything I’d ever felt in the past: the door that separated the two had been sealed shut long ago and I was just beginning to pry it open. The life I had lived before sobriety was largely composed of poisoning my bloodstream with foreign chemicals and stuffing and subsequently emptying my stomach to exhaustion to avoid the fact that I felt obligated to apologize upon walking into a room because that’s how much I hated myself. Even after getting rid of the chemicals, there was still a severe degree of disconnection between mind, body and soul. Instead of filling the void that I’d formerly poured alcohol into, I’d been stuffing it with food, distracting myself with forced hunger, or exerting all my energy on attempts to control my behavior by writing food diaries, only shopping at Trader Joe’s, drinking three cups of green tea per day, going all-raw, and trying other bizarre whims. When it came to food, it was never about my true hunger, and nothing felt intuitive, despite having dried out, worked the steps, and—supposedly—surrendered my will.

Of course, I still struggled with my food intake and body image; a lifetime of shame and self-loathing can’t be erased with a few months of regular jogs along the river. I had, however, made a substantial beginning on the pathway to a freedom that had previously eluded me completely and I wanted more—just like any good alcoholic. After sustaining a beginner’s injury—a kind of reverse shin splints on the inside of my leg rather than the fore of the shin, called anterior tibial tendonitis, that felt like a stab wound—and attending physical therapy, the decision to push my running luck further, to do the hardest thing most runners ever do, came naturally. The idea was founded on the same logic I’d used during my drinking days: three shots give me a buzz, so 12 will make me feel perfect; a 10k makes me feel good so a marathon will make me feel amazing. This theory, by the way, was much more accurate in regard to running than it ever had been with the number of drinks I should take.

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