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Twenty-Six Miles to Recovery

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By Taylor Ellsworth

11/25/12

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With a nod to the sponsor-sponsee relationship, I decided to follow a rigorous training schedule written by a friend who had run a marathon before me. The schedule consisted of one long run, one speed workout, two shorter recovery runs, and two days of cross-training—usually yoga or strength training—each week. It was the most activity I’d done since my dance team daily doubles in high school. I had to plan my days around my workouts, often running at six am to squeeze in eight miles before class or scrambling into the gym before closing at 10:30 pm to lift weights and foam-roll my IT band. 

My body seemed to become a calorie-burning oven overnight. Eating on an hourly basis became a requirement because I was hungry, not just because trail mix tastes good. I started to eat simple carbs to fuel my runs and complex ones to refuel and something magnificent happened along the way: I didn’t care. The knowledge that my body truly needed all the carbs, fat, and protein I was stuffing into it allowed me to eat meals without pouring a dark mix of feeling-sauce onto them for the first time that I could remember. I allowed myself to put sweet chili sauce on my stir-fry or eat a bag of popcorn without spending the rest of the evening internally tearing my thighs—and myself—down to the sweat-covered ground. Visible calf muscles manifested upon my legs and I was running 14, 16, 18 miles at a time, continually proving to myself that the body I used to abuse so regularly was capable of incredible feats.

True to my alcoholic nature, I had hoped to acquire self-esteem through a single, massively ambitious act rather than through a series of smaller, more humble ones. 

After four months of hard training, as fear that I couldn’t actually do a marathon gnawed at my mind, I drove to Newport with my brother and my dad. I couldn’t shake the fear, for good reason; the marathon itself was just as hard as a marathon sounds. The last 6.2 miles, they say, are the hardest—and they are, but they are also the most life changing. Around mile 21, after the crowd had thinned out and the rain had finally stopped, three spectators stood at the side of the road, cheering me on with these goofy smiles and a handwritten sign that said something I was too tired to remember, something generic along the lines of “You’re Amazing,” and suddenly I was choking back tears because I believed them. The world seemed to slow down, their voices went mute, and I thought to myself, I am amazing. I am strong. I am fucking beautiful. It all sounds incredibly cheesy but the words weren’t a set of therapist-prescribed affirmations recited in a moment of insecurity. They came from a place deep inside me, the same place I’d once tried to fill with piles of coke and booze and food. In that moment, I believed that I was worthy human being, with no reservations about how my wide hips compromised my intelligence or how my thighs negated the attractiveness of my face. Alas, as soon as I recognized the overwhelming feeling for what it was—a moment of grace—it was gone and I was back to calculating the remaining distance. 

When I crossed the finish line—the actual moment that is supposed to induce fireworks and happiness-provoked affirmation—I was flooded with disappointment. My time was 20 minutes slower than I’d anticipated and I just wanted to eat some Mo’s Fish and Chips (this restaurant is basically Newport’s only redeeming quality) and pass out. It seemed that my moment of glory had come and gone about five miles too soon. Initially, I was furious with myself for not rejoicing; there are few milestones of physical accomplishment as impressive as completing a marathon. Yet there I was, cheap medal hanging from my neck, marathon finisher shirt in hand, and I was legitimately angry with myself for not doing it better. Then, of course, I was disappointed in myself for not enjoying it the right way; I felt insecure for being so insecure. It was a feeling I should have anticipated; I’d felt the same emptiness countless times when I stepped on the scale, anticipating a personality change to go along with the shift in numbers. No milestone or accomplishment and no amount of pounds or inches lost will ever deliver the wholeness I so desperately crave—not until I am completely okay with myself. In the rooms, they say we rebuild the self-esteem that our addictions stripped us of by doing esteemable acts. It is not uncommon for people like me to focus all of our energy on a sole endeavor—a job, a relationship, a marathon—and expect it to fill the hole in our hearts. True to my alcoholic nature, I had hoped to acquire self-esteem through a single, massively ambitious act rather than through a series of smaller, more humble ones. 

After the initial shock of not transforming into Superwoman at the finish line subsided, I came to see that training itself was the actual marathon; the race was just a symbol, a means to an end. I’d followed a goal through to its proper endpoint and learned to let go of some of my insanely self-destructive thought patterns on the way. That’s where my true victory lied. The concept of food as fuel began to dissipate as time passed after the race; it was exponentially harder to run just four miles without a goal to steer me and the less I ran, the less I could eat without feeling. It was incredibly difficult to accept that my mind still belonged to my eating disorder after four months of partial freedom. Running, as it turned out, didn’t fix me—in the same way that nothing else I’d tried before did. It helped me deal with an emotional blockade that a carefully crafted combination of therapy, medication, a Higher Power and the 12 steps has yet to remove completely.

I know now that long-distance running isn’t the solution to the emotional and chemical problems that sparked my eating disorder in the first place and it probably isn’t the most sustainable option, either. That’s okay, though, because I’m still a work in progress and recovery is a slow, tedious and emotional journey, no matter how much I wish it were a single, 26.2-mile sprint. I may have to return to OA or see a nutritionist again some day but I pray to never have to drink Ensure in a hospital gown again, as I did when my bulimia had demoralized me completely. I can’t control my thoughts of unworthiness but I can try to manage them and running has become a key component of doing this. Though I know without a doubt that I have more work to do, for now I’ve found a key to the proverbial castle in recovery land. I am, however, still looking for the one that belongs to the kingdom.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She also wrote about getting fired by a sponsee and managing her eating disorder, among many other topics, for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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