Twenty-Six Miles to Recovery

Twenty-Six Miles to Recovery

By Taylor Ellsworth 11/25/12

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

Finding the finish line Photo via

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.

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.