How running half marathons helped me overcome disordered eating and negative body image

This essay discusses disordered eating behaviors. If this subject triggers you, please read with caution.

For most of my life, I thought that there were only a handful of ways you could actively hate your body for its size, ways that I had learned about in health class. I knew the medical terminology. Words like anorexia and bulimia brought to my mind images of girls that I didn’t recognize in myself. Girls with eating disorders were girls who never stood in the cookie line in our high school cafeteria or who never felt beautiful on their way to a dance. To my teenaged self, it was pretty black and white—either you’d been diagnosed with an eating disorder or you hadn’t.

It took years for me to realize that my own so-called “quirky” behaviors around food and exercise actually fell somewhere along a broader spectrum of disordered eating. It took me just as long to realize that what I see when I look at myself in the mirror bears little resemblance to what other people see when they look at me.

This education came to me in several ways. Finding a best friend in college who was recovering from a serious eating disorder made me more aware of some of my own unhealthy behaviors; it gave me a language that I could use to talk about them. One summer, I worked with a therapist who pointed out my obsession with exercise and asked me questions about my food intake, forcing me to confront what I believed was a healthy regimen (I thought we were just going to talk about why I was so stressed out all the time). My parents started voicing their concerns about how my body visibly changed during periods of high-stress or transition. And while I knew enough to recognize that my issues were not as consistent or intense as other people with eating disorders, I did begin to accept the fact that my behaviors often fell into somewhat predictable patterns that probably required some attention.

“It was suddenly clear to me that all of these behaviors that took place not frequently, but periodically for so many years, didn’t just make me picky or quirky.”

I took stock of it—the silent challenges I’d given myself on lazy weekend mornings to resist hunger for as long as possible, the days I’d planned two- and three-hour cardio sessions at the gym, the high-stress moments at work when I’d snuck out to the corner pharmacy and inhaled a full bag of chocolate-covered pretzels in shame, and the extreme cases when I’d made myself sick to gain back control of what I perceived as a “bad” day of eating. It was suddenly clear to me that all of these behaviors that took place not frequently, but periodically for so many years, didn’t just make me picky or quirky. It wasn’t as black and white as I’d thought it was back in health class.

This realization came to me when I was in my early twenties, working as an assistant in New York City. That spring, my roommate was going to start training for her second half marathon. Though I’d never been much for team sports, I’d been a devoted gym-goer since high school, and more often than not, my relationship with fitness was a healthy one. I started asking my roommate questions about her race experience and what her training routine was like. She assured me that she’d taken on the process slowly, and that with consistent, thoughtful, well-planned training, the half had been totally doable. I’m nothing if not a consistent, thoughtful planner, and while I knew I’d never be the number-one athlete, I was confident that my years of gym visits had made me aerobically fit, at the very least.

So I signed up for my first half marathon.

In the sixth months between registration and the big day, I stuck to a strict training schedule that I’d pulled from an online running forum. When I started training, I had never run further than four miles at a stretch—and even that had been a challenge. But with every week that passed, my body kept up with what I asked it to do. The process wasn’t always pretty and I didn’t always feel so great the next day, but I was doing it. I ran five miles, then six, then seven, then eight, then nine, and eventually thirteen. I had rarely been more proud of myself.

“I signed up for my first half marathon… For the first time, I was learning to tune into my body and resist the urge to analyze its impulses.”

This period also forced me to change the way I looked at food, largely because I was hungrier than I’d ever been. Eating consistent meals three times a day became a necessity. I no longer had the luxury to cheat the system by subbing in snacks and calling myself a “grazer.” For the first time, I was learning to tune into my body and resist the urge to analyze its impulses. If I felt like I wanted to eat something, I no longer questioned whether or not I just wanted to eat my feelings. I wasn’t doing calculations about what I last put in my system and when. Food became fuel, and my relationship with it started to feel more natural.

My feelings about my body also changed. I still felt that what I saw in the mirror didn’t match up with how I really looked, but I also knew—objectively—that I was getting stronger. When I was tempted to think negative thoughts about my appearance, I reminded myself of what my body had proven to be capable of in training. At first, I used this as proof that I had to look different. But in the years since the half marathon, I recognize that it doesn’t really matter how I look. What matters is that my body is healthy and strong.

“Running gave me a sense of power over my body.”

I don’t know that I’ll ever be truly “healed” or if I will fully abandon some of my disordered tendencies. What I do know is that becoming a long-distance runner seven years ago gave me the opportunity to channel some of my anxieties about my physical form. It gave me a framework through which to understand my body differently. Seven half marathons later, I still stumble on bad or stressful days, but now those days are much fewer and more far between. Running gave me a sense of power over my body. Restricting my food intake and going overboard with exercises (except for those long training runs, of course!) no longer makes me feel in control.

The delicious bagels they hand out when you step off the running course don’t hurt, either.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) for more information and support or text “NEDA” to 741-741.

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