This is very clearly a spin-off of Lauren Fleshman’s most recent article/letter to her high school self that went viral in the running community. I HIGHLY encourage all of you to read it here (Dear Younger Me: Lauren Fleshman). I’ve underlined HER words in my own letter below so as not to confuse what I’ve written with her own sentences, as I want it to be clear that this is based on her letter/article, and I used her structure.
I decided to create my letter from the perspective of someone who actually developed an eating disorder in running (unintentionally–you will see from this that I hadn’t linked weight loss to running faster from the get-go). I also wanted to include men in this conversation, because so many men in the running world battle eating disorders and disordered eating. This is not to say Lauren’s article is not “right” (because it is an EPIC article, and so so needed for young women!) but simply to give another perspective of eating disorders and disordered eating in the world of running from someone who has been there, and from someone who has been blessed enough to have such amazing support along the way:
Dear High School Rachael,
I have so many things I want to tell you, but I’m going to start with the most urgent. Because of all the ways I’ve seen athletic stories unfold over the years, this is the No. 1 destroyer of dreams.
You’re a young woman, but the sound of the word “woman” makes you cringe. Your mom claims we don’t have the genetics of the “typical woman.” You won’t ever get “large hips and boobs” that supposedly hinder running success, she says. Your well-meaning mom sees discipline, willpower, and control as strength, and your family has it. Your mom also tells you that our tall, broad bodies are to be celebrated, that these are what make us strong athletes.
As a straight-A student, All-State runner you figure you have what you need to be the best.
But your best doesn’t seem to be enough. Even though your times get faster each year, and even though you increase your mileage and strength train, you are never as fast as the best in the state. This frustrates you. This discourages you. This makes you wonder why hard work doesn’t always equal the best kind of success. You yearn for “talent,” for a time in the spotlight, yearn to know what it feels like to lead a race. Your coaches tell you that it is the mind that rules the body, and you must simply push yourself harder mentally.
When they tell you that your mind just isn’t working hard enough, you somehow begin to think that maybe your appetite is broken. You’ve always had a suspicion that your body was just a little bigger than most. You think you might be overeating.
You think you might need to be “fixed,” and fixing food will make everything feel better.
You don’t see other girls obsess about food like you do, because no one talks about it. Those “other girls” get what they put in. You are surrounded by strong athletes. You never saw weight loss as the means to run faster. You figure you already have a good runner’s body thanks to your genetics.
You just needed to tweak how much you eat to feel more in control.
You will go on to race for college and realize with a pang that that final high school spring season of track where you felt sluggish, tired, and had been counting calories daily is “paying off” that fall cross country season. You will have run the fastest times of your life, receive praise from your coach, and realize you didn’t even have to push yourself more “mentally” in the race to get to this point.
Food—or lack of it—had been the answer, and you had never known it until now.
You will have meals with your team and notice they do things differently. You are at a school where the athletes eat burgers and salads with dressing, white pasta and sauce, an ice cream cone each night. You will wonder if you are more broken than you thought. You will think there is no way your body can eat that and not gain weight. How can they do it? You think that if you were to eat like them, you would eat and never stop.
You wonder how you can keep living this way for the rest of your life.
You will go on to race at the NAIA national meet and watch as your teammates who work just as hard as you on the course fight to the death in each race, yet they are a minute behind you. You begin to think of yourself as a “fraud” for having the “secret” of weight loss as your key to success. You had never been this fast before.
You think, sadly, that the “secret” to success was not a result of years of hard work and dedication as you had thought running was all about. You are sad to realize that you had to go hungry to get this success, and it taints running for you.
You will go to a school where the majority of the women look athletic and healthy, with hydrated muscles, and get their periods. You will think that if they just tried to control themselves like you, if they just tried to eat healthier, they could be fast like you, too.
Rachael, your body is not broken, but you are going to feel like you are on the verge of destruction when you begin to eat more again–much more than you would have liked. You will return to the healthy body you had had before, but your body will override your mind the more you try to use the “discipline,” “willpower,” and “control” your family always talked about, only for that “willpower” muscle to tire quickly. It will only worsen when you fight back harder to regain what you think you are “losing.”
Let me speak to the talented, beautiful, enthusiastic, compassionate side of you now.
You can be happy without running fast. In fact, you can reach your ultimate potential in life if you allow yourself to break up this fight with your body and your mind. If you fight your body, you will get faster at first. And then you will binge. You will get injured. And you will binge. And binge.
You will end up destroying your relationship with food and sport for years to come. In your sport the rebound effect of anorexia is often binge eating, and you will see that from the many messages you get from other sufferers after coming out about your own disorder through Running in Silence.
You will have the blessed opportunity to be coached by a man who does not value you based on your times, but on your character. You will be surrounded by a team who listens when you first tell them you have an eating disorder, and that you cannot compete during one track season even when you reach a “normal” weight when your mind is not feeling so “normal.” You will find, perhaps, that maybe you were supposed to go through this so that you can better understand why others do too, and give better advice than, “just fuel yourself better.”
It will break your heart to gain the weight back, plus more. It will break your heart to realize you might not ever be the runner you wanted to be because of your destroyed relationship with food and your body. So many young athletes will reach out to you for help when you speak out about your eating disorder. You will learn how many runners actually deal with this, including many men, and you will want to find a way to change things.
I need you to know, you have always been more than a runner, more than your times, more than your All-American finishes, more than your school records. But you will get confused. You will forget. Luckily you will have teammates and family and friends who remind you. You will go on to do things you may have never even imagined for yourself, if it had not been for what you pushed through, grieved, and finally, let go of.
And when you leave the running world after 18 years, you will be surprised at what ends up being most valuable to you. Your medals will be in a box somewhere, and you’ll never look at them. Your proudest accomplishment will be a race in which you ran alongside your teammates to utilize energy towards shouting encouraging words rather than just trying to finish before them.
Finishing sixth at the NAIA nationals brings you a smile, the same smile as when your 4×4 relay team broke the high school record, the same smile as breaking 19:00 in the 5k for the first time. But the real life-changers, the memories that make your hair stand up on end, are when you caught the sunrise on a long run in Germany; when your fingers fluttered over the piano keys for your favorite song in a room to yourself; when you experienced the excitement of your first romantic relationship; and when you stood before the lakeshore at 6am on a Thursday morning because you could finally be spontaneous enough to live outside your schedule. The life-changers are when you tasted dark chocolate for the first time in years without guilt, when you had the guts to ask the hilarious guy who shared your same fun energy to date you, when you could call yourself the author of your first book. The memories are when you practiced saying “no” to make more time for you, when you realized that mistakes were not flaws but growth, when you spent a day walking through downtown Grand Rapids having your own adventures without a fear about time, food, or a to-do list.
You’re going to be OK being all of yourself. You don’t always have to be Rachael the runner.
You will be happy—if not happier—as “just” Rachael, too.