Chocolate. It’s my kryptonite. I’m generally a purist when it comes to chocolate, unless there is peanut butter or nutella involved, they can mix with my chocolate. But mint? Ew. Caramel? Never. Fruits? I think that would turn my dessert into a healthy snack.
But I love it too much. That, or I am lacking fats or sugars in my diet (doubtful). Instead, I think it was a mental switch in the way I saw chocolate during sophomore year of college. In fact, before college I never even thought twice about what I was eating. I ate healthy most of the time, sparing the weekend ice cream treats or pumpkin bread that friends would bring to school. And when I ate sweets, I generally ate a lot of them. But my weight never really changed and I never had issues with it affecting my running.
Then college happened. The stakes of NCAA D1 running were much higher than in high school, just to be selected for the cross country team is a race in itself. There are only 7 spots, and a team of 30 fast women who all want to race the national championship. Especially when your team is expected to win the national title.
I red-shirted (did not compete for the school team in races and kept an extra year of eligibility) my freshman year, partied too much, and went too heavy on the buffet-style athlete cafeteria. The “freshman 15” (or 20?) was a thing for me. My running suffered and by the end of the year I was so fed up and disgusted with myself. Oh, and our cross country team won the national championship that year (2008). While I was technically on the team, I felt more like an outsider. I wanted to be one of those 7 girls on the national championship squad, and to do that, things needed to change. The fire was lit.
I was home in New Jersey for the summer reading books on nutrition for runners, taking notes, and eager to begin my summer training regimen. I started weighing myself every morning and recording the number, in addition to what I ate and how my training went for the day in a log book. I decided to stop eating carbs, aside from vegetables, and give myself one cheat day a week (this will be key to my explanation of my chocolate problem today). I gradually increased my running mileage, as per my training plan, to 90-95 miles per week. Then it was time to head back to Seattle for cross country pre-season.
While I could always find areas to lose more weight, I thought I was looking prettier in photos. It was almost addictive to record the daily numbers in my log, everyday lower than the one before. I had lost all of the weight I had put on during freshman year...and more. I guess that’s what happens when you run 90 miles a week fueled by carrots, some mixed nuts, and chicken. Obsessively I would complete my weekly running mileage to the .0, nothing less, if anything, more. I wasn’t particularly a much faster runner compared to the rest of the team in training, but races were what mattered.
I devoured plate after plate of pasta the night before the race. My body had been craving it for months and finally my glycogen stores were being repleted. I raced the next morning and was solidly in the top 7 women on the team, helping our team to victory. Positive reinforcement of my training and nutrition. My mind told me to continue, keep losing weight, get faster, make the team.
Remember those cheat days I allowed myself once per week? On a cheat day I would allow myself to eat as much ice cream, chocolate, cake, etc. as I wanted to. But once midnight hit, the bell rang and I was back to my minimalist sustenance. Putting so much anticipation and excitement into these cheat days changed chocolate from a delectable treat into cocaine for my mind. Imagine starving yourself of sugar and carbs for a week and then suddenly your system becomes flooded with what you had been craving most. Not eating - Chocolate - Dopamine - Mind wants more - Not eating - Chocolate - on and on.
Sometimes I would indulge on a non-cheat day. I would hate myself for it and generally try to make myself throw up all of the cake or ice cream I had just consumed. If I couldn't make myself throw up, I would Google ways that I could. Other days I would go without eating all together to punish myself. It was terrible and now hard for me to admit.
I started to estrange friends. I didn’t want to go out. Ever. Running was now my life. Going to a restaurant was the unknown. What was in the foods? Could I restrain myself to a plain salad? People would judge me? I kept recording my metrics religiously. Scolding myself when my weight fluctuated. Praising myself when it went down. Classes became foggy, my brain couldn’t focus on learning. I would become faint walking up stairs. But I would walk every where. Miles and miles each day to burn more calories and distract myself from eating.
The athletic department ordered me to get a bone scan. I had osteopenia, the beginning stages of osteoporosis...at 19 years old! My body was literally eating away at my bones for energy! The sad part was I didn't care AT ALL.
To me it was worth it. Carrying only 109 pounds on my 5’8” frame, I was running fast and that was my singular focus.
In the end my plan worked...until it didn’t. I did achieve my goal of racing on the cross country team at the national championship. We placed third. I was so happy, but also secretly dealing with an achilles injury that would bar me from competing in track for the rest of the year. People started telling me I was too skinny and eventually I was forced to go to see the sports nutritionist. She told me to eat carbs *gasp*, and I told her what she wanted to hear. Every week I was required to go weigh in with her. I would drink as much water as I could just before the weigh in. I thought I was clever, but I’m sure she knew what I was doing.
For the next two years I battled achilles problems and a stress fracture. I was so sick of pool running and indoor cycling. I knew something needed to change. Mentally I had become so tired of constantly monitoring what I ate, especially when I couldn’t burn nearly as many calories as during my 90 miles per week running. I would constantly count calories in my head when sitting down to eat or try to not eat for the entire day if I knew I was going to go out to dinner one night. It was exhausting. How could my view of food change so much in one year?
My senior year I was done. I couldn’t take it anymore.
I decided to quit the running team and focus on my school work. I took a break from running and ate a little too much. Once I realized I was putting on weight, I started to run again but on no one else’s schedule but my own. I would set off each morning with no mileage or speed plan in mind. I would just run, for 15 minutes or 4 hours, however long my legs wanted to go and however much I wanted to feel them burn. I felt free and was more motivated than ever just to be fit. I started eating healthy and including carbs in my diet. I started running faster. And longer. The week of my birthday I decided to hop in my first marathon...three days later. Without specific marathon training, I posted a 2:48, more importantly I proved to myself I was able to run fast at a healthy weight.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK!
It’s easy to focus on the negatives. Not just after a disappointing race, but in day to day life as well.
Growing up, our family dinner conversations would begin each night with every family member noting their “highlights of the day.” It was a nightly ritual enforced by my mom and, many nights, felt like more of a begrudging chore. But let’s be honest, I was a spunky teenager and was more concerned about making it to the movies on time to meet my friends than trying to come up with my daily highlights when all I did was go to school.
While I undoubtedly did not appreciate conjuring up my highlights at the time, I am 100% sure that it made me a much more optimistic and positive person. Today I am so grateful that my mom continued to insist on “highlights of the day” participation each night.
My race at Xiamen 70.3 in China this past weekend was not the performance that I travelled halfway across the world for. Instead of explaining what went wrong (that has already been recounted in a book-long text message to coach Siri), let me list my “highlights of the day” instead:
1. I met and raced with a stellar group of women. I am so thankful to have met all of the inspiring women that I stood on the start line with. They were fierce competitors but even better people.
2. I had the opportunity to gain more race experience during what I chalked up to as a very hard “training” session (thank you to Haley Chura for the post-race chat and pointing these ones out!).
3. I experienced another country and culture. One of the best parts of the trip was handing out finisher medals to children in the Ironkids race with the other pro athletes. The kids were beaming from ear to ear from the joy of racing (or it could have been the sparkly medals they got for finishing, but who’s to say). It’s always quite amazing how gestures, like a high-five, transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries! We must have given out over 1,000 enthusiastic high fives.
Every day presents us with opportunities to learn and there are always things to be grateful for, even if they are as simple as your dog clamoring over furniture to greet you after a long day of work! Some days it is easy to focus only the negatives, but if we are willing to search for our “highlights of the day” it will enable us to grow and continue to improve ourselves. As Winston Churchill said,
"Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm!"
Professional cyclist turned professional triathlete living in Boulder, CO.