Let me take you back to the beginning, where my running story all started. My running journey began in middle school. I tried sports with a ball, but honestly, I’m not very coordinated. However, I realized I could run. Running is very simple at a basic level.; one foot in the front of the other foot. I was an unlikely runner because I was a heavy kid. As I ran I realized I had found an activity I enjoyed. As a bonus, the weight naturally fell off. I didn’t eat healthily but with running I was burning more calories than my previous activities. I wasn’t very fast. I didn’t care. I just liked the act of running.
My high school started in 9th grade. As I entered high school, I still wasn’t very fast but I joined the XC and track teams. 10th grade was when I actually started to gain speed and see results. I had a pretty good XC season and an excellent track season. I made state in the 2-mile that year in 5A (the largest public school division in TX at the time). I came from a school that didn’t focus on running. High school football coaches, who thought 40-yard dashes were appropriate speed work, coached me in track. However, I thrived with a combination of hard work and natural talent. This was the year running changed for me and I wanted to be fast.
I started to pay more attention to what I ate. I realized if I limited my fat intake I could drop weight even faster and run even faster. If only I had known at the time that this eating pattern was a crash and burn plan. I was very passionate about running and I had a competitive spirit, which was good and bad. The good part was that I worked very hard. The bad part was that I could go through great suffering to improve at my sport. I have a very high tolerance to pain and discomfort. I could go to extremes when I was focused on my goal.
My weight got to 90 lbs, too slim for my 5’4” high school frame. I’m currently 25 lbs. heavier than I was back then, and still not a big person. I don’t know that I was fixated on a certain weight, morose, I just wanted to run fast. Further complicating the problem was the fact that I didn’t understand good nutrition and fat-free was the trend in the 90s. My mom worried, and I could hear her crying in her room. My Dad thought I looked great and was enjoying my success. He blamed the doctor for suggesting I had problems. My Dad could see the next goal on the horizon; my Mom could see her daughter withering away. I could see state, and college running ahead. I don’t believe running caused the eating issues, the problem was something much deeper, and at the time I didn’t know how to rein in my personality.
Looking back, I wish my parents had taken me to a sports psychologist. I don’t fault them for not doing this though, 25 years old counseling for these types of issues was as not common as it is today. During my 10th grade year, they took me to a nutritionist that looked like a bodybuilder. I definitely didn’t want to look like this woman. She also started me on a massive amount of food right out of the gate. It was miserable. I usually left her office crying hysterically and screaming. This was clearly not a good fit and probably did me more harm than good in the long run.
By 11th grade, I evened out and put on a normal amount of weight, but this wouldn’t be my last battle with the curse of being too thin. I didn’t deal with the underlying issues that caused me to be too thin; rather I just ate more and put on weight to be able to run. I ran well in 11th and 12th grade. I made state both years in XC and track. My senior year, I also won the 2 mile at Texas Relays, a high-profile track meet at the University of Texas. I still didn’t have much coaching direction but I had a very strong work ethic and an unbelievable drive to succeed. I ran about 30-40 miles a week and did some light speed work on our cinder track. I was ranked in the top of the state all year, made school records, and signed a scholarship to a major Division 1 university. My mom tried to point out that she didn’t think I would like the university but I was blinded by the fact that the school was ranked 7th in the country in women’s XC.
My mom thought running was okay, but she hoped I’d be more into social organizations as she had been. My Dad identified with my running and kept all my clippings. He knew all the stats about my running and my competitors.
College running was a different ball game than high school. All of my teammates came from powerhouse programs, they were used to at least 60-70 miles a week. Our 90-mile weeks weren’t too much of a change for them. I was barely 18 when I reported for August training, and the high mileage was a shock to my system. I was also adjusting to living away from home for the first time. Furthermore, our team had a lot of drama.
My freshman year, I was the number 2 runner on the women’s XC team, right behind a Swedish woman who had come over to the US to run. I thought this was my time to shine. My weight dropped again, back down to the near dreaded 90 lbs. I was running really well and very happy with the success. One of my teammates was always telling me I needed to gain weight, but she was also angry that she wasn’t the number 2 runner, as she was supposed to be going into the season. My coaches said I was fine. There was a constant comparison on the women’s team about who was eating what food. All the distance runners also lived together and ate meals together, which didn’t help things. My Dad was my listening ear, and once again thought nothing was wrong. My Mom wished I would stop my obsession with running and gain weight.
That Christmas I went home and one of my teammates from high school looked at me and said “you look disgusting.” This was exactly what I needed to hear. She didn’t dance around the weight issue as everyone else did. I knew that she wasn’t saying these words for her benefit, but rather for mine.
Then in the Spring, I got a stress fracture at an indoor track meet. I was devastated. The stress fracture was actually the best thing to happen to me because it made me stop running. In the Spring I also pledged a sorority. Post stress fracture I realized I was extremely burned out on running. I also knew the environment on the team wasn’t healthy for me.
By mid-spring, I knew I had to leave the college I was attending. I was burnt out on running, the team culture was toxic, and I was not in a good mental framework with my mind nor my weight.
My Dad was not happy about my decision to quit. I’m not sure if this was my perception or the actual reality, but I felt like he held on to this decision for years. My dad felt I would regret quitting. I thought my Dad was thinking, “why would I quit a major division 1 program where I was running PRs and the number 2 runner. “
Later in life, my Dad explained to me more of his thinking. He felt like that after a rough childhood I had finally found my place. I started wearing bifocal at age 3 to correct astigmatism. I was an awkward, overweight kid and I had cross-eyes. My Dad explained that when I started running he saw me throw myself into something with passion. He felt like I had found something that I loved and worked hard to be good at it. His thinking was “why would she give up on the thing she finally found to be passionate about, and she’s good at it.” My Dad also explained that my brother didn’t have my vision problems and went through childhood more easily. My Dad was into my running because he saw me fight so hard to find my place. He hated to see me give up that place and passion I’d found.
My mom on the other hand was very into sororities. Her sorority had been the highlight of her college career and she wanted me to experience this way of life. She pushed me to live this lifestyle.
As you can see, both of my parents had expectations from their lives that were falling on me. They still viewed me as a child. Further into my adulthood I finally started to understand some of my parents’ motivations and have had these types of conversations with them. If you are facing pressure from your parents and it’s getting in the way, it may be helpful to realize your parents may have issues from their own lives that you may or may not get answers to right now.
While my dad saw the external success and passion, he didn’t see my internal angst and turmoil. At the time, I was unable to verbalize what was going on in my head because I was still figuring it out myself. It took me years to sort out my thoughts around some very complicated issues.
All of this is important because if you are struggling to decide if you are going to stay in your sport or find a new path, and you feel pressure from a parent, there may be things behind the scenes you can’t see. The important thing is to make a decision you can live with and fully process that decision. You will most likely experience a sense of loss if you step back from your sport, which is normal. Anytime you step back from something you love or once loved, it may take a bit to recalibrate your day-to-day life. Accepting these feelings and sitting with them, talking about them, or journaling can be helpful.
Back to my college experience, the head coach of the program at the university I attended didn’t sign my release to run at another school. I went to another division 1 school and thought about joining that team and just sitting out for a year. However, that team was full of some unhealthy dynamics too and I was still very burnt out. I didn’t want to run. At that point, I thought my running journey was over. I didn’t run for a few years. I attended another university and finished college. I had a great college experience without running. I was involved in many different organizations around campus. I still had some major depression issues in college and needed to cope with those issues. It still wasn’t the time to turn back to running.
If you stop your sport in college or take a break from it, this does not mean you are done for life with the sport. I stepped back from college running and I thought I’d never run again. Fast forward to post-college and I did run again. My first job out of college was very stressful. My boss yelled at me every day and the hours were long. I was stressed trying to navigate the world in my first post-college job. I went back to running. This time I didn’t go back to compete, I went back as a healthy outlet for my stress. And this time I was able to use running as a healthy outlet. I ran just for exercise and still didn’t think I would race again. I started just running a few days a week. The run group met right outside my apartment. I showed up and ran 4-5 miles in my cotton shirts. Slowly I got more into running and ran more as a healthy outlet. I ran local races but still wasn’t at my peak in my early 20s.
At 25, I moved to Boston and experienced a bout with depression. Moving from Texas to Boston in December was a shock to the system. I ran but not fast. Then I moved to North Carolina where I got faster and enjoyed the local runners but still wasn’t at my peak.
Finally, in my late 20s, I moved to San Francisco. I joined a group of accomplished female runners. In San Francisco, I ran on a club team full of women who helped push me. I also had a coach who understood me and knew how to hold me back from myself. I realized I needed someone to save me from myself. I had a tendency to work too hard and this coach taught me how to work hard in a smart way. I did workouts that were extremely challenging and pushed me, but on my easy day, I didn’t run too hard or too much. I wasn’t obsessed with burning too many calories, I was focused on running smart and eating a balanced diet. My talent and personality were reigned in. While in San Francisco, I ran all my PRs. I ran 16:40 in the 5K, 34:30 in the 10k, and 2:44 in the marathon.
I ran in some major track meets, such as the Stanford Invite. I qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon. I’m proud of this accomplishment specifically. My 18-year-old self, who thought I’d never run again, would have never dreamed of making the Olympic Trials. I was 25 lbs heavier than I was in college when I qualified for the trials. I was so much stronger both mentally and physically. I needed time, growth, and age to mature. I went to counseling when I was in Boston for my anxiety and depression. I still had anxiety when I was running in San Francisco; I felt anxious even amidst PRs. However, I had learned a great deal about nutrition and processed some things myself. I was never once tempted to drop my weight too low. I could enjoy food with my teammates. I ate good fat, like avocado and eggs. I could enjoy pizza and cake at a party. I also had teammates and a coach I trusted. I talked to them about how I was feeling. My coach often said I needed medicine and I do wish I had gotten on medicine during this time but I wasn’t quite ready.
When I raced in San Francisco I often felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to stand at many of the start lines I did because I only ran one year in college. Most of my training partners had run 4 years at a great university. I had to revisit these feelings and remind myself that I qualified for each of these races just like everyone else. Many of the feelings of inadequacy we feel come up over and over again in life. Each time we face these feelings though, we become better at dealing with them and become a better friend, teammate, and family member.
Qualifying for the Olympic trials was a magnificent experience. It didn’t change my life though. No matter how well you perform in your sport, this won’t resolve your issues or feelings of inadequacy. Even after I qualified for the trials, my coach still had to remind me that I belonged at the start line. Even though I qualified for the trials just like everyone else, I still had a feeling of not belonging. I also felt this way in track.
Later in life, I learned how to use my driven competitive nature to accomplish goals in a healthy way. I am very proud that I can now reign myself in. It took a windy path full of learning, growing, hard times, bouts with depression and anxiety, to finally reach my running peak. I needed to learn about myself, find a balance, set healthy boundaries, and manage my anxiety and depression. These days you can learn and manage mental health issues at an earlier age. At almost 39, I know boundaries, am on medicine and have gone to counseling many times in my adult life.
Life is full of twists and turns and my path to PRs didn’t look like I thought it would in college. If you are reading this and struggling with burnout, eating issues, depression, anxiety, whatever it may be, get help. Your sports will be there, maybe in the present and maybe later. However, dealing with things that nag us usually increases performance in the long run. I don’t think any of us ever arrive. I am a Christian and I operate under the belief that we are continuing to grow more like Christ in this life but won’t ever reach perfection in this life. Grant yourself grace. We must keep working on ourselves throughout our lives because this work will make us a healthier person for ourselves and for those around us.
My hope is that those who are reading this and are struggling with where to go in life and maybe with your sport, will find hope and encouragement. Maybe your path looks different than mine. Just remember whatever your athletic future holds, life takes twists and turns you may never expect. This runner who stopped running after 1 year in college, qualified for the Olympic Trials at 30.