Running Recovered: An Athlete's Return To Her Sport After Anorexia

By Christine Deng, Guest Contributor

In the past couple of months, I have had the immense fortune of speaking with many eating disorder survivors from around the world for my WASP Journal. Their stories and backgrounds are vastly different, and yet, I found that the individuals have one standout characteristic in common: drive.

Drive is the intrinsic stuff that our society reveres in any successful individual, the drive to work and achieve and relentlessly pursue goals with an almost blinding determination.

Discovering this common trait among the many individuals I have interviewed unsettled me slightly: Could it be possible that the same characteristic that is encouraged and fostered in our lives so that we can create a better world is the same characteristic that can breed restrictive eating disorders?

Taking this revelation back into my life, I realized that drive can push you to great heights should you harness it in the right way, but drive can also press you into the dust if channeled in the wrong way.

As a long-distance athlete and a recovered anorexic, my drive was divided between the sport that I loved and the life I thought I was creating through food restriction. I started running as a child because I loved the feeling of cruising down a hill with wind-strewn hair. But, at my sickest, I was running as a means to lift my plummeting self-esteem and relieve the gnawing anorexic voice that told me to run until I could run no more.

The less I ate, the more I ran. I lost weight visibly, which was noted by several close friends. As a distance runner, I was able to wave off their concerns with relative ease. I’m training more. I’m clocking more miles. Leave me alone. After all, distance runners are notoriously lean.  

I abused running as much as I abused my body until I was ordered by the clinic to stop running. My heart rate had dropped to such dangerous lows that it could no longer be justified by simply being uber fit. I had to hang my running shoes up and face my eating disorder without the relief that long miles on an empty stomach gave me. 

I may be weight restored now, but my relationship with the sport remains complicated. Thankfully, with years of therapy and a steady weight chart, I have been able to resume running and increase my training load without compromising my health. However, I still have days where a dip in self-confidence or an extra slice of bread has me wanting to strap on trainers for all the wrong reasons.

But I am much, much better now. For the most part, I no longer run to get outside of my body, to chase a temporary high, or to numb out the visceral sensation of hunger. Now, I run to get back inside my body. I listen to my breathing as I listen to my footsteps, and have marveled at how my heart, arms, lungs, and feet move together to carry me race after race after race. Now, more than ever, I realize through running what a marvelous creation our bodies are.

Anorexia still knocks on my door. During high mileage weeks and race season, the old voice of anorexia still pipes up and asks whether I want to skip that post-race meal for another run around the block. But, through the love and support of my husband and friends, the profound lessons I have learned in therapy, and in the life that came after treatment, I have found the strength to face anorexia with love and say, ‘Thanks, but I’d rather have the cake.’

I won’t lie, the relationship between my eating disorder and my beloved sport may remain strained for some time. But I have chosen one over the other, and I continue to make that choice every time I hit the pavement. And those are the choices that will ultimately define who I am and who I want to become.

Christine Deng Christine is a newly married Kiwi gal based in Christchurch. She runs a New Zealand based content marketing business, Capsule Media, and dedicates much of her time to writing, training, and connecting with others. When she isn't pounding the pavement, Christine is busy growing the presence of WASP Journal, an online platform that documents and collects eating disorder recovery stories from around the world, an initiative she intends to grow into a network that provides affordable and accessible clinical and community based treatment services. Connect with Christine.