Nat Tells All: Dealing with Grief, My Past With Disordered Eating & Post Marathon Fitness Goals
I’ve been getting asked the same question quite frequently lately – “when are you running another marathon?” And if it isn’t that exact question then it’s some close variation – “do you plan on running another marathon?” “do you still follow a running plan?” “do you still do long runs?” And my post marathon fitness goals can't be summed up that quickly, but...
To answer those questions as briefly as I possibly can: I’m not quite sure, heck yes, sort of and heck no.
I realized I haven’t talked very openly about my post-marathon fitness goals and I think that’s because I was honestly really down after the marathon ended. My heart broke a little knowing I was no longer working towards that amazingly daunting goal, no longer running crazy high mileages every Tuesday and no longer feeling that daily excitement and anticipation for the race.
Ever heard of the postrace blues? Well I got them bad. I read “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami a couple of years ago and I remember him discussing this feeling of depression after one of his major races and at that point, having only run a half marathon, I didn’t quite understand it. Yes, after my half marathons I would feel a twinge of sadness that it was over, but I knew my body could easily run another in a few months. But something about this race was different.
Committing to and training for a marathon is huge. It became my life. All of my thoughts centered around the marathon, my training took up copious amounts of time each week, my workouts were tailored to what would benefit me in the long run for the marathon, my daily food intake was always tied to thoughts of the race to make sure I was fueling my body enough... and although that probably all sounds overwhelming and a little crazy, I loved it. I absolutely loved every second of training.
As I mentioned in my marathon recap post, I had a complete meltdown the evening after the marathon. The day was an emotional rollercoaster in general, starting with an elated feeling that morning before the race (naturally), a huge mix of emotions during the race, waterworks immediately after the race (due to hyperventilation, hanger, an aching body, happiness and finally letting my walls down from dealing with years of grief… this race brought a lot out for me) and then the natural runners high the remainder of the day. I was ecstatic the rest of the day and didn’t stop going going going (mainly to make sure I could stop at all of my favorite Portland restaurants to refuel). When I finally let myself slowwww down that evening after dinner it all hit me. It was done. And I knew with all of my heart that I would need to take a BIG break from such long distances and that broke my heart. Running has saved me on so many levels over the years and the thought of cutting back so drastically made me have a little identity crisis. I was Nat the long-distance runner. Who was I supposed to be without running so far, so often?
With the help from my sweet parents, I decided on cutting all the way back to only running distances of 3-4 miles at a time and only about 15 miles per week. And let me tell you - it’s hard going from running over 40 miles a week to running 15, but I also know how desperately my body needs a long period of “rest.” And I think it’s needed it for a really long time.
When I think back on my life, I realize how active I’ve always been. I was active in different ways than now, yes, but active nonetheless. I started dancing when I was only three years old (ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, pointe… all the works) and continued until I was 15. Throw in a couple years of competitive dance in there and you’ve got yourself a recipe for way too many hours spent in a dance studio and at weekend conventions. My childhood was defined by dance and I loved it. I loved spending hours in the studio, I loved the rush of performing, I loved nailing a new routine and I have to admit, I loved the sparkly costumes. But something switched inside of me when I was a freshman in high school and my love of dance faded. The new studio I was going to pushed me in ways I didn’t like and it sucked the joy of dance from me. I no longer danced because I loved it and I no longer tried my hardest in class because I felt inspired, but because I felt scared – of failing, of getting yelled at, of looking silly. One day in class my instructor gave us a lecture and said “if you aren’t here because you want to be a professional dancer, then what are you doing here?” I remember those words playing over and over in my head and the next day I quit. Trust me, there were many tears, but it was also so freeing to let go of that part of my life.
I then spent the next three years cheering at my high school and it was so much fun. That’s the best way I can describe it – fun. It allowed me to still do what I loved most – dance – but in a less stressful environment. It gave me leadership opportunities and pushed me out of my shell and I am so grateful for that (can you believe I used to be extremely shy?!).
And while I spent those years dancing and cheering, I also had begun dabbling in lifting (and a quick season of ninth grade track… let me tell you… I was definitely not a runner back then). I grew up going to the gym with my parents and playing in the childcare center while they worked out, so the moment I could finally work out with them I was beyond excited. I honestly think being able to go to the gym was one of the best parts of turning 12 for me. ;) I would lift with my parents and as I got older and was able to drive myself, working out at the gym became a part of my weekly routine.
My love of fitness grew as I got older, but it was never truly a passion until I began running more seriously partway through my freshman year. I started running with a few friends who were training for a half marathon, so, naturally, I ended up signing up as well. From the moment I crossed that finish line, I was hooked. Running became who I was, and with that I became even more passionate about all-around fitness. I finally started feeling like my healthiest self (after quite the freshman year of college… if you know what I mean).
Unfortunately, I took that passion too far my sophomore year of college as I dealt with anxiety that stemmed from the grief of traumatically losing a friend the previous year. My life and emotions felt completely out of control and at the time I refused to talk about it. I remember feeling so much anger that I would only get angrier if anyone, even my parents, brought it up. Anger, confusion, sadness… it was a cycle that seemed like it would never end. I tried to lock it all away and act like I was okay. Looking “fine” on the outside meant I was feeling better inside, right? Because my emotions were in a constant turmoil, it developed into a constant need for control and that control surfaced in unhealthy and harmful ways.
I started dealing with exercise addiction and orthorexia, as well as restriction. I became obsessed with being skinny and what I believed to be “fit.” I ran and lifted like there was no tomorrow, not stopping unless I felt like I had “earned” my rest days (and still would rarely take them). Nibbling on some egg whites here and veggies there because my vision was clouded by the hurt I was silently dealing with. Apparently, destroying myself was easier than talking about what was destroying me. It was a time of conflict with my parents and confusion within myself. I was always at war in my own mind – knowing that I was destructing myself, but not knowing how to stop, and being too scared to.
I finally started seeing a counselor (never something to be ashamed of!) and finally began letting my emotions show. I felt awkward and clumsy talking about it openly after so many months of hiding my hurt away, but it truly did save me. It took me awhile, but one day it just hit me that I had to get better. I didn’t know how I would do it, but I needed the inner-war and self-hatred to stop and I needed to regain the trust of my parents. It was a long and very bumpy road, but I’m finally in a place that I can say I 100% have a fixed, and beautiful, relationship with food and my body. I love my body for what it can do and I love exercise as a way to celebrate my body and my health. I never see food or rest days as something to be earned. I realized I’ve never really talked openly about this stage in my life and dealing with this eating disorder on the blog, but I finally felt that it was time to fully open up and lay it all out there. Being vulnerable only makes us stronger.
And although I'm not grateful that I dealt with these mental health issues, I am grateful for the growth that came out of it. I truly don’t think I would be who I am today or have the healthy relationship I do now with health, fitness, food and my body if I hadn’t been tested in that way. I think the struggles I faced around anxiety, restriction and exercise addiction surfaced in a necessary breaking point and rock bottom that I needed to hit in order to truly grow and progress into the healthy and happy person that I am today - the person I truly and honestly feel like I was meant to be.
And the funny thing is, when I look back on that time of disordered thinking, I realize running was such a double-edged sword in my life. Running mile after mile, after already lifting for an hour and biking on the stationary bike each morning was destroying my body, but at the same time my love for running was the thing that finally made the light switch on in my head that made me realize I needed to get better. Running was the one thing that kept me from falling into a thousand pieces every day. I remember telling my counselor the following when he suggested not running as much – “But, I don’t see running as exercise. Running is what keeps me sane every day. It’s what clears my mind and gives me hope.” He then pointed out that although that was true for me, running was exercise even if I felt that it was more of a form of meditation and therapy.
Living with the constant conflict in my mind and the never-ending self-criticism was hell, but the worst part was that my parents stopped supporting my running. Running is my greatest passion and I love being able to share it with those that I love, so when my mom came to me saying she no longer would support it, show up to races, etc. my heart broke into a million (more) pieces. I remember the day I realized I was done fighting against myself and I longed to gain back the support of my parents and to become a TRULY healthy runner again. It may have taken a long time, but I got there through hard work and tears, rough days and breakdowns. But I got to where I am today and that’s all that matters. That’s another reason why the marathon was so special for me (and my parents!). It was a symbol of me overcoming these hardships and painful times, being healthy (mentally and physically) and getting to share in my love of running with my parents again.
But, back to the present. For a couple of years now I’ve dealt with amenorrhea (read my girl Christina’s post about it – it’s gold), most likely caused by years of excessive activity and exercise. Thankfully, after many doctor appointments this summer, I know that my hormones are well-balanced, so getting my period back is more of a matter of lowering the stress that I’m putting on my body. We (as in my parents and I – they are seriously SO supportive and helpful with my health. I’m so grateful.) knew all of this going into marathon training, but my parents knew the marathon was something I had to do for myself (for the reasons above). I committed to the marathon with the knowledge that after the marathon I needed to fully commit to, well, relaxing more and putting my body under less stress.
So after the marathon it was like 100 to 0 REAL fast. And although it was strange and a little uncomfortable going from running 40 miles a week to running 15 (if that), but my body (and mind) adjusted so much quicker than I expected.
That night after the marathon, when I had the breakdown about the race being over, I was partially shedding tears because I was nervous. I like my routine and schedule (as you all probably know by now) and the thought of starting a new, much more laid back, schedule was more daunting than the thought of running 26.2 miles. I'm used to pushing myself and giving everything I do my all. I was nervous that I would constantly feel antsy, but mainly I was nervous of losing my identity as a runner. Being a long distance runner (and now a marathoner! Woohoo!) is a huge part of who I am, and I had this idea in my head that if I wasn’t running a bagillion miles every day and week, I wasn’t runner Nat any longer.
But I quickly snapped out of it and realized no matter what, no matter how few miles I run at this point in my life, I am and will always be a runner, I will always be a marathoner and nothing can take that away. And guess what? The first few weeks back from the marathon I never even ran the 15 weekly miles I was expecting! My body finally, after being beyond amazing and strong throughout training and the race, decided it had had enough. I was downright tired and I listened to that.
So what’s next? I like to call it “operation get my body to be its healthiest so I can run a marathon again one day.” Okay, it’s not only so I can run a marathon again, but I know full heartedly that I cannot run another one until I kick amenorrhea’s a** and that’s completely fine by me. I’ve fallen into a very comfortable and happy place with working out and I love it. I love that I can finally focus more on lifting again and gaining back the strength I lost during marathon training. I love feeling energized and strong every day instead of always slightly dragging from over-doing it. I love that I am finally listening to all of my body’s cues. I love that I can crack up at myself when I have complete “off” days in the gym. I love that I feel just as good on days that I cut my workouts short as I do on days that I crush a workout. I love that I honor my body and fuel its hunger cues the same way on rest days. I love that I also honor my body and honor its cravings even when I’m not hungry. I love that I love my body, that I love working out to feel strong and that I love running to feel free.
And for anyone dealing with grief, know that I’ve been there. The hurt dims, but hurts just the same. Talk to someone, reach out, ask for help. Find something that helps patch up your heart, like running did and still does for me.
So here’s to my healthiest year yet – and by healthiest I mean a year full of more relaxing, less miles and a whole lot of self-love.