It was fall 2012, and I had bonked at one of the most important races of the cross country season. Days later, Coach Woj asked me to meet him in his office.
“It tore my heart to read your running log,” Woj said. “You’re a smart girl. How can Rachael, who does everything right, not eat breakfast before her race?”
My heart dropped. Yes, in my online running log I had admitted to skipping breakfast. But it wasn’t until this moment that I realized how foolish it had been, how warped my mind had become with food in that past year.
Tears ran down my cheeks before I could stop them. How could I explain to my coach that I thought I would weigh less? That I felt compelled to avoid breakfast because I was scrambling for any pound lost after the binge eating weight gain? That I didn’t think it would be detrimental, but instead helpful, to my performance? How could I explain everything I had learned from a fruitarian community about being as light as possible by not eating mere hours before a race?
“No, no, don’t cry,” Woj said, patting me on the shoulder. I stared down at my hands, ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t want to look like a weak runner after my freshman year when I had run faster than ever.
This was not where I was supposed to be. This was not where I was supposed to be at all.
Conversations with Coach
As a coach now, I’m thankful that I’m aware of what eating disorders entail and how to identify one. But this was only because I went through it and I’ve made it my job to learn more. My college coach, meanwhile, was wading into tricky, unknown territory. On top of that, eating disorders can look different in athletes.
Most people think that an eating disorder looks like someone pushing food around their plate, or running to the bathroom after each meal. I did neither. I ate healthy in the eyes of others.
Yes, I cut out food groups. But wasn’t this just part of being a disciplined runner? Yes, I limited how much I ate. But didn’t that help me to run faster?
I believed I had found the “secret” to success when I lost weight and ran faster. Only, I didn’t think about how it would affect me long term in the form of injuries and binge eating.
When I gained weight, it made many people, including my coach, think that my health had improved. One look at me and many may have assumed that a healthy weight meant a healthy person.
Eating disorders are complex, complicated, and hidden among athletes who seemingly perform well and maybe “disappear” under what many people think are just injuries and burnout. There is something deeper here, and that’s what Woj and I explored.
What Woj did know as a coach was that it is unacceptable to talk negatively about body size or food. He never encouraged any of his athletes to lose weight or change their weight. And even in the midst of my eating disorder, when I was not running as fast at a heavier weight, he always put my health before my performance.
My coach and I were navigating what the eating disorder meant to my running. We dove into how to overcome it and what it meant to be “mentally injured”. Woj has mentioned that it felt like we were counseling each other with tears, setbacks, triumphs. We didn’t know what we were dealing with, and it didn’t seem others were talking about it. Woj didn’t “get it,” but he supported, he listened, and he talked with me. I left college a better, stronger person than when I had entered. Running didn’t destroy me because my coach helped to keep the joy and passion alive.
I believe that my coach handled it the best way he knew how with the few tools/resources readily available. There is still work to do to assist coaches with this. With increased awareness, maybe more could have been done earlier.
A week after my poor race performance and just a few days before the conference cross country meet, Woj handed me an envelope. I opened it as I walked into the fitness center for practice.
It was a card—a card with a photograph of a plate with two eggs for eyes and a bacon smile. “Keep your sunny side up,” it read. Woj had written beneath it:
I couldn’t pass this card up. Your corner is full of people who support the heck out of you. Run to WIN.