Little Things With BIG Impacts: Guest Blog Post by Hannah Wolfe (Part I)

Hannah Wolfe reached out to me about supporting the Running in Silence nonprofit, and I wanted to give her the opportunity to share her own story here! Events and conversations have been recreated from her memories of them. Eating disorder behaviors are mentioned.

Hannah, who will be graduating from the University of Virginia with a Psychology Major and Health and Wellbeing Minor, was born and raised a runner. From the deep valleys to the unimaginable peaks, running has held her hand throughout the past 15 years. A self-described wellness enthusiast, recovery advocate, and world-changer-in-training, Hannah strives to bring more magic into this world. She has a strong love for running, coffee, music, being outdoors, and empowering others. She’s here to fight so more people like her can experience the golden moments in life! 

I awake to the roar of the garage door shutting as my parents leave for their morning run. Racing down the stairs (as quietly as a seven-year-old can race) so I can turn on this morning’s episode of Full House, I keep the volume low to not disturb my sleeping sister (seriously, how do teenagers sleep that long?) and stumble into the kitchen.

I skim the latest of many weekly lime green sticky note “to-do” lists. They were always clinging to our kitchen table or the granite countertop, sure to be the first thing to catch one’s eye upon entry. I began making Rachel’s favorite (Pillsbury cinnamon buns, of course), eyeing the “to-do” list that did not include “make breakfast” along the way.

The list did, however, yell ‘RUN.’ It was a command always completed by a chorus of exclamation points, just to be sure I really heard the message. It rang between my ears in my mother’s voice, each week the demand growing louder and louder.

I don’t know when running stopped being seen as a box to check off the to-do list or when it stopped feeling like a chore my parents were demanding I complete. What I do know is that, for a long time, exercise equated to punishment. What I do know is that those mini post-its that arrived every Saturday and Sunday were stuck with me like they were stuck to the kitchen table; hard to shake and always the most noticeable thing in my room.

The app, the archnemesis

Years passed in my world of 10-day “cleanses” and afternoons spent eyeing the food in my best friend’s kitchen. As my tummy growled, my lips whispered, “I’m not hungry.” My friend would shrug, eating two servings rather than one. One for me and one for her. One for her body and one for her soul. I sat, hopeful, counting the bites she ate that I willed against. I sat, proud, thinking that this—of all things— that this gave me strength.

Freshman year arrived and I found myself on the Cross Country team, squeezing my little leggies into too-tight spandex and changing (shyly) in the corner of the locker room. One second, I was worried about our upcoming 800s; the next, I was hunched over a phone, scrambling to download ‘MyFitnessPal.’

One second, a focused athlete; the next, just another teenage girl self-conscious in her skin.

An older teammate gushed about the app and her daily caloric goal that’d be a better fit for a two-year-old and the alerts it sent when she was cutting it close to her allotted grams of fat. I sat, jaw dropped, heart set. I knew that this would make us strong.

The summer that sent me spiraling

The summer before my junior year, I found myself in a dream, admitted to Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institute and embracing my never-before-seen independence on the opposite side of the country. Told to rest by the doctor (shin splints: every runner’s nemesis), I spent three weeks savoring every last moment in the classroom instead of on the trails and each morning’s (4) almond pastr(ies) in the dining hall.

I returned home with weight I’d never known and daily rumination about the extra layer of fat that sat atop my prepubescent tummy. Practices were hard, gritty, testing. My slowed times felt foreign, much like my new body. I felt slow, heavy, uncomfortable. Defeated, I got in Mommy’s car after practice. Breaking down, I cried about the slow times and the pain. She nodded, understandingly. “You can’t run fast with all that extra weight hanging around.”

Team toxicity, coach confirmations

Autumn came and went. Practices switched inside to escape the winter’s chill. I moved through the motions seamlessly: to the outside, a varsity athlete with straight A’s and a busy social life; on the inside, a compulsive calculator tallying calories in and out.

My teammates were my best friends. Yet, our friendship was built out of mutual hatred for our sport and our bodies. Our time together was spent logging tomorrow’s intake, our text messages were overflowing with questions about carbohydrate content. Months passed and all I thought about was food. All I did was slowly consume less and less of it.

One Friday at practice in our little corner of the gym, we ran drills and sprints tirelessly. In between reps, my coach looked at me curiously among my teammates. “Have you lost weight?”

I smiled, silently rejoicing. “I’ve been trying,” I replied.

With a smirk on his face, he turned to walk away: “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it, Wolfe.”

That damn carrot

Shortly after, I spent two weeks cutting out my afternoon snack to make my goal weight at my yearly sports physical. After practice that afternoon, my stomach wouldn’t stop growling and my head wouldn’t stop spinning and I couldn’t think about anything but food.

So, I ate a carrot – one single carrot. A couple of hours later I traversed through the assembly line of volunteer ‘doctors’ in my high school’s hallways and found myself a smidge above my goal. My dad and I “joked” in the car ride home about “that damn carrot.” We laughed and laughed. And when we got home, I cried and cried. That damn carrot. Tomorrow, I would do better. Tomorrow, I would be stronger. Tomorrow, there would be no damn carrot.

Expectations, escalating

The next few months were a blur and each day I settled further into my unhealthy routines. As we approached our district, regional, and state meets, the pressure grew higher and meets got tougher. Our team’s 4×800 was finally worthy of note and our chance at success was approaching fast.

I’ve never told anyone that the post-race collapse we so commonly laugh at photos of today wasn’t due to my persisting shin splints. Rather, it was a lack of fuel, a brain lost in fog, a heart scurrying to keep pounding, limbs too weak to carry me a single step past the finish line – a pain that spanned far beyond my shins.

Read part II of Hannah’s story here, where she details her recovery and final thoughts.