What I Learned as a Collegiate Runner Majoring in Dietetics (Guest Post by Maggie Farrell) Part 1

Last year, Maggie Farrell reached out to me with a request to raise awareness for eating disorders in sports through Running in Silence in an upcoming marathon. As a Michigan high school cross country and track coach, I had the opportunity to witness some of Maggie’s running accomplishments in high school. But the greatest privilege has been watching her work on this three-part piece that reveals the gritty woman Maggie aspired to be from a young age, who now inspires others.

Maggie Farrell, 2016 high school state cross country and 2017 3200m high school state track champion for Michigan, graduated in 2021 from Michigan State University with her BS in Dietetics. In addition to her studies, Maggie competed on the MSU Cross Country and Track & Field team. Throughout her time competing at MSU, she was Big 10 Freshman Runner of the Year, first-team All-Big 10, and competed in the NCAA Cross Country Championship. Maggie also helped the MSU women’s team win the Big Ten’s conference championship in 2020. Maggie is currently a graduate student at Texas State University where she is completing her dietetic internship and MS in Human Nutrition to become a registered dietitian.

This past fall, I was inspired by my dad to run the Austin Marathon in February 2022. Throughout my time training for this marathon, I will be raising money for Running in Silence, an organization that encourages the athletic community to talk about the prevalence of eating disorders, help athletes seek out the help they need, and assist coaches with eating disorder awareness and prevention. I encourage you to consider donating to this amazing organization so we can help raise awareness about eating disorders in sports and help lessen the struggle for athletes.

I struggled with disordered eating throughout my life, and I have reached a point where I am fed up. I am fed up with the lack of widespread initiative to address the issue of eating disorders within sports and how to prevent them. I am fed up that our culture continues to perpetuate an environment where eating disorders are almost the “norm.” It’s important to talk about eating disorders in sports to understand the magnitude of the issue, share your unique perspective, and let others who are currently struggling not feel so alone. I realized being vulnerable is important and my voice does matter.

This is my journey.

Finding the Love for Running

I began running thanks to an energetic dog we adopted when I was in elementary school.

“We’ll get rid of Toby if you don’t find a way to help him release all of that pent-up energy!” my mom warned.

Luckily, my dad came to the rescue. Even though he hadn’t run since high school, he laced up his shoes and took Toby out for a daily jog around the neighborhood. It wasn’t long before my sister and I joined my dad on runs with our dog. Soon, I was heading out alone for runs.

I began to crave the sense of freedom I had with running. I appreciated the ability to go wherever I wanted and explore new parts of my town I never knew existed. As cliche as it sounds, it was an escape for me. This was where my love of running began.  

The thought of running in college never crossed my mind until the winter of my sophomore year in high school. I knew that it would take a lot of sacrifices to compete at this level, and, quite frankly, I did not have the times it took to run at this level. That was until my high school cross country coach asked if some of the girls on the team wanted to go watch the NCAA Championship meet in Terre Haute, IN. She knew the MSU women’s cross country team was in the running to win and thought it could be inspirational for us.

That it was. I watched, with goosebumps, as the women’s team celebrated their win. All it took was seven gritty girls to come together and achieve something big. I began to think how cool it would be if maybe one day I could be that gritty girl that inspires others.

It was then that I realized I would never be content just watching from the sidelines. I only had so many high school races left, and a fire started beneath me to see just how far I could go with this running thing. From this moment on, my goal was to be the best of the best.

Breakthroughs and Bingeing

The summer before my junior year of high school, I fell face-first into the trap of “thinner equals faster.” Someone had recommended that “losing just a little weight” would take me to the next level. At this time, I ate a healthy, balanced diet and had an active lifestyle, but I still didn’t look like the elite girls. I thought that if I looked like them, I would run like them.

It started with me meticulously documenting everything every day, including what I ate and how much I weighed. I made small changes at first. I cut back on snacking and included more vegetables in my diet.

That fall, I saw major breakthroughs. I qualified for states and I broke 20 minutes in the 5K for the first time. While this would be quite an accomplishment for some people, this wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to be the best of the best. I wanted results and I wanted them fast.

That winter, I took my “healthy eating” to another level. I set rigid rules for myself around certain foods and my eating schedule. I demonized some of my favorite foods and wouldn’t allow myself to eat them during the week; however, I let myself eat as much as I wanted on Sundays.

As you can imagine, this catapulted me into this binge and restrict cycle that left me feeling guilty and sick to my stomach. I would hide these binges from those closest to me, including my family. Plus, I’ve noticed it can be difficult to identify binge eating behaviors with our current diet culture where “cheat days” and diet cycling are so common. However, binge eating was something I always felt ashamed to talk about. The purging would come in multiple forms, but it never seemed to make me feel better. I had such low self-confidence. I felt like the only thing that others cared about was how much I weighed and how fast I could run.

Bingeing led me to restrict even further. I figured that if something was wrong with me, I’d have to “fix” it myself. I decided that the “fix” would be to cut out sweets. I had convinced myself that I didn’t like these foods anymore, and I continued to dig myself further and further into this hole of restriction.

Fueling the Fire

By the end of indoor track season, I was All-State in 1600m and on track to break five minutes in the mile. I also lost a substantial amount of weight in a short time.

People noticed. My parents and coaches started to worry. I just reassured them I was running more and eating “right.” Some of my friends and classmates complimented me on how good I looked or my performance, and those comments further fueled the fire.

This is when I noticed the symptoms associated with under-fueling. I began losing hair, my nails were cracking constantly, and I did not have a regular period. The worst part was I was often angry. I was so angry. It almost felt like I was teetering this “line” of feeling fine and starvation. A lot of this anger came in the form of irritability and would really show when it came to food/mealtimes, such as friends or family not being on time when going out to eat, having dinner served fifteen minutes late, food being prepared in a way that I didn’t like, etc. I was extremely irritable, and this emotion was very hard for me to control. I didn’t have the energy to do anything besides running, so I stopped doing the other things I enjoyed. I remember learning in my human nutrition class years later that anger, or irritability, is also a symptom associated with undereating.

I continued with “healthy eating habits” and found myself breaking two school records in outdoor track as well as earning All-State honors in the mile. Let me be clear, I worked hard for this. I ran countless miles, stretched, rolled, rested, I did all the right things, but I had also lost a significant amount of weight by this time.

While I was technically succeeding in my running goals, I felt lost and alone. Invitations from friends to go out to the movies or eat at a restaurant were turned down. I was too afraid I would end up breaking rules my eating disorder had set for me and potentially eat something that was not on my list of “safe foods.” During this time of under-fueling, I also found that I never had enough energy to do anything besides run. At this point, I knew something was wrong.

The Year of Growing Pains

My first year of college is still hard for me to think about. This was a year full of “growing pains” and anxiety masked by success. I continued to run fast at the next level and adapted well to the new level of training. From the very beginning, I kept my head down and worked hard. But I was in the depths of my eating disorder.

As soon as I started training with the team at MSU, I could sense that some of my teammates suspected I was struggling with an eating disorder, but no one directly addressed it. This subject was taboo and rarely discussed on our team. I felt like eating disorders were thought of as a topic of hot gossip based on assumptions rather than facts. I found myself on the other side of this “gossip,” which was a very lonely place to be.

Honestly, I can’t blame my teammates. There were times in my career when I suspected teammates were struggling with disordered eating, but I didn’t know how to address them, so I avoided approaching them about it. I bring this up because it is important to understand that all of us have the power to change how we address eating disorders in collegiate sports. It may feel scary or awkward to talk about at first, but I promise that if you come from a place of love and good intentions, you have the power to help a person not feel so alone.

Under-Fueling Fears

It wasn’t until that winter that my coaches addressed my eating behaviors for the first time. I went into their office to talk about the progress I made in the winter season and what my training would look like moving forward. During the meeting, my coaches mentioned that a teammate told them they thought I was struggling with an eating disorder.

This discussion felt accusatory and scary. It felt as though I had done something wrong and like the was something wrong with me. It seemed an ultimatum was set: either gain the weight or lose my ability to compete.

I began to doubt my ability to do one of the simplest tasks: feed myself. I was told that I needed to make an appointment with the nutritionist, schedule a bone density scan, and visit an eating disorder psychologist. I don’t think I ever felt so alone at this time, and it wasn’t until about a year later I told anyone, other than my family, about this time in my life.

The DEXA scan came back normal, I sat through a single appointment with the nutritionist, and I hid my fear around food and gaining weight from the psychologist. Everything seemed fine on the surface, so the subject matter was never addressed again.

By this point, I was struggling with anxiety and no longer trusted my body. I developed binge eating disorder again. Each night I anxiously wondered if I had eaten enough that day. There were some nights that the fear of weakening bones from under-fueling kept me up at night, but there were some nights I couldn’t fall asleep because I was uncomfortable with how full I felt. I was afraid to gain weight, yet afraid to let my team down by continuing to under-fuel. I was constantly at war with my mind and body.

Tired of Fighting My Body

During my sophomore year of college, I got to a point where I was tired of being hungry all the time. I felt like I could snap at any moment. I wanted to connect with my friends and teammates. The only thing standing in the way was my eating disorder.

I began to challenge myself. I started small, but every connection I was able to make, every laugh, every moment, ignited another little fire in me, a fire to get back to the “Maggie” I once was.

This was the first time I was able to truly connect with my teammates. I went from barely talking to my teammates during practice, to having more meaningful conversations on runs. This led to coffee and dinner dates, watching movies after practice, and invitations to visit them over summer break. The bonds I was able to foster with my made competition much more meaningful.

While I gained so much that year, I struggled with body image issues for most of my sophomore year and into my junior year of college. My body had changed significantly since my first year of college, and I didn’t know how to deal with those emotions. I felt a lot of shame when running. Although I tried to bury my feelings and deny that I had an issue, there was no hiding how my uniform fit me differently each time I put it on.

I often worried about what others thought, especially since I wasn’t nearly as fast as I used to be. Did people think I let myself go? Stop caring? I desperately felt the need to show others that I can still be successful in a stronger, healthier body as opposed to a “small” body. While I wasn’t able to get back to where I was speed-wise my freshman and sophomore year of college, potentially due to the damage of under-fueling and my body image struggles, I showed up every single day to practice. I hung on during countless workouts. And at the end of the day, I still loved running.

Thank you for reading my journey of struggling with an eating disorder in collegiate athletics. I feel very lucky that I found my love of running again, but this is not the case for everyone. Please consider donating to this wonderful organization and seek out help if you or someone you love is struggling.

You can donate here!

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