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Running on Empty

Growing up, Marya Hornbacher despised running. In junior high, she hated when the coaches made players do laps around the field. But when she went away to boarding school, Marya started waking up every single morning before sunrise to run 5 miles.

Marya’s routine might sound like a healthy new habit —but it wasn’t. When she started running, she was already gripped by a powerful eating disorder, and a fixation on exercise became part of her disease.

“I was very proud of myself for forcing my body to run. And run,” Marya writes in the book Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. “Malnutrition precipitates mania. So does speed. Both were at play here, in large doses. But so was masochism…ultimately resulting in a transitory sense of mastery over pain and fear.”

Marya kept upping her mileage as she ate less and less. Soon she was logging 25 miles a day, fueled only by grapefruit and carrot sticks with mustard. When she looks back on that time, more than 20 years ago, Marya now knows running and her eating disorder were intertwined.

“There was never a time where I was running where I wasn’t trying to lose weight,” she says. “I always ran to either lose weight or punish my body in one way or another. If I’d eaten more than I wanted to eat, I ran to punish myself for that. For me, all those things that fed into the eating disorder also fed into the addictive running that I was doing.”

Marya’s experience is not uncommon. There’s an undeniable linkage between weight loss and running. People begin running to shed pounds; elite runners must keep their body fat low to remain competitive; online calculators show how far you need to run to burn the calories you just ate; and the “traditional” runner’s body is rail thin, which means a size that’s unattainable for most individuals is viewed as “normal.”

While running is an effective tool for people who want to lose weight for health reasons, the line between what’s healthy and what’s dangerous for a runner can easily blur.

Dangerous Disorder

When Jackie Bristow was a sophomore in high school, she joined the cross-country team. Her mother, Joan, didn’t know it at the time, but her daughter was also developing an eating disorder. Jackie ran throughout high school and seemed to love the camaraderie of the sport, her mother recalls.

“She was voted the most inspirational on team,” says Joan. “She always had a smile, was always a giving kind of person.”

Jackie went to college in the fall of 2006 but fainted in January of her first year from lack of nourishment. Her parents realized she needed help, so they sent her to treatment. After six months, Jackie was on the road to recovery. But by the following year, she had gone downhill again. On New Year’s Day in 2008, she died.

Joan says she never worried about Jackie’s running and still doesn’t know if it factored into her eating disorder.

“I thought it was a sport that was good for her,” she says. “It didn’t cross my mind that she was using it to keep her weight down. I’ve since found out that a lot of people do that, that it [can be] the same as throwing up.”

Pain Threshold

While running is a healthy habit for the vast majority of women, it can be very destructive in the hands of someone with an eating disorder, says Dr. Cynthia Bulik, the director of the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders.

“Some of the same personality features that are associated with the development of anorexia nervosa are also qualities that may contribute to someone becoming a good distance runner, such as perfectionism, perseverance and the ability to endure pain,” Bulik says.

A runner may start out with a healthy habit like running a few times a week, but then it will transform into an unhealthy extreme.

“For people with eating disorders, the desire to be at low body weight can get completely tied up with their running goals,” explains Bulik. “We have had many people who create narratives for themselves, that their obsessive exercise is really all about their running goals, when in reality it is the eating disorder that is driving them toward unhealthy levels of exercise and obsession.”

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