February 13 2018
Colleen Kelly Alexander discusses the accident that changed her life and how she has rebounded in spite of the trauma to her mind and body.
Chocolate. It’s my kryptonite. I’m generally a purist when it comes to chocolate. Except if there is peanut butter or nutella involved. Then they can mix. But mint or caramel? Never. Fruits? I think that would turn my dessert into a healthy snack.
I think I mentally switched in the way I saw chocolate during sophomore year of college. Before college I never even thought twice about what I was eating. I ate healthy most of the time, sparing the weekend ice cream treats or pumpkin bread that friends would bring to school. When I ate sweets, I generally ate a lot of them. But my weight never really changed and it never affected my running.
Then college happened. The stakes of NCAA D1 running were much higher than in high school. Just getting selected for the cross country team is a race in itself. There are only seven spots, and a team of 30 fast women who all want to race the national championship. Especially when your team is expected to win a title.
I red-shirted my freshman year, which means I did not compete for the school team in races in order to keep an extra year of eligibility. Instead I partied too much and went too heavy at the buffet-style athlete cafeteria. The “freshman 15” (or 20?) was a thing for me. My running suffered. By the end of the year I was fed up and disgusted with myself. Oh, and our cross country team won the national championship that year. While I was technically on the team, I felt more like an outsider. I wanted to be one of those seven girls on the national championship squad, and to do that, things needed to change.
While home in New Jersey for the summer, I read books on nutrition for runners, eager to begin a training regimen. I started weighing myself every morning and recording the number. What I ate and how my training went for the day all went into a log book. I decided to stop eating carbs and give myself one cheat day a week. I gradually increased my running mileage, as per my training plan, to 90-95 miles per week. Then it was time to head back to Seattle for cross country pre-season.
While I could always find areas to lose more weight, I thought I was looking prettier in photos. It was almost addictive to record the daily numbers in my log, everyday lower than the one before. I had lost all of the weight I had put on during freshman year…and more. I guess that’s what happens when you run 90 miles per week fueled by carrots, some mixed nuts, and chicken. Obsessively I would complete my weekly running mileage and nothing less. I wasn’t much faster compared to the rest of the team in training, but races were what mattered.
The night before my first race that season. I devoured plate after plate of pasta. My body craved it for months. Finally my glycogen stores were replenished. The next morning, I was solidly in the top seven women, helping our team to victory. It was just positive reinforcement of my training and nutrition. My mind told me to continue to keep losing weight, get faster and make the team.
On a cheat day, I would allow myself to eat as much dessert as I wanted to. But once midnight hit, I was back to minimal sustenance. Putting so much anticipation and excitement into these cheat days changed chocolate from a delectable treat into cocaine for my mind. Imagine starving yourself of sugar and carbs for a week and then suddenly your system becomes flooded with what you had been craving most.
Sometimes I would indulge on a non-cheat day. Yet I would hate myself for it and generally try to make myself throw up all of the cake or ice cream I had just consumed. If I couldn’t make myself throw up, I would Google ways that I could. Other days I punish myself by not eating anything. It was terrible and now hard for me to admit.
I started to estrange friends.Running was now my life. I never wanted to go out, since going to a restaurant was the unknown. What was in the foods? Could I restrain myself to a plain salad? Would people judge me?
I kept recording my metrics religiously, scolding myself when my weight fluctuated and praising myself when it went down. Classes became foggy, because my brain couldn’t focus on learning. I would become faint walking up stairs. But I would walk every where. Miles and miles each day to burn more calories and distract myself from eating.
The athletic department ordered me to get a bone scan. I had osteopenia, the beginning stages of osteoporosis…at 19 years old! My body was literally eating away at my bones for energy! The sad part was I didn’t care. At all.
To me it was worth it. Carrying only 109 pounds on my 5’8” frame, I was running fast and that was my singular focus.
In the end my plan worked…until it didn’t. I did achieve my goal of racing on the cross country team at the national championship. We placed third. I was so happy, but also secretly dealing with an achilles injury that would keep me from competing on the track for the rest of the year. People started telling me I was too skinny. Eventually I was forced to see the sports nutritionist. She told me to eat carbs and I told her what she wanted to hear. Every week I was required to have a weigh in with her. I would drink as much water as I could just before the weigh in. I thought I was clever, but I’m sure she knew what I was doing.
For the next two years I battled achilles problems and a stress fracture. I was so sick of pool running and indoor cycling. Mentally I had also become so tired of constantly monitoring what I ate, especially when I couldn’t burn as many calories as when I was running 90 miles per week. I was constantly counting calories in my head or trying to not eat for the entire day if I knew I was going to go out to dinner. It was exhausting. How could my view of food change so much in one year?
Finally, during my senior year, I couldn’t take it anymore.
I decided to quit the team and focus on my schoolwork. During my break from running, I ate freely. Once I realized I was putting on weight, I started to run again but on my own terms. I would set off each morning with no mileage or speed plan in mind, for 15 minutes or 3 hours. However long my legs wanted to go. I felt free and more motivated than ever to be healthy. In addition, I started eating healthy and including carbs in my diet. I started running faster. And longer.
The week of my birthday I decided to hop in my first marathon, which took place only three days later. Without any specific marathon training, I ran a 2:48. More importantly I proved to myself I was able to run fast at a healthy weight.