Reclaim the conference 10K title, become an All-American, graduate summa cum laude, chase down an Olympic Trials qualifying time. In July, I whispered these goals.
By mid-October, I had hung up my racing spikes, given up my scholarship, and walked away from it all. After four years of striving to become faster, faster, faster, the decision left me in tears. But it also gave me new spirit, new joy, new life.
As a sophomore in high school, I began to feel all of the effects of female puberty, and my cross country and track times reflected it in a rather undesirable way. I was no longer a scrawny freshman girl—all skin and bone and braids—running blazing times week after week. I lumbered a bit under the weight of womanhood. I should have embraced this. Instead, during the summer before my senior year, I discovered almonds and egg whites and kale, lost some weight, and ran my way to a state title and a Division 1 scholarship. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning.
It is no lie that, to an extent and for a certain period of time, thinner is faster. I saw this in many of my fellow competitors both in high school and at the collegiate level. When I toed the line at the SEC Championships, I noticed that a vast majority of the girls (especially the ones that were leading the pack) were practically skeletal. I took note of the elite distance runners that weighed very little and ate even less. Like many other young runners, I placed these women on a pedestal and longed to emulate them. I saw that bones equaled glory, so I wanted both. I wanted to become less so I could fly more.
I saw that bones equaled glory, so I wanted both.
I sacrificed my body for the sake of sport
Thus began grueling years of running more and more and eating less and less. For most of my college years, I sacrificed my body for the sake of sport. I pushed away almost anything that wasn’t fruit, vegetable, or lean meat. Peanut butter became off-limits because powdered peanut butter offered far fewer calories. Oatmeal had to be measured out meticulously. Lunch could be nothing but carrots, hummus, and an apple. I avoided social settings that involved food. I memorized the nutrition panels of countless food items. I researched restaurant menus before going out to eat. I punished myself with extra miles if I felt that I had eaten too much.
For most of my college years, I sacrificed my body for the sake of sport.
I began getting faster, but at the expense of my health, my happiness, my soul. The scale dropped below one hundred. I had hollow cheeks and a hollow heart. I lost my menstrual cycle—that which affords woman one of her greatest powers: the ability to give life. My hormones were entirely imbalanced; my body was constantly crying out for nourishment; my bones were becoming brittle, and stress fractures were a constant worry (and, eventually, a reality).
I began passing out and found myself in the emergency room several times. My mind was constantly occupied by thoughts of food and running, leaving no room for thoughts that made my soul bloom. Fear and anxiety consumed me, driving out the sweetness that life had to offer my young self. My days had been reduced to a deathly pursuit of athletic glory.
My hormones were entirely imbalanced; my body was constantly crying out for nourishment; my bones were becoming brittle, and stress fractures were a constant worry.
The road to recovery
In the midst of this fatal chase, I met my now-husband. He brought a new hope, happiness, and perspective to my life. As we began discussing marriage and the family we would eventually like to have, my goals began shifting—imperceptibly at first, and then quite suddenly. One October morning, early in my senior year and shortly after my fourth emergency room visit, I found my ravished, weak, frail body collapsing into the dirt as I ran after my empty dreams one last, half-hearted time.
I had set out to run my usual fifteen-mile long run, but my body finally refused. Covered in dirt and tears and shame, I looked up at the cloudless sky and knew that I had to choose. I chose life—my own and that of my future children. I chose a life of joy and love over a life of selfishness and decay. I chose a future of motherhood over medals and titles. I chose to become who I was made to be, rather than who I had proudly envisioned myself to be. I chose eternal happiness over fleeting glory.
I chose eternal happiness over fleeting glory.
A few weeks after I made that pivotal decision, my then-boyfriend and I hiked to a peak on the Appalachian Trail to watch the sunrise. He got down on one knee, and the rest of my life truly began. Now, we are happily married and ever thankful for all of the beauty in life. I am still on the journey towards full recovery, but have regained my physical health and look forward to the day when I may become a mother. For me, the joy afforded by sharing a Friday night pizza with my husband is far greater than any athletic victory. I have not entirely abandoned running, but rather found a balance, running for my health and happiness—not at the expense of the two.
Some women are blessed with the ability to pursue athletics without falling prey to overtraining, eating disorders, and the loss of menstruation (commonly referred to as the female athlete triad). However, these dangers are real—especially for women—and it is always worthwhile to consider where one’s ambitions are leading them. Women today are often convinced that, to be happy and successful, they need to have a perfectly toned figure, compete with men in sports, and fit into a size two. Sacrificing one’s health in pursuit of such aims will never lead to happiness, though. Women need to remember that health is far more important than a dress size and a mile pace.
Women need to remember that health is far more important than a dress size and a mile pace.
Women need to be empowered by embracing their feminity— including hips that may not always be the best for running record-breaking times, but that look darn good in a cute skirt and enable one to bring new life into this world. Women need to embrace the power that is inherently within the female body—without trying to change it to fit misguided societal or athletic standards.
Women need to treat their bodies with love and care, rather than hate and abuse. Women need to realize that life is brightest when you are full—full of life, full of love, and full of joy. And, when you are full, you will be able to do that which you are truly called to do.