Life After Diets

You Should Run a Marathon

Lessons in commitment, body love, and running really, really far

“… I began moving away from thinking, ‘this is as good as I am’ a limiting judgmental perspective that left me powerless, to ‘this is as good as I am today,’ a statement that allowed for growth and returned my power.”

Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, by Deena Kastor, Michelle Hamilton

In the fall of 2016, after a painful break-up and more than a year of consciously taking myself off the dating market, I decided to get back out there. Like the true millennial woman I am, I downloaded a few dating apps, uploaded my most flattering photos, and wrote what I hoped were witty and interesting descriptions of myself and my interests. It’s a daunting task to put yourself out into the vast and lawless landscape of online dating, but I was feeling good about myself for the first time in a while. I was also rapidly approaching my thirtieth birthday.

And much to my delight, I got a few nibbles. Better still, there seemed to be very few creeps in the bunch, which was definitely surprising. So, armed with that boost of confidence and an apparently limitless amount of naivete, I agreed to meet up with a guy named Dan from New Jersey with whom I’d exchanged a few messages. Dan was tall and slim and traditionally attractive, and whatever lingering fears I had about meeting strangers from the internet vanished as soon as he walked into the bar. The conversation flowed smoothly, aided by a few beers for each of us. I was just starting to feel comfortable when it happened.

“So, what do you do outside of work?” Dan asked.

“I almost can’t remember what I used to do for fun anymore, honestly. I’m training for my first marathon, and that’s sort of taken over my life outside of work,” I answered. Training for a marathon was the most important and exciting thing happening in my life at the time. Like any first-timer, it was literally all I ever wanted to talk about.

“There are better ways to lose weight than running long distances. It’s actually not very good for you,” Dan, who was the athletics director of a private school, rushed to explain even though I hadn’t mentioned a word to him about my weight or any desire to lose any.

“I love running. I wouldn’t be running 50–60 miles a week and dedicating all my free time to something just to lose a few pounds,” I said even though this wasn’t entirely true. I had hoped to lose weight while training, though that’s definitely not what happened. But by the time I was having beer in a shitty East Village bar with Dan from New Jersey, I didn’t care about anything except accomplishing this goal that I’d spent months working toward and for which I’d sacrificed free time and disposable income and toenails.

My body was in the process of achieving something amazing, and I felt defensive and protective of that body for one of the first times in my life. I had no time for criticism. I finished my beer and never texted him again.

Ten months before the disastrous date with Dan, in January of the same year, I watched in awe as the middling runners of the Disney World Marathon neared their halfway point, rounding the perimeter of the Animal Kingdom parking lot and passing by crowds of onlookers who were there just for them, cheering, holding up witty signs, and offering congratulatory high fives.

The runners were dressed as princesses and villains and beloved characters of all species. Watching them run felt like another part of the Disney Magic I had paid a shamefully high percentage of my annual salary to experience. I felt a contact runner’s high just from being near them as they ran by me.

For people recovering from disordered eating, particularly women, seeing yourself as strong, powerful, and whole completely changes your perspective on your body and abilities.

I turned to my friend, who I could tell was just as enchanted and filled with joy for these runners as I was, and shouted, “We should do this! We should totally do this next year!”

“I can’t run a marathon,” she said, looking at me like I was as insane as I sounded. “I’ve never even run a mile before.”

“Yes, you can, anyone can! It’s just a matter of training,” I responded, genuinely believing these words as I spoke them even though I had never actually run a marathon.

She didn’t seem quite as convinced at that moment, but a few months later, we booked flights and a hotel and registered for the 2017 Disney World Marathon.

I’ve been running, slowly and generally without discipline, since I was about ten years old. I was never on a track team, and it is one of the few things in my life I do purely for fun and with no feelings of competitiveness, except with myself. It’s also a great help in losing weight, something I’ve done on repeat for most of my life.

For years I’ve experienced this cycle that I think a lot of people with body image and weight management issues can relate to. It goes something like this: After a binge cycle in which my weight will go up and up and up, I’ll eventually decide I need to lose a few pounds. I’ll rejoin Weight Watchers, and then I’ll start running. At first, I’ll only be able to manage run-walk intervals, but after a few weeks, I’ll begin to run 3–5 miles most days, and I’ll feel amazing each time I hit that runner’s high. In the midst of one of those highs, I’ll decide I should run a race, usually a 10k or a half marathon. During my training, I’ll also be dieting and will lose anywhere from 10–40 pounds. Then, on race day, I’ll feel incredible and accomplished and strong. I’ll review my race photos and marvel at the lean muscles in my thighs and the visible clavicles under my race shirt.

After, I’ll decide to rest for a few days because my body is exhausted and hungry and completely drained. Without a goal to work toward, I’ll stop running almost entirely while I re-feed and recharge my body, which will desperately need that recovery. The lack of endorphins combined with the inevitable weight gain will leave me sad and lethargic, and that’s when the binge-purge cycle will start up again. The excitement and accomplishment of running a race would be followed almost immediately by extreme bingeing, purging, and weight gain.

I didn’t know how not to live at the edges of these two extremes. The day we registered for our marathon, I couldn’t shake the thought that I was setting myself up for another one of these cycles, and that terrified me.

When most people imagine running a marathon, they think about the long, grueling miles of race day. Even I, a relatively seasoned runner, only thought about how difficult it would be to actually run the race. The hardest part actually comes in the weeks and months before you even get to the starting line. In reality, you’re running far more than 26.2 miles.

Training was physically and emotionally challenging. I worked two jobs then, and running, training, and recovering took up nearly all of my free time. There was no other option. Every mile you run before you get to the starting line helps get you across the finish line.

If you can train your mind to ignore discomfort and boredom over four hours of repetitive motion, what can’t your mind do?

We ran through end-of-summer heatwaves, fall thunderstorms, and along icy roads packed with fresh winter snow. We had to be picked up from overly ambitious routes twice, and each of us experienced at least one all-out, throw-yourself-to-the-ground, body-heaving-with-sobs breakdown. Still, it became incredibly satisfying and empowering to see what my body was capable of. Each time we ran a double-digit mile distance, I felt a sense of accomplishment and power that I had never felt before.

The mental toughness you gain from endurance activities like long-distance running in unlike anything else I’ve experienced. If you can train your mind to ignore discomfort and boredom over four hours of repetitive motion, what can’t your mind do?

Physically, training had a completely unexpected effect on me. My friend began following a plant-based diet earlier that year and looked like a strong warrior goddess by the time we crossed the finish line. I somehow managed to gain twenty pounds because all that running was causing my appetite to be out of control. I managed to keep my eating disorder in check, but only barely.

For the first time in my life, running couldn’t be coupled with intense restricting because the goal wasn’t to look different. I was determined to finish this race, regardless of my weight or body size or the number on the tag in my jeans. After a while, little else mattered.

On the morning of our race, we awoke at 3:45 a.m. feeling absurdly well-rested, considering that it was the middle of the night. Adrenaline will do that for you. We dressed in our pirate-themed running costumes, laced up our running shoes, and loaded up our fanny packs with water, energy gummies, tissues, and band-aids. We stepped out of our hotel room into the coldest temperatures that Orlando had seen in decades and caught a coach bus to the starting area. We were ready.

The feeling of standing with thousands of fellow runners, inching closer and closer to the start as each wave of runners took off, is electric. Energy buzzes through the crowd while runners stretch and jump and shift from side to side to keep moving and keep warm. There’s this awesome rush of pure excitement and anticipation that you can feel down to your fingertips, built up over months of training, that pushes you forward until, with fireworks and cheers, you’re sent on your way.

The Disney World Marathon is unlike any other you could possibly run. There are photo opportunities with characters, live music, performances, snacks (good ones like pretzels and chocolate), and even a petting zoo section where I stopped to take a selfie with a goat.

Sure, there were serious runners attempting to meet personal goals or even qualify for races like the Boston Marathon, but I think most of the runners were like us: first-timers and people running the race for the sheer fun of it.

When, after more hours than we had actually anticipated needing, we rounded the final mile of the race, my energy soared in a way I couldn’t have possibly predicted. This hadn’t happened in the many long runs I’d done to train for this moment, but those last few minutes felt better than any other part of the run. I was flying.

As I covered those last few yards and crossed the finish line, I immediately started sobbing. The joy and relief I felt at that moment were overwhelming, and I could not control the tears or the trembling in my body. I had worked so hard and come so far and had done this incredibly difficult thing that I had spent so much time preparing and hoping to achieve.

I was determined to finish this race, regardless of my weight or body size or the number on the tag in my jeans. After a while, little else mattered.

For people recovering from disordered eating, particularly women, seeing yourself as strong, powerful, and whole completely changes your perspective on your body and abilities. I’ve treated my body terribly for years. I’ve spent decades hating the way it looked and punishing myself for it. I’ve consumed thousands of calories in a sitting only to bring it all back up minutes later. I’ve forced myself to workout when my body was exhausted. I’ve swung wildly between 115 and 210 pounds for most of my adult life, and I have the stretch marks and loose skin and sagging breasts to prove it.

But that day, that incredible moment when I crossed the finish line, completely changed the way I viewed my body. I have so much more respect for myself and my body. I know I can do difficult things, because I’ve done the most difficult thing I could imagine doing. Big or small, fat or slim, nothing can undo the fact that my body was capable of running a marathon. I am capable of running a marathon.

Two female runners holding hands as they cross the finish line at the Disney World Marathon
Crossing the finish line of the 2017 Walt Disney World Marathon in our Pirates of the Caribbean costumes.

Follow along on my quest to make diet culture another millennial casualty. Find me on Insta @life_after_diets

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