Lize Brittin was a two-time Kinney (now Foot Locker) finalist at Fairview High School in Boulder in the mid-1980s, winning the Midwest Regional her senior year and winding up seventh at the national champs in San Diego two weeks later. Translated for the benefit of non-runners, that means that she was one of the best cross-country runners in the United States, and it makes her one of the few great runners associated with Boulder who’s actually from there; Melody Fairchild, who holds the U.S. record for the high-school two-mile and won Foot Locker Nationals twice, and Kelsey Lakowske, who was fifth at the Nationals in 2010, are the only other Boulder natives to make it to the extremely exclusive race in Balboa Park, which for many years featured just 32 athletes and now allows 40. She also set a women’s course record for the Pikes Peak Ascent and was ninth in the Bolder Boulder 10K, both world-class events — and both at age 16. But even before landing at Brigham Young University and then at the University of Colorado with a full scholarship, anorexia had begun to take its toll, and she wound up nearly dying from it in her twenties.
Lize is 44 now and thankfully as far back from the depths of her illness as anyone can be. She’s had some of her freelance writing published, but more importantly has also finished a memoir about her experiences, Training on Empty, that she’s looking to publish, and she has started a blog of that name. She’s visited area schools and been on local radio over the years in reaching out to younger runners about the topic, was recently on a Runners Round Table podcast, and has compiled (in my biased opinion) a memoir that goes well above and beyond the usual “I have issues” stuff that people have become almost hardened to. Importantly, she’s healthy today while acknowledging the toll her disease took on herself and her friends and family and balancing the running she’s able to do now with the loss of her best years to a life-threatening illness.
I recently chatted with Lize about these matters, exploring the questions below and others. Listen to the audio here (50 minutes, 48 MB download).
As a former competitive runner myself, a person who seeks therapeutic gain or release from the act of writing, and a voracious reader (and hence a critic), I have to ask — what in your view distinguishes your story, and in particular your memoir about your experiences, from others of its kind?
You raced at a very high level, did so without becoming a household name (as you would have been had the Internet existed in the 1980s), and have kept a low profile in the running world for a long time. You are an unassuming person, the diametric opposite of an ego-driven person or a name-dropper, but I imagine that there’s a part of you that shies away from reflecting a lot on your successes because what could have become a national- or perhaps world-class career in the sport disappeared before you could see it to fruition. Is there therefore a bittersweet flavor to the whole of your competitive memories?
In many ways you’re straight from a textbook: You grew up the youngest child in a household which, while characterized by heavy-duty alcohol abuse, was still very much a high-achievement environment; you were chubby as a youngster; and in general you were never comfortable with the idea that you were a valuable person who does things right. You articulate this in the text, but even if you didn’t, this mindset emanates from your words and from your present-day persona as well. On top of that you had a coach who would weigh you and tell you, surreal as it sounds, that you were a single pound overweight on the morning of a championship race. Since you’ve come to know a good many anorexics over the years thanks to treatment and being open about your travails in your recovery years, does it seem that there has to be a “perfect storm” of factors in order for most susceptible girls — or people — to actually develop anorexia?
Anorexia is different from other disorders that could be described as addictive in that there is, in athletes at least, often a “grace period” in which afflicted people actually perform better in spite of manifesting the disease behaviors before they start slipping. You’ve mentioned that Diane Israel and perhaps others had begun counseling you well before you bottomed out. When you were experiencing success in spite of clearly having gone down the road toward “full-blown” anorexia, did you ever have the idea that you might be costing yourself in the long term or was the success itself, combined with the power of the disease, simply too seductive to allow for any such thinking to make real inroads?
Can you describe reaching a point at which you understood that this was no longer about running, or feeling thin or fit or in control, or any of the other mental shells in which anorexics shield themselves, and was really about your own survival?
One way in which you can unquestionably serve as a valuable resource to untold numbers of runners is that you’ve continued doing it at a modest (for you) level and come to terms with how running both shapes and you and how you need to command its role in your life and not the reverse, and you make no bones about the fact that there are days on which you feel fat and that it’s very uncomfortable for you. A lot of anorexics seem to fade from the activity altogether for either physical reasons or because the idea of balance is not even in the equation, but you’re someone who’s occupied every conceivable position on the whole spectrum. What would you tell a young woman who clearly is nowhere near recovery but has accepted the problem and fears that she will never be able to run again?
When did you start writing Training on Empty? Did you see it as a book-length project from the very beginning?
Where are you in terms of publishing the book at this point?