The existence of this post, which I’ve been looking forward to with much the same combination of feelings I had before the first running race of my life (dread mixed with let’s-do-it adventurousness), is a by-product of competing influences. On one hand, it addresses an issue that is intensely personal in more ways than one, and is part of an effort to nudge a memoir in desperate need of book covers toward publication. On the other, it’s been years since my last serious race, I can quite efficiently operate from a platform of damning self-contempt, and have every reason to avoid spending too much time rambling into the welcoming but time-cannibalizing void of the Internet. But in the end, it was no contest. I’m doing this for a reason I can convincingly describe as both irreducibly complex and hopelessly simple. I think I have to. And hopefully I won’t ruin it with the kind of pithy overstatement that infects most of the posts on my own own blog, where that kind of flavor serves my self-appointed role as scornful gadabout.
In 1999, shortly before becoming a contributing editor and then a senior writer for Running Times, I supplied the magazine with an article titled “The Thin Men.” It dealt with a subject that was, and remains, a weakly explored one –eating disorders among male distance runners. It garnered a modest amount of appreciative comments from affected men and (more often) concerned wives, partners and family members. It also included a lie of omission, one I suppose can be overlooked given my position as a feature writer rather than a columnist: I myself had been carrying around an on-again, off-again eating disorder for about a decade.
Where do these things start? I don’t want to turn this into a deep general or personal treatise, but everyone’s story is different, and mine started after I got to college and started conjecturing ways to turn myself from a decent high-school runner into a solid university-level one. I wasn’t particularly weight-conscious as a high-schooler, but at some point around my nineteenth birthday settled on the idea that I had to weigh under 140 pounds. It didn’t matter if that meant 139.5, which was as good (sort of) as 136 or 137; it just meant that 140.5 was fail writ large and undeniable. And so one day, after a typical post-practice trip to the all-you-can-eat dining all at UVM, I decided I had put away too much ice cream on top of whatever shitburgers had been on hand, and I threw up the whole mess on purpose. I don’t want to get into the mechanics and you don’t want me to either, but for a rookie I found it frightfully easy, and I’m sure kindred spirits have undergone the same ugly, instantaneous transformation. It was fucking gross, but even before I left the stall, some demented but perfectly lucid part of my mind had decided the matter: I now had a sure-fire way to keep myself at the “right” weight.
The short version is that I didn’t do what I told myself I would do, which would be to limit this kind of thing to “special occasions,” whatever those might have been. I didn’t. I told myself I’d quit this nonsense and just stay at <140 the healthful way. I didn’t. I ran 80-mile weeks for the first time. I improved throughout my freshman year, but in spite of, clearly not because of, what I was doing. And by the end of spring I had gone from an 8:50ish 3,000 meters indoors to barely being able to run under 17 minutes for 5K. I was anemic, with a serum ferritin of approximately tap water’s.
Several things happened in the next bunch of years. One of them was fostering a serious binge-drinking habit. This was not uncommon, and at the time I had my share of fun, but despite keeping a very high GPA in a challenging major I knew deep down I was playing with fire, and that something would give. Later I’d learn that excessive drinking, general impulsiveness, and being raised in an emotionally bland alcoholic household (and please do not take this as an indictment of either my parents, who asked for none of the pain I’ve thrown their way over the years) were all hallmarks of bulimics.
And so it went, and by my junior year I was too tired and quietly miserable to keep running for the team, so I stopped. I told myself it was because I needed to spend more time with academics, but that was bullshit; I was just too toxic, mentally as well as physically. When I headed down Interstate 89 for my next round of higher education, I knew for sure that I had to get my act together because everything I got away with as an undergrad was not going to fly here, including the purging. And I somehow kept myself stable and sober for a good spell, and carried on well in my consuming endeavors, and resumed running seriously. I was training for marathons now, and was enjoying it more than ever. After a tepid first marathon in 2:39 just before I turned 25, I decided, like a lot of shlubs my age running under 15:30 for 5K. to try to get to the Olympic Marathon Trials standard–then 2:22:00–before 2004.
Well, I gave it a fine effort. On the surface, a highly focused and even single-minded one. I posted my training logs on my new Web site for a coterie of dedicated buddies and random observers to pore over, comment on, whatever. This told the story of someone who was hammering out 100-mile weeks, with some blowout tempo runs and all that jazz, and who steadily edged his way down to 2:30 at age 27 to 2:26 at 29 to 2:24 at 31 and now just needed one more push and a little luck. What I did not post on my site, not surprisingly, were the recurrent relapses into binge eating and purging. By this time I wasn’t even weighing myself; it was not, at root, about running anymore, really. It was an emotional crutch, no different than a drug in most important respects. In fact, when things got really rough I’d alternate between using food to avoid alcohol and then booze to stay away from bulimia. How’s that for a band-aid on a hemorrhaging wound? But I didn’t care, or so I told myself, and after a while believing it. In the meantime I missed the Trials by a few minutes but ran a new set of PRs at five distinct distances at age 34, seven years ago now. Make no mistake–I had some lengthy periods in which I stayed “clean” across the board, or else none of this would have been possible. But there was surely a cost of indeterminate value, and it seems evident that half the reason I ran my fastest times at a comparatively advanced age (considering I had been running more or less continuously for two decades) was delaying my best running to a time that lay my genuine physical peak because of the dysfunction.
That year, although it seems hard to believe now, was the last year I trained and raced seriously. I had a brief comeback from my first real injury in a long time (a sports hernia) toward the end of 2005, and then when I moved back north a lot of things went quickly to ruins. I was running a lot, but was unfocused. I’d basically abandoned a number of important relationships because I was so volatile, not so much on the outside but in my own head. I started really giving up in a lot of ways for the first time and wishing people would just go away, yet I couldn’t stand the quiet even as I sought it out. And I got to a point where I was just so damned ashamed that I was ready to do some very bad things, lonely and private things, because I didn’t think I could get back to living as the sane and wholesome human being I remembered being at…what, 17? I mean, how low does a dude have to sink when he sees his late teens as the pinnacle of his psychosocial existence, right? But oh, self-pity does burn brightly in the flame of far-flung addiction. And the guilt at how I was treating the good people I had managed not to shove away was incapacitating.
I’ll only say that I came to a decision in the not-too-distant past that is probably the most significant one I’ve made in my adult life, a part of embracing the fact that I’m not unique or even much of a blip on the ass of this planet, which paradoxically relieves me of the burden of treating myself like shit and trying to live with a measure of stability and dignity. And I can list one thing I have started doing in the past couple of years that I never dared to in the past, and that’s telling people the truth. The first person I told about my eating disorder was a crazy but brilliant aunt, a psychiatric nurse, who then proceeded to matter-of-factly tell my mom and dad about it. (I had told her this in a phone conversation and have still never met her in person, and frankly I don’t care to.) I was devastated. I’d been protecting the hell out of that secret for years and had been certain I would go to my grave without telling a soul, and when I finally opened up, my confidant let the cat out of the bag. But, upset as I was, she did me a small favor, because people knowing what I was going through took some of the power out of it. Since then I’ve disclosed this side of myself to various others, at first limiting these people to fellow ED pilgrims and then moving on to a greater range of friends. Now, I evidently don’t mind. Like fungi, sicknesses of the psyche thrive on darkness, and like vampires they don’t do well in the light of day. I have found that telling on myself takes a lot of power out of my compulsions in this area, and although I’ll never know until it’s over if I am truly “healed,” I have the sense that life is more purposeful than fighting heroically to punish myself. I have a feeling–no, know for certain–that it’ll be a few years before a light inside becomes bright enough for me to fully understand the extent to which people have supported me through all of this. And many of them are surely reading this, and know who they are, so please understand that I am grateful, even though I’m a douche in certain ways and will continue to let this charming aspect of my personality predominate from time to time, and you don’t have to forgive for that, but you have to try to laugh. At me, not with me. I do.