You don’t have to be the perfect runner.

Run.
A few years ago, this word meant nothing. I knew what it was, I knew how to do it, and I knew a thousand people who hated it.

Before I ramble on about what being a runner means to me, I need you to understand where I’ve been. In 2012, I was staring at bleak, white walls as the tone of a heart monitor interrupted every conversation. Nights were spent avoiding the pitiful eyes of nurses and counting the days until I could go home.  In less than two years, my life had become a pattern of memorizing numbers and clinging to isolating rituals. At 18 years old, it was far from the life I dreamed of. But I didn’t understand how I got there. Wasn’t I just being healthy? I’ve read the textbooks. I don’t look like the girl in the pictures. I don’t look like the girl with an eating disorder.

Life can change in ways you never imagine. No matter what you plan for, the unexpected can derail you from your tracks. Being told I had an eating disorder felt like being hit with a truck. Longing to leave the illness behind, I dove headfirst into recovery. After restricting myself for so years, I was desperate to be alive again. I wanted to feel free; and as my heart and legs grew stronger, I became restless.

So, I decide to run. There was no reason or end goal. I just felt like running. And for the first time in my life, everything was quiet. Nothing could touch me. And I haven’t stopped running since.

I’ve met numerous runners who struggle with body image and disordered eating, but I hardly ever meet people like me. Unlike many, I was not a runner during my illness. I run and race, but I am not (and never have been) a collegiate athlete or cross country star. I was 20 years old when I started. Sometimes I can run a 40 mile week and sometimes it’s 10. I’ve spent Sunday mornings smiling with first-place medals and I’ve spent nights crying as injuries steal PRs away from me. If I was born a runner, I didn’t know it until now. All I know is that I’m a coffee-addicted graduate student with big dreams who feels at peace when my feet hit the pavement.

As a late-blooming runner, I spent hours reading about ways to improve, including my nutrition. Should I be avoiding sugar? Should I be more strict about what I allow in my diet? Would I be injury-free if I stopped having processed foods? Pseudoscience and stereotypes reinforced the pervasive belief of “thin to win” and the need to make race weight. I was shocked when I found myself falling back into the very same behaviors that running carried me away from. With my recovery in question, I closed the articles and opened medical journals with validated research on the needs of female athletes. I fueled myself more and began searching for others like me, others who found running in recovery and believed being healthy should include all foods and sizes. Strong runner chicks is the only community I’ve come across that counters the destructive messages marketed to female runners.

You don’t have to choose between health and happiness. You can eat oreos and spinach every day, but you should never stop yourself from having one or the other. Healthy running means having a full heart and a full stomach: you need both. The exact purpose of running is to be free, not to be constrained. Being a strong runner chick means so much more than focusing on nutrient-dense foods or carefully planned strength training. It means knowing yourself, honoring your soul and your body, and teaching others to do the same. You can do what is right for your recovery at the same time you work towards your record 5k. I know that bananas provide potassium and that mushrooms have vitamin D, both of which will help my performance as I cross the finish line. But I also know that eating cookies with my best friends and ordering french fries at midnight are some of the healthiest decisions I can make.

 I chose to be an ambassador so that I can be the runner I needed when I began this journey. My times are decent, but I’m not going to the Olympics any time soon. I eat processed foods and desserts more than I eat fruits and vegetables. I love running and I love racing down to my soul, but I am not willing to sacrifice my recovery or my health to gain an elite sponsorship or a lighter body. Maybe some people believe that makes me a bad runner. But I know it makes me the strongest and happiest I can be, and I think there are others out there who feel the same way. So for those that need to hear it, I want you to know that you can be a bad runner.  I promise it’s okay. You have permission to run without the weight of being perfect dragging you down.

 

For more information, questions or advice, you can contact me via email (mhead@scu.edu) or on my blog.

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