This week we interview Rachel Sorna Schilkowsky, a professional runner with Rabbit, full-time engineer and body image advocate with a unique story on overcoming the female athlete triad, battling through a severe injury, re-gaining weight and ultimately getting faster. Rachel’s Instagram post went viral as she shared the before and after of weight gain that led to faster running times and most important of all, a healthy place physically and mentally. In this interview, we ask her questions that have never been shared publicly before and dig a layer deeper beneath the surface to uncover the process of coming to where she is now. Read on for the full interview with Rachel.
Q: When did you start running? Did you run in college? What made you want to pursuit a career in engineering?
Rachel: “I started running during my sophomore year of high school. Prior to that, I played soccer for 9 years. Strangely enough, it was one of my soccer teammates who convinced me to try Indoor Track for the first time. I instantly fell in love with the sport and quit soccer the following year to run full-time. By the end of high school, I was fairly certain I wanted to keep running, but it actually did not play much of a role in my college decision. My biggest priority was to find a great engineering school; my Dad is an engineer and his love of building things and solving problems rubbed off on me at a young age. I applied a handful of schools with the right academic fit, and contacted their XC/T&F coaches afterward. To be completely honest, almost every coach I talked to said I wasn’t good enough to be on their team, even as a walk-on. But there was one coach who seemed genuinely excited about the prospect of me joining their team, and he just so happened to coach at the school I liked more than all the others: Cornell University.”
Q: What made you decide to gain weight? What was your thought process? Did you receive negative feedback from those around you?
Rachel: “The simple fact that I had gotten injured was what drove me to gain the weight. Throughout my entire high school and collegiate careers, I had never been seriously injured, let alone had a bone injury. This fact was largely what I used to justify not having a period for over three years. The lack of an immediate and apparent consequence for forcing myself to maintain this unnaturally low-weight, all the while continuing to increase my mileage and the intensity of my training, led me to believe I was immune to the dangerous of the female athlete triad (energy deficiency, menstrual disturbance, and low bone mass). For years I ignored the glaringly obvious truth that with two pieces of the triad firmly in place – discorded eating and secondary amenorrhea – the third would surely follow.
When an MRI in 2015 came back showing the crack in my pelvis, showed the final piece of the triad falling into place, I finally accepted that I had a problem, and vowed to make the changes necessary to overcome it. My doctor told me “You need to put on fat. I want you to gain 10 pounds”. So that’s what I did. Those who knew me well, those who knew how long my amenorrhea had persisted and how hard I actually had to work to maintain what I am sure others thought was a normal, health weight, were incredibly supportive. Thankfully most other people either didn’t notice my slight change in appearance or had the good sense not to say anything. This was a refreshing contrast to when I lost weight in 2012, which resulted in seemingly everyone I met freely making comments about it both to me directly or behind my back.”
Q: What was it like for you to stand on the starting line and be “bigger” than the others?
“Being bigger than most other women that I stand beside on the starting line of a race is something I have come to accept after running competitively for 8 years. From my very first season of Indoor track back in 2008, I always felt I looked different. My one friend and I (the one who got me to join track in the first place) used to joke that we had “soccer thighs” – bigger, thicker thighs, devoid of even the slightest notion of a ‘gap’. I also appeared to have a butt that was considerably larger than many other girls, a fact which became all the more apparent the first time I wore bun-huggers. Even when I was at my lowest weight my junior year in college, I still felt self-conscious of how I looked compared to my competitors.
Surprisingly, I never really worried about it too much while I was physically standing on the starting line; being focused on/nervous for the race always had me sufficiently distracted. The realization that I looked different, and subsequent self-consciousness, came afterwards, usually while looking at pictures or watching race footage. It is while flipping through race photos posted online that I was probably most unkind to myself. I remember once staring at a post-race photo of me and my teammates for probably close to an hour, just picking myself a part. Thankfully those days are behind me. I still note that I am quite often a bit “bigger” than other women – it is simply a fact – but now I try to see it as a positive. I tell myself I am stronger, more powerful and more durable.”
Q: Did restriction in your diet lead to loss of your period or was it more so due to training load?
Rachel: “It was definitely a combination of the two. At the end of my sophomore year of college I just missed out on qualifying for my first DI Outdoor T&F NCAAs. I went home that summer with disappointment, frustration and fire welled up inside me, absolutely hell-bent on never missing NCAAs or falling short of my goals again. I worked harder that summer than I had ever before in my life. In addition to bumping up my mileage, I began doing all my runs faster, a trend which would continue throughout my junior and senior year, ultimately spiraling out of control. At the same time as I was ramping up my training, I also began restricting.
It began innocently, as these things so often do; I had not, in all honesty, maintained the best diet thus far in my collegiate career, and so it started with me simply trying to be a bit more conscientious of what I was eating. But that too quickly spiraled out of control. The numbers on both the scale and my watch began to drop, a sight which was both exciting and addicting. The first time I missed a period was in September of my junior year, the same month that saw me finish 4th at one of the biggest cross country invitationals in the country, 141 places better than my finish the previous year. I foolishly took this as a sign that I was fitter and healthier than ever, and completely ignored the massive warning sign that was my missed period.”
Q: Did you stop doing all activity when injured, or just running?
Rachel: “The nature of my injury – a pelvic stress fracture – meant that during the first 8 weeks of my 12 week recovery period, I was barred from virtually all forms of physical activity. Turns out you are almost always engaging your pelvic muscles, even when simply standing still or sitting in a chair, so not only was running completely off the table, but so was just about every other form of cross-training. I couldn’t bike. I couldn’t elliptical. I couldn’t even aqua jog. The only exercise I was cleared for was swimming, but even that was restricted to twice a week and had to be done with a buoy using only my arms. It was maddening to be reduced to essentially a couch potato; I was utterly and completely miserable the entire time. But that prolonged period of forced rest was ultimately what made the difference for me. Being forced to be that inactive for those two months – coupled with the weight I begrudgingly, but consciously put on – was the catalyst my body needed to get back on track and resume a normal menstrual cycle.”
Q: What do you do to feel confident in your body? What are some positive mantras or confidence building techniques you use?
Rachel: “Patience and Strength has long been a mantra of mine, and it has become even more applicable these last few years. For strength, I strive to be mentally and physically strong, both when running and when I am faced with any other sort of obstacle that tries to veer me from my path. For patience, I try to be patient with myself when it comes to training and racing, to remember that the path to success is not always a perfectly straight line, or even one that always goes forward. I also try to be patient with myself when I do let in negative thoughts about my body, to remember that it’s still a process and that it’s only human to have bad days. Repeating these three words to myself, sometimes over and over during a workout or race, really helps bring me back to center. Another thing I like to do now is to look at the photos from recent races where I did well, like Adrian Martinez or Gate River, and remind myself of what this new, healthier body of mine has already accomplished. I don’t look for the negatives like I once did, instead I just focus on seeing myself as strong and healthy and confident. I use those photos, and the great performances they represent, as motivation to keep maintaining my new weight. And finally, before every race, usually while driving there in the car, I listen to Meghan Trainor’s song ‘All About That Bass”. It’s become an anthem of sorts for me as I’ve undertaken this journey.”
Q: What has been the greatest change you had to make?
Rachel: “The greatest change I’ve had to make is definitely to be more flexible, not just in my diet and in my training, but in my life as a whole. By the end of my senior year of college, I was so rigid in my lifestyle that I basically lived in a box. I ran and I studied. I studied and I ran. I rarely did anything for fun. I never treated myself to a dessert or a glass of wine. I never took a day off or cut my run short to let my body rest. I was all go and no stop, so intensely focused on pushing forward to achieve my goals. After graduating and entering the real world, I learned quickly that I could no longer live inside that box. It wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t realistic. And it wasn’t the least bit enjoyable.
Life is not static; it is always moving and changing, often unexpectedly, so the ability to flexible and easily adapt is key. For me, this means tailoring my training schedule to accommodate my work schedule and, more importantly, taking into account how much energy I expend while at work and adjusting accordingly. It means being honest with myself about how tired or sore I am, and pushing a workout off a day or two to ensure I am properly. It means not overanalyzing my diet: eating a mix of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ foods and trusting that in the end it all balances out. It means making plans to go out and be social. It means doing things spontaneously and saying ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’.”
Q: What has been the most rewarding moment from your personal journey?
Rachel: “Initially I thought it was the 1 second PR in the 3000m of 9:08 that I set back in June at the Adrian Martinez Classic. That was the first track PR I’ve set since graduating from college and since gaining weight in 2015. While that will always remain a special moment for me, the overwhelmingly supportive and positive response I received from the Instagram post I shared has by far been the most rewarding moment.
I was terrified as I hit the button to share that post with the world, more so because of the image rather than the personal message I wrote in the caption. I had looked back through my Facebook photos before, had seen the change in my physical appearance both in 2012 and again in 2015, but I had never seen photos side by side. It was truly striking. It scared me a little, and that’s how I knew I was doing the right thing by sharing it. It was an important story that needed to be told. Within seconds I was receiving encouraging comments, not only from my family and friends, but from complete strangers. People from far and wide shared with me their own journeys, thanked me for my honesty, and told me how proud of me they were. It was incredible. It is something I will always cherish.”
Q: “It can be tough to balance the pressures of body image, running professionally and building your career. How do you balance coaching yourself in running, working full-time and your commitment to gaining/maintaining a healthy weight?
Rachel: “Balancing all these different parts of my life does indeed require a lot of time, thought, and energy, but thankfully I’m someone who really thrives when I’m kept busy or faced with a challenge. Whenever I feel stressed about my training or nervous about an upcoming race, I remind myself that my work as an engineer is what supports me, and that I run for the simple reason that I love it. When I focus on just having fun and enjoying the process of discovering how far and fast I can go, it really takes the pressure off and allows me to maintain that balance.
I’m also incredibly lucky to have an amazing group of people that believe in me and support me and my big dreams, starting with my husband, John. As a fellow competitive runner – he’s run 4:02 in the mile – who also works full time, he understands completely what it takes to do what I am doing and is there by my side every single day helping me do it. The support I receive from my sponsor, rabbit, also gives me so much strength and confidence to keep following my own path. Not only does the company encourage me to pursue my career, but its two co-founders are true inspirations themselves. In addition to owning and operating the company, Jill is a lawyer and 2:50 marathoner while Monica is a mom, co-owner of a local running store, and an ultramarathoner. When I shared that post on Instagram, Jill and Monica were two of the first people to reach out and say how proud of me they were. That to me was a sign that I had partnered with the company that would help me be the best, healthiest and happiest version of myself.”
Q: What do you hope for yourself in the future in both your life and in running?
Rachel: “My hope is that I will always have the confidence to follow my own path and to strive for excellence in every area of my life. Trying to train and compete at the elite level while also holding down a full-time job as an engineer may not seem like the ideal setup to most people, but I know deep down that this is what I personally need to do to feel my life is fulfilled. Likewise, maintaining a weight and body composition that is a-typical of a most elite distance runners may seem counterproductive to some, but I know that doing so is what’s best for my overall health and happiness, and will also probably allow me to have a longer, more successful running career. I hope to be everything and anything I want to be – from a CEO of a giant company to a member of Team USA – but still always be true to myself. Beyond that, I hope to inspire other runners, women in particular, to break free from the norms that may be burdening them or holding them back. I want to help other people discover their own personal path – the one that makes them happy and healthy and feel fulfilled – and instill in them to confidence to follow it.”
We would like to give a big thank you to Rachel Sorna Schilkowsky for being willing to share her story and bravely speak out on a topic rarely discussed in distance running. In a sport and society that pressures us to be smaller to become faster, Rachel serves as a role model for those who are struggling with female athlete triad, injury, weight and body image. She truly represents what it means to be a Strong Runner Chick.