Ultras/Binge Eating Disorder

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I know this topic is likely to be too obscure for some folks. I’m really writing this for my ultra running friends. Hoping to start a conversation or get their help in making some connections or get your thinking on this topic…


For me, ultras and Binge Eating Disorder (BED) are inextricably and pretty wickedly connected. From the first ‘Holy shit, could this really be what’s happening?’ moment to the ‘Wow. Makes sense even though I detest the idea…’ moment it took me about 6 months to puzzle it out.

The information I can find about Eating Disorders are mainly about Anorexia or Bulimia. Like this great read from Trail Runner Magazine which covers a whole lot of valuable ground. Yet, I can not find anything about the ties between ultras/endurance and BED specifically. I can’t be the only one dealing with this. When you mesh the Google ‘percentage of U. S. population…’ stats of ultras at .5% and BED at 3%, statistically, I still don’t think I can be alone in this mess.

What forced the issue? An acute episode of BED rearing its ugly head along with a planned off-season/down-time from running. (My blog about it is here…)

Running was no longer there to hide behind.

It’s absence made things brutally and undeniably clear.

I was hiking one day and was gobsmacked with the realization that I was using running to hide/feed the BED. It was this nasty, covert, and destructive cycle that I couldn’t really see because I was so deeply in it. I wasn’t running from something or even too something.  I was running FOR something.  And not for something good or worthwhile or sustainable.

I stopped in my tracks.

Sat my butt down on the side of the trail and wrote some notes on my phone while a newt cruised by to see what I was doing.

This felt BIG.


Here’s what I wrote on my phone: “I love long runs and hate tapering. I run long (5+ hours) and I have ‘permission’ to eat anything and everything in any quantities I want.  When I taper, food gets restricted, weight creeps up. I run long, eat how I want and basically don’t get ‘caught’ bingeing because the huge volume of food I’m eating is ‘acceptable’. Tapering unleashes sneaky-ass behaviors that I thought I’d banished once and for all. Including lying about food.’

BED brain thinks about food as an acceptable/necessary/urgent replacement for something missing or to fill an emotional need.  This has NOTHING to do with hunger.  Not.a.single.thing. For me food can take the place of damn near every emotion on the spectrum.  I’m just as likely to eat that emotion in the form of trail mix as I am to actually feel and experience it. No amount of cajoling/shaming/lecturing can fix it.  I’ve often said ‘pizza was never mean to me…’   When you have THAT kind of relationship with food you need professional help.

Running gave me the ability to ignore/continue/not-fight with my BED all in the name of ‘recovery from ultras/training’.  I wasn’t running for the love of running.  I was very much running to manage my weight since I binge, but I don’t purge…  I was very much running to make the occasional huge volume of food I was eating not look out of whack.

I was running to hide my eating disorder.  Even when I didn’t know that what I had was an eating disorder.

Eff.

I was ready to face all of this and not ignore it or hide it anymore. Scared shitless, but ready. I needed help beyond caring and concerned friends. After muscling my way through the post-acute phase of intense blues / shame / depression / anxiety / hopelessness / panic that lasts for several days after a binging episode…

I got into therapy.


My brand new therapist immediately, like first 20 minutes of first session, said running was an issue. I immediately told her she was dead wrong. Not politely.  I was rude and defiant. Defiance is my go to when I’m ashamed and someone’s getting close to the reason for the shame or embarrassment.

I flat out denied the connection. I lost 200 pounds, reversed Type 2 Diabetes. Running had SAVED me. Who the hell was this woman to say running was part of the current problem? Was she not listening to me? ….

The therapist quickly said we could agree to disagree about the role of running in my eating disorder. We would focus on other things. {Smart ploy…} That lasted two sessions.  I began to honestly assess what I was doing and why. Journaling impulses, noting emotions and starting to make tentative connections between feelings and food.

Damn if she wasn’t right…

Writing everything down it was impossible to ignore the connection. Running sat smack in the middle of the BED pile. It was about 2 sessions in where I had to concede she had a point.

More than a point. Ultra running was the 500 pound gorilla in the room.

I hadn’t replaced food with running.  I had used running to hide, enable and deny my BED. A crucial distinction. I hadn’t let go of ONE thing and grasped tightly onto something new.  I hadn’t given up anything at all.  I’d just masked what in the hell was really going on.

I think the college students I worked with would call that a HOT MESS.

Ultras and BED are married up in epically dysfunctional fashion for me.

As long as I ran long, I could pretend that eating 3,000+ calories at a single time after a long run was ‘normal recovery’.  Eating whatever I wanted for the week of a 60+ mile week was acceptable. I basically kept signing up for races to make sure I still had high mileage weeks and really full training schedules so that my bingeing wouldn’t be detected or life would seem ‘normal’ because of the training load and my food intake.

Eff.

So what now?  Great question. I have some tentative answers.

  • Awareness is a huge part of the battle. Talking about it. Knowing that my ultra friends support me when I get ‘wonky’ about food or food discussions.
  • Not running ultras or being lured in by Ultrasignup for a while is my main strategy for staying focused.  I needed a break from running.  I’m using this downtime in all the best ways possible. And NOT viewing it as punishment.
  • Rebuilding my running from the ground up when the time comes to hit the trails again. Slowly, carefully. Knowing food is fuel and that’s the only place it will hold in my running.

I didn’t take on this whole lifestyle change to give up when things got hard.

I will be running again, soon, for all the right reasons.

 

 

 

Binge Eating Disorder. (Getting things in order…)

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Thirteen weeks since I last grappled with a binge. There’s been many subsequent days of battling the compulsion and feeling ‘frantic’ about food.  But it’s been a solid three months since I actively binged.

I am now working to face emotions instead of feeding them.

Turns out that’s a 24/7 project.

Bottom line? It’s messy and not linear and kinda scary and yet it’s going well.  Honest.

Now that I know what I’m facing, it’s easier to fight back.

I will openly admit that there have been days of ‘white knuckling it’. Days of constant annoying/low-level struggle around food and more intense binge-compulsion feeling from sun-up/sun-down. Moments of laughter, realization, grief, melt-downs and giddy successes.

And *whew* an increasing number of recent days that I really do feel sane and balanced.

Some really wonderful people have reached out offering support, encouragement and telling me their stories as a result of my blog about Binge Eating Disorder (BED).

I quickly figured out I was not alone, not a whole lot of people talk openly about BED and not everyone knows how to help someone in their life struggling with BED.


I wanted to figure out what caused or triggered this episode, so that I can avoid a repeat.

I reached the conclusion that it was no single thing; it was the perfect storm of a whole bunch of stuff that unleashed this specific binge.  I had BED hidden, pretending fervently that it did NOT exist anymore and tightly controlled with rules/habits/’should’s’.

And then it was loose. And running wild.

It was there all along, no matter what I thought.  I just hit the right set of conditions and it roared to life.

I’d had an off year running (4 races, 3 DNF’s), was burned out on running/routine/journaling food/watching the scale, work stresses and successes.  I have some big, exciting life changes I’m working to make happen. Lots of good and some not so good.  Not all of it in my immediate control.

Uh… Life.

You know.

Just life.

Stuff I’d been dealing with for a long time and convinced I was balancing quite well. Suddenly ‘it’ was the straw that simply broke this camel’s back…

After a four day binge on trail mix, I found myself sad and panicked and needing help to battle this really big, pissed-off demon.

So I have been working on getting the help I need.  This is roughly what my recovery plan looks like at this point…

 

  • Found a new therapist. We meet weekly.
  • Reached out to friends in recovery from eating disorders and asked for their support and accountability.
  • Took things out of my eating/living environment that were just not helping.
  • Changed some of my shopping/eating/snacking habits.
  • Avoided high risk situations until I’m feeling more ‘in control’.
  • Food journaling before I choose to eat anything (MyFitnessPal) and food/emotion journaling if I stumble or struggle (Moodnotes).
  • Meditation in the mornings.
  • Mindful running.
  • ‘Feeling my feelings’ and not hiding my tears or joy or fears.

All to keep from cramming fistfuls of trail mix in my face.

Learning to identify and face my emotions, appropriately.  Learning to feed my body, lifestyle and running, appropriately.


I mistake or mask pretty much any emotion a human can possibly experience as ‘hunger’ and then eat my emotions.

Have for as far back as I can remember. Decades of experience acknowledging/denying/ignoring an emotion. Happy or sad — doesn’t seem to matter. Then deciding eating is the best possible solution to dealing with fear, happiness, anger, sadness, joy, lack of belonging…

Food is comfort, problem and ‘answer’ all in one.

I’m rudely breaking them the hell up.

Figuring out what emotions are, how they feel, how to feel them, how not to feed them.  That’s what I’m learning.

I was standing in front of the frig the other day.  Opening, closing, opening, closing, opening the doors….  Trying really hard to figure out if I was TRULY hungry.  I looked like I was fanning myself with the door.

“Am I hungry (open), or am I feeling sad (close)?  Am I hungry or am I feeling anxious?  Am I hungry or did I get my feelings hurt?”  I couldn’t figure out the answer.  I grabbed some water and walked away from the frig. Sat myself in a time out. Did a really quick scan from head to toe to see if I was feeling the emotions ANYWHERE else besides my belly…  I’d had a pretty big run and was increasing mileage for the week.  Thought carefully about the stresses of the day/week. Scanning my food journal…  Decided that I really was truly, belly-hungry.  HAHAHA! ALL of that thinking and pondering and wondering — I really, truly was hungry for some calories.

So I ate. One portion of something healthy and filling. 🙂

While this is funny and I highlighted it in detail, on purpose — this decision making about hunger/feelings is something I’m suddenly very aware of. And I’m going through the exercise of thinking about hunger a WHOLE lot these days.  A whole lot in a single day.

A study by Cornell University estimates that ‘normal’ humans (most of you!) make over 200 food related decisions a day.

200 decision. A DAY.

Go to bed, wake up, start making another 200 decisions…

WHEW.

No wonder fighting an eating disorder is EXHAUSTING work.


To those who have BED… Don’t suffer alone and don’t hide. BED loves it/thrives/GROWS when we hide and suffer.  Do NOT give it that edge, do not give it that power over your life… Do NOT feed it. (Get the pun?!)