The Invisible Runner: How I Hid My Eating Disorder through Sport

To recall when exactly my eating disorder started has been difficult to pinpoint. I remember as a teenager praising myself (as vain 16-year-old jocks do) for often being the only girl at our lunch table eating each day. I was proud of my fast metabolism, though even then I saw food as a functional necessity, with my body operating as a machine. A good friend of mine had been treated for anorexia, and her struggle with this was very visible on the cafeteria stage. For years I thought I was better because I didn’t fit into the medical boxes of eating disorders, so my bodily deviance couldn’t be easily diagnosed (again, vain teenage jock).

I started university as a varsity rower. The first few weeks of school were a haze of 4 a.m. drives out to the lake and falling asleep before my roommate got home from chemistry lab every night. I would hear other people in our building cheering and laughing, enjoying each other’s company as I dragged my body from the shower to bed at 8 p.m. It was isolating, but I felt like my body was achieving something novel and amazing, that I was better than my partying peers (vain jock strikes again). Our coach would sometimes challenge us to leave our water bottles on shore during the two hour practices, to see if we could push ourselves through without hydrating. I think that was the first time I saw deprival as a form of empowerment, and I relished it. I excelled at it.

My coach noticed the limits of my body before I did: I was too short to be a heavy-weight rower, and I needed to get to the lower weight class if I wanted to medal at regattas. He asked me to do so by “increasing the space around me in the boat” which was such an awkward, roundabout phrase that has followed me since. I couldn’t drop enough weight that season, I was five pounds away and truly devastated that my body had failed my team and my self. It was the start of my inner Cartesian battle, body vs. mind as it played out through sport. I knew I wouldn’t be able to achieve this through rowing anymore, so I started to focus more on marathon training.

One night I read a story in a running magazine by a successful long distance runner about how he had struggled with disordered eating. He said he would spend all day watching the clock, waiting for it to strike 6:00 pm so he could eat the food portion he allotted for the day. What struck me was not that he fasted all day, but how much I respected him for it. I had performed this ritual countless times myself, it seemed like a normal practice to me. And each time I laced up, I knew I was going to be that much faster, that much stronger.

I would strike a compromise with myself on the days where I ate every meal, running even further into the dark country roads of my hometown at night. The solitude of an eating disorder is powerful, strange, and sublime. There was such a lovely silence to those runs, a tranquility to being invisible. Those around me only exacerbated my power. They applauded my fitness and grit. My doctor praised how low my blood pressure was, not knowing that I would often blackout when I stood up too quickly, or how long these blackouts lasted. People admired how slim and fit I was, how far I could run. They couldn’t see the slow destruction of my organs, bones, and mind. The comments cloaked me in security, what was visible was seen as inherently good and not a problem because I was in shape, never gaunt or skeletal. I knew how to avoid looking like a girl needing a diagnosis. I was excelling again, not splintering under my own food and exercise morality.

It took working in Belize, a country with different standards of health and beauty, for the problem to surface. I spent my summers excavating Maya ruins, which was physically and mentally demanding, another gruelling and exciting challenge for me. But I was never alone, I was working on a project in the middle of the jungle with a small crew. I couldn’t go for runs, I couldn’t skip meals, and I couldn’t control my body. I was too hungry to starve, and too passionate about the job to consider giving it up. In the mornings,  some of the Belizeans we worked with would gently poke fun at everyone, as was customary on our project. The comments towards me had a persistent theme: “How you gonna lift rocks all day if you have no arms, girl?” “Ay dios mio, where did Sarita go when she turned to the side!?” . It finally put an end to the splintering of my body and mind, an oddly uplifting awakening. They cared enough to see the problem and not glorify it. One Belizean woman taught me how to cook with emotion (not just mechanically throwing together nutritious ingredients), and it helped me appreciate the splendour of meals and community. This was a warm breeze pushing me out of the darkness, and I was ready for it. I was tired of being alone on the road with my thoughts.  

I acknowledge that this is a challenge I still wake up to every day, though the severity shifts with time. It’s common, it’s normalized, and its time to start speaking to each other more about this. It’s important to recognize that eating disorders don’t always fit into the categories of anorexia or bulimia, they can take much quieter routes. It can be daunting to be raw about such a personal issue, but it helps to recognize the similar patterns woven into different perspectives and experiences of others. The kindness and love of community brought me out of myself and into a world where I could be strong without depriving myself. I’m grateful for this shift in perspective, and hope I can help others find their own version of this by discussing it.     


Sarah Duignan lives in Toronto and is a PhD student in Physical Anthropology at McMaster University. Her focus is on body image ideals and how they interact with identity, belonging, and technology for young women in Canada. 

Sophie Nation