So now you’re probably wondering what my symptoms were. Well, first my period disappeared. My body was under such great stress that it shut down my reproductive system, interpreting my stress hormone levels to mean that I was barely surviving so I definitely could not have survived a pregnancy. I developed an annoyingly persistent pain on the top of my left foot which was most likely the beginnings of a stress fracture. This could have been due to tanking estrogen levels and compromised bone density. But we’ll never know, because I never got it checked out as I knew I’d be told to stop running and that simply was not going to happen. My skin erupted in acne like I had never experienced before. No amount of “clean” eating or topical treatments could solve hormonal imbalance caused by stress. I had terrifyingly frequent episodes of hypoglycemia. One minute I’d be sitting in class learning about the immune system, and the next I’d feel nauseous, dizzy, and like I couldn’t breathe. And let’s not forget the fatigue. OH MY, the fatigue. When I first started marathon training, I dropped my average mile pace by about a minute. Awesome, right? But after a few months, I found myself getting slower. At times it felt that just standing up from a chair took every ounce of energy I had in my body. I got winded going up a flight of stairs, to which I thought to myself “what the HELL, Steph? You’re training for a marathon and a few stairs make you tired? You need to start running harder.” Obviously the wrong solution.
Why did I ignore such obvious signs that something was wrong? Honestly, for the longest time I did not think anything was wrong. I’ve always been ambitious. I wanted to be and do ALL the things ALL the time. I truly thought I could balance everything. I fell into that deadly trap of comparing myself to others. I saw my peers doing as much as or more than me, so continued to tell myself that I just needed to be more disciplined. Busy was equivalent to success. I was so hard on myself. If someone said the things I thought about myself to someone I loved, it would NOT have been okay. So why was I so mean to myself? Another mental block: I didn’t see myself as a true athlete. Because I wasn’t running as much or as fast as other marathoners, I did not think I could possibly be overtraining. Because I still had some extra weight around my hips and thighs, I did not think I could possibly be under-fueling. I took rest days, I didn’t run “fast.” I did not think I fit the “typical” picture of the girl who runs her body to exhaustion, but I guess that’s exactly the girl who will.
I ran the marathon, had the run of a lifetime, and it is still a day that I will remember as one of the best of my life. But during my recovery week afterward I realized the hard truth: I didn’t feel good. I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Something needed to change if I wanted to regain my hormonal health. I thought about what had changed in my life in the few months prior that sent me into the downward spiral in the first place. And the one thing I came up with was the big “s” word: STRESS. All of those things I listed before (and more) added up and caused a constant level of stress I had never dealt with before.
So what did I do? I made a conscious effort to chill the f*** out.
At the time of writing this, I am just under four months into going all in trying to recover. I stopped running and intense exercise altogether. I do yoga when I can and I really enjoy walks. I eat whatever I want, which includes ALL THE CARBS. ALL THE TIME. I spend significantly less time on social media or comparing myself to others and significantly more on mindfulness or maintaining relationships I let slip aside during my training days. I’m working on maintaining good sleep hygiene (that means getting enough sleep regularly, not being clean when you go to sleep, just to clarify). I still have school and I work a lot, but knowing that I don’t have to squeeze in a long run after working on my feet for eight hours on a Saturday has made it more manageable. I make an intentional choice to not sweat the small stuff, and y’all…it’s LIBERATING.
However, recovery has not been easy. I’ve snapped at people. I’ve whined and complained. I’ve felt self-pity. I’ve stood in front of the mirror panicking about my defined muscles starting to go away (the concept of body image throughout this whole process could be a separate essay in and of itself). I’ve found myself slipping back to the same destructive thought patterns and routines. I’ve felt a sense of failure for letting myself get to this point. I’ve dealt with identity crises as a large part of my self-worth was associated with being a runner, being strong, doing well in school, being busy with work/projects, etc., and part of recovery meant I had to let some of that stuff go. BUT, when the going gets tough, I turn to good influences like affirmations I’ve written for myself, videos and posts from people like Jill, and my loved ones. If I could convince my body to run 26.2 miles when it was certain I was on the brink of death, I can convince myself that, runner or not, straight-A student or not, employee of the month or not, I am still me and I am still important.
And now, drumroll please…a few months after making these changes, I GOT MY PERIOD! Two times in a row now! My skin is starting to clear up (though there’s still a lot of scarring, but that will go away eventually). I don’t feel weak and tired all the time. I have not gained a bajillion pounds. I am not failing school. My friends still love me. There’s still work to be done, but life is getting better, and all it took was a little more grace, a lot more carbs, and less stress.
So, where to go from here…I absolutely believe that given the correct conditions and properly taking care of myself, I will return to distance running. I love running, and I fully intend to run again, but I am taking it slow. I feel incredibly blessed that this is the only health crisis I have faced in my young life. I understand and acknowledge that others are worse off than me. But I also know that you cannot pour from an empty glass, and hypothalamic amenorrhea made me empty. I am going to get myself back to a place of optimal health (based on the way I feel, not based on the way some Instagram guru tells me I should feel) so that going forward I can give my best to others and the world. That is not selfish. That is essential. Every body is different, and at least now I know what mine is capable of, what it can handle, and what it needs.
I’m going to end with a message that I wish I could have sent myself earlier. Read this, and then re-read it if you need to: YOU’RE BEING TOO HARD ON YOURSELF. You know what you need to do. You know that the glorification of busy is B.S. You know that you are not fine. Just because you aren’t super “skinny” doesn’t mean you aren’t under-fueling. Just because you don’t run as much as some other people doesn’t mean you aren’t over-training. Stress is cumulative, it will add up, and it will knock you down. It can happen to anyone. Stop comparing yourself. Start taking care of yourself. More human being, less human doing.