The following excerpt from Running in Silence speaks volumes about how my college cross country coach approached mental health. As a competitive guy, he wanted to win. But he knew that having a mentally injured athlete was not going to get us there. He knew that an athlete who appeared unwell physically and mentally was not going to have long-term success. He also cared about me as a person, not just as an athlete.
Just as I had revealed my eating disorder to my mom, I sent Coach Woj an email about what I had been dealing with the past few years and emphasized that I didn’t want it to affect how I raced for the upcoming cross country season. I wrote that I was working on things with a therapist and just needed him to know how much I struggled with food.
Days later, with an invitation from Woj to talk in person, I found myself sitting in his office. I felt exposed as I sat across from him, but at least I had already disclosed the basic facts. I didn’t have to try to explain anything unless Woj asked.
As usual, Woj began with some lighthearted talk about how good cross country camp had been the week before and how he thought we were going to have a great team. I agreed, smiling and finally feeling myself relax.
“So the email,” he began.
“I honestly think you look so much better now,” he said. “I look back at those pictures of you as a freshman and just don’t see ‘healthy.’ I think you can accomplish a lot more with this new body. It may take some time, but your health is more important.”
I nodded. But I couldn’t shake the fear that Woj would now see me differently, even consider me a danger to the team because I might end up giving someone the idea that they could lose weight to run faster.
After all, I thought, once anyone knew the “secret,” wouldn’t they go for it?
As if he had read my thoughts, Woj reminded me about the time I had taken care of his baby daughter. “I trust you with her!” He seemed to say that if he trusted me around his kid, he trusted me to be a good influence on the team.
Woj also reminded me that this didn’t make me a bad person. He told me that I still mattered, that times were not the most important part of being a runner. No matter what happened in the upcoming season, I would still be the Rachael he had asked to join the team.
“I’m just scared I won’t run as fast as I did my freshman year,” I admitted, choking back tears.
Woj looked at me for a moment, his eyes gentle.
“You don’t have to.”
In this moment that I shared with my coach, I felt like I was the only one in the world dealing with an eating disorder to the extent that I was struggling with it. I thought, what kind of disciplined, hardworking runner finds herself binge eating? I had seen thin athletes, had heard of stories of anorexia in the running world. I’d never heard of where they disappeared to or if they had gotten help. Did they deal with binge eating, too? And now that I was in a larger body, would others take my diagnosis seriously? Was it that serious?
Later I discovered that there were many more like me. We just hadn’t all spoken out yet.
As I began coaching, two years after this talk with my coach, I knew that eating disorders needed to be addressed, but I didn’t know the best way to handle them. I knew the ins and outs of the running and sports world, but it seemed there was little being discussed with coaches about mental health and eating disorders.
My coach didn’t have all the answers, but he knew the importance of putting my health before performances. With less pressure to get back to the low weight I had been before (an unsustainable weight that led to injuries and binge eating), I could focus more on recovery and what I could do for my team.
At the conference race of that fall cross country season, I dashed away from the lead pack in the final mile. Racing around a chain link fence and hearing the soft pat-pat of my spikes over dry grass, I felt light on my feet and confident as I sailed past my coach with a smile. The eating disorder hadn’t magically disappeared, and I was still not comfortable with my body, but I was running.
I didn’t win that day, and it wasn’t a personal best time. In fact, I didn’t have the comeback I was hoping for that season. But it was a comeback I wouldn’t have had at all without my coach’s support. I was eating more than my previous self would have been comfortable with, and I was working with an eating disorder therapist and eating disorder sports dietitian. I’ve shared more of what that recovery process looks like as an athlete in my book Running in Silence. I write about how eating disorders affect athletes not just physically, but also emotionally and socially.
The less we view athletes as one-dimensional competitors, and more as humans with emotions, struggles, and too often, fears around food, the more we can respond in the way my coach did that August afternoon of 2012: with compassion, sympathy, and a reminder that we don’t have to live up to all of the enormous expectations we put on ourselves or feel from others; that the best way to achieve our goals and have a long, sustainable, successful athletic experience comes from enjoying the journey and taking care of our mental health.