And Isn’t it Ironic: Anorexia and Ultraendurance Events

Once upon a time while in the middle of a large training block for an upcoming Ironman triathlon, I walked in on a conversation between my husband and our coach. They were having a competition about who had managed to get through their 5 hour ride on the least amount of nutrition – ie, they were competing about who was the better fat-burner, which is a huge factor for success in ultraendurance events like Ironman. Coach thought he was going to be awesome, because he’d had an eating disorder for about a year while running competitively at college (he is now recovered); my husband, on the other hand, had been specifically working on developing his fat-burning engine over the last few months – not an uncommon thing to do amongst Ironman athletes. Controversial? Absolutely. Effective? Most of the time. If you can get away with 20+ hours a week of training on not enough nutrition. Most athletes eventually crash and burn – through either injury or illness – prompting sports dieticians to admit that while these behaviours in high-level athletes can be effective at creating adaptations to fat-burning, they are also highly risky and are to be used sparingly and under the guidance of a qualified coach or dietician.

Husband: I just got through a 5 hour ride with 3 bottles of Gatorade, a banana and 2 Gu’s….beat that….

Coach: (laughs) well I got 3 hours in on nothing but water, then I hit the wall so bad – we had to stop and buy Coke and Mars bars to finish it off! I feel so wiped out now I can’t get off the couch haha.

Me: You two are such amateurs. I was doing the same ride, I wasn’t aware we were having a competition – I had 3 Gu’s for the whole ride and I wasn’t actually trying….and I feel fine now….seriously, you two should stick to short-course triathlon….

Moral of the story? If there has to be an upside to Anorexia, it has to be the amped-up development of the best fat-burning system on the planet. I mean, seriously – my body is out of control with this. It’s actually unfair to my competitors. So often during 3 hour long runs or 5 hour bike rides, I see my husband struggling with fatigue and hitting the wall and yet my engine just keeps on churning it out. I’ve lost count of how many times we have discussed a physical feat that should not be possible, according to the textbooks – and yet I’ve just done it. Case in point: at Busselton Ironman in 2012, I very stupidly accidentally consumed a drink with gluten in it right before the start. As a coeliac, that = disaster. I got about 2 hours in then started vomiting for the next few hours on and off, then came the stomach cramps and gastro. I got nothing but water and a bit of watermelon down during the race, and yet I still managed to finish. Two hours before my husband. In 35 degree heat. It should not be physically possible to exercise in those conditions on that little nutrition for 11+ hours, and yet – there I was, I’d done it. What an engine.

Marino Vanhoenacker passing by an aid station at Melbourne Ironman 2014

Marino Vanhoenacker passing by an aid station at Melbourne Ironman 2014

There isn’t much formal evidence of this phenomenon, but there is a hell of a lot of anecdotal evidence around. A quick look around at the top Ironman, marathon and ultramarathon professional athletes in the world reveals a huge proportion of previously eating-disorder-afflicted athletes. Some still have obvious ED’s. Even more would currently have well-hidden disordered eating patterns. And I’m not just talking about females, either. There are a pair of professional brothers who compete in Ironman and one of them has such a severe eating disorder that despite over 1 million dollars being laid on the line by their sponsor for the two of them to go head to head at Hawaii Ironman a few years back, the ill brother didn’t even make it to the starting line because his ED was so out of control that he was admitted as an inpatient, missing the race altogether.

Then there’s arguably the best female ultramarathoner we have seen to date, Pam Reed, who won Badwater outright two years in a row, beating all the men in the field:

“…And there was also an ironic twist to all of this. Anorexia had ruled my life for 15 years and had done a lot of damage in the process. One of its effects had been to condition my body to an amazing degree for ultrarunning. Something that had hurt me at one time in my life would now help me in another”
– from “The Extra Mile”, Pam Reed.

Need more evidence? Let’s look at the maths, and let’s stick to Ironman since that’s my thing. A typical 65kg athlete who completes the Ironman (3.8km swim/180km bike/42.2km run) in 12 hours will burn around 42000 kj doing so. That’s on top of the roughly 8000kj that same athlete needs just to stay alive that day – breathing, thinking, blinking etc. Think about that for a second: do you think it’s even possible to physically eat that much in a day? Let alone on a day you are exercising – hard – for 12 hours of it, shunting blood away from your digestive system? Well let me tell you, even if you have “Ironguts” like my husband (who is famous at our local pool for chowing down on a large flat white and bacon and egg muffin while getting into the pool to start his 4km swim set….), you cannot ingest that much energy. Not even close. If you’re lucky, you’ll have about 90 minutes worth of carbohydrate stored in your primed muscles, but after that, it’s predominantly the fat system that you’ll rely on. Most of the energy that you consume after that will be split between helping to prolong that fat-burning system, and importantly, to keep your brain happy. Recent research shows that while dieticians used to think we used the fuel from Gu’s and Gatorade to keep our muscles happy, it’s actually more to trick our brain into thinking we are still high on sugar and so it’s safe to continue exercising. Pretty cool stuff.

Unfortunately, Ana doesn't make you immune to blisters!

Unfortunately, Ana doesn’t make you immune to blisters!

So while I would never wish an eating disorder on anyone, I am happy for the gift that it has given me. Happy that something came from all the years of suffering (one must try to look on the bright side!). Before my very first Ironman a few years back, Coach and I were going through my nutrition plans for the day – Plan A, B, C, D….. because nothing ever goes to plan on race day and you must be flexible. His last words to me were “you will dominate this – you are so strong because of everything you’ve been through, when you get to the point where you have to “dig deep” you will absolutely thrive. And……don’t be afraid to start drinking coke early on the marathon!”. Well, he proved to be oh so right. I couldn’t stomach much during the bike leg, so was heading into the marathon feeling a bit flat. I started on coke and water straight away, and kept that up throughout. Sure enough, my brain was super happy with that! While everyone around me was collapsing like flies, I just kept getting stronger and stronger – the fat-burning kicked in and I was having a ball! Indeed, I got to the end and was disappointed that it wasn’t a bit harder.

I joked to Coach we might try the UltraMan next time (back-to-back Ironmans).

We’ll see what the future brings!

K xo

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