Pregnancy and Eating Disorders

How do you rattle a Type-A control freak with a history of Anorexia and a love of exercise? Shower her with morning sickness and extreme fatigue, and watch her world unravel….

Challenging would be an understatement for the last couple of months of my life. My previously well-controlled little cocoon that I know as my life, with routine, structure, and an all-important sense of controlling what is happening to my body, has been dismantled for the best possible reason. But the fact that there is a little person growing inside me only manages to give me glimpses of fleeting happiness amidst the 24-7 nausea, vomiting, and extreme fatigue. I know that this will improve once the sickness eases, and I cannot wait to feel as though I’m floating on clouds with happiness about our little human growing day by day in my belly (and, well, just to be able to eat something – anything – without vomiting would be great too!).

Coffee won't be happening any time soon!

Coffee won’t be happening any time soon!

Throughout the challenge of the last couple of months it has taken all of my strength to maintain some semblance of a healthy lifestyle and body in which to house my little person. This surprised me. I am well into recovery and haven’t had a relapse for quite some time. And aside from anything else, my Psychologist has always been adamant that the best cure for an eating disorder is to get pregnant. I did question him about this one time, to which he elaborated that we of the selfless kind tend to be able to eat for someone else but rarely for ourselves. And also that suddenly we have no control over what our body is doing and so there tends to be some relief in the fact that there’s not a lot we can actually do about that for once. Then I questioned him further about after the baby comes out – when relapse rates hit a spike – and well turns out that’s another story, but we won’t go into that right now…. I do know that it took me a good 5 years after recovery to truly believe that I was ready to start a family. Of course, the fear of the weight and body changes scared me. But it was actually a much deeper fear that stopped me from wanting children: I was petrified that if I had a daughter or son, they would have Anorexia one day too. And that was something my heart just couldn’t cope with. It took a very long time of sorting through that with my psychologist before I felt more confident that I could do everything in my power to prevent that from happening: the genes I pass on I can’t change, but the environment of the child I most certainly can. And will.

I guess the hardest part for me currently is that I am acutely aware of trying to maintain the healthiest possible food intake and exercise program, and keep stress levels low, laugh a lot – all the things a little human needs to grow happily. But when every smell – from perfume to food to drinks – bothers you and every meal and snack is a massive psychological and physical event to get through, well it’s like being thrown back into the recovery ward. To make matters worse, despite my best efforts to eat enough I am losing weight, and this plays on my mind as well. I desperately want to be healthy, and yet there’s this voice that is happy about not getting “too fat, too soon”. I know I will put the weight back on and then some, and I know that losing weight in the first trimester is common when you have severe morning sickness, and I also know that the baby is happy as Larry inside despite how I’m feeling out here in the Real World. But it still bothers and confuses me and I really didn’t expect to have so many mixed emotions around this magical event.

My best management strategies have involved getting plenty of sleep, because everything seems so much more distressing when you are tired. And incidentally, so is Morning sickness (aka 24/7 sickness). I have also found it helpful to try to do some form of exercise every day. This has been a big one for me….my goal after my foot surgery was always to be able to comfortably run 5-8km when I finally got pregnant. Catch 22: my fitness is at that level, and so is my foot, but it’s managing the nausea and tiredness that’s been the hard part. Being flexible is not easy for me, but I’ve had to learn to pick my battles and get outside for a little run/walk when I feel the least nauseous. It’s good for the baby and it’s good for my head (much better than sitting on the couch moping about how I feel). I can’t swim or bike right now, because of the body positions making me more likely to be sick, so gym work and running it is. And I have to be OK with that. I can’t control everything. And that is extremely hard to say as an Ironman athlete and former Anorexic.

My heart goes out to anyone with a history of Bulimia, I can only begin to imagine how difficult the initial stages of pregnancy must be with the challenges of extreme hunger, accompanied by frequent vomiting. I have only ever been a restrictive anorexic and I am certainly finding it a monumental challenge. Not being able to keep up my normal training routine is hard enough – I love my early morning sunrises over the pool, my bike sessions with our squad or my husband, our local Roadrunners every Saturday. I miss the physical but also the mental aspects of that. And racing….I really miss racing too.

Tragedy....I haven't even been able to handle the smell of baking!

Tragedy….I haven’t even been able to handle the smell of baking!

I follow a few Ironman athletes on social media who have recently become new Mums. Two of them “accidentally” did an Ironman or two while pregnant, without realising. I regularly think of this while I’m battling through my 5km run at a very slow pace, fighting waves of nausea, and feel like I just completed an Ironman marathon – How did they not know??!!! I am baffled. But you have to laugh and realise that in the end, every body, and mind, is so different.

For now, I am focusing on daily survival as best I can. “Lucky” for me, I have had experience with battling food and weight and so I have an army of strategies to help me through this tough patch. I am looking forward to the magic as well as the challenges to come. I’ve had a lot of time to think about coping with a changing, growing belly; how to be healthy afterwards (ie not relapse); and all the amazing things that come with this process. But as I’ve just discovered, I’m sure nothing will be as it seems on the surface – so bring on the next challenge….it’s going to be an exciting 9 months and beyond.

tattoo and white rose

K xoxo

Exercise and Recovery

I’m going to be a little controversial with this post. I’m going to suggest that for a large majority of ED sufferers, recovery would be best done while they maintain their work or school, and for athletes, their training.

Before everyone gets riled up about it, I am not talking about those so severely undernourished that they are at risk of dropping dead from a massive heart attack at any minute, or those with suicidal tendencies….clearly an inpatient program would be best for these patients (at that stage in their recovery, even if those programs for the most part keep people alive but do not really assist in long term recovery and have notoriously high relapse rates….but that’s a post for another day). I am talking about the majority of ED sufferers who are under their individual ideal weight (note I did not say “under BMI 18” – how ridiculous, what about the person with a bigger frame who is still starving but able to maintain a BMI of 21? Are they “less sick”? of course not), are still participating in work or school, and particularly those who are athletes and see that as a part of their identity. I’m talking about the people who are functioning in society, but are significantly affected day to day by their eating disorder – maybe with the accompanying depression, lack of energy and concentration, fatigue, social isolation and the other joyous side effects.

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Here’s why. Think about this: What is the biggest challenge in recovery? I would argue that one of the hardest parts about recovery is learning to lose the “ED” identity and to learn who you really are as a person. Only once that has occurred can one begin to truly move on with their lives and to want to nourish their mind and body. Only then do they have a sense of self to take care of – a reason to recover, if you will. For recovering for someone else, or to get out of Inpatient care, or for the sake of a “goal weight”, will never do it. That typically leads quickly back to a relapse and the cycle that entails.

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Inpatient care, while necessary to sustain a life on the edge, takes away all the other factors in the patient’s life that will be the foundation of their true identity as they return to health: their job, their hobbies, their social network, and for athletes, their training and usually tightknit support crew – coaches and fellow athletes. Not only does it take those things away, it actually forces the patient to focus 100% of their time and energy on the eating disorder. Their days are spent focusing on food, psychology, analysis, resting, scales, and usually the added bonus of in-house competition between patients on who is the “most sick”. Statistically, success rates aren’t good – the weight is temporarily gained, yes; but in the long term, recovery rates can be as low as 20% for patients who have had an ED for an extended time period. The statistics have not improved even after a few decades of treatment in this way. Why not?

At some point, the patient needs to learn how to function in society in a healthy way, and for this to happen there needs to be a reason for the patient to want to get better. Want being the key word here. When an athlete-patient is allowed to keep training, albeit at a reduced load, there is an all-important reason for them to put in all the hard yards day to day that go with recovering from an eating disorder. There can be clear goals and rewards: you gain X weight, you get to train X amount. You eat X foods, you get to attend X training sessions. If you don’t, you can attend but you have to sit out and watch. Sure, it’s harder to gain weight while still training. But guess what? Eating like an athlete is hard, full stop. Years on I still find it a challenge day to day. When you train hard, you have to work even harder on fuelling your “machine” (body), and the sooner a patient gets used to that process the sooner they can master it. Secondly, gaining the weight as muscle, bone density and fat via increased food and some continuation of training is much healthier and less traumatic for the patient than gaining fat alone on a resting protocol. Lastly but most importantly, there are three overwhelming psychological benefits to this approach:

1) the motivation-reward system is clear and immediate;

2) the social interaction with teammates and coaches is maintained, which is so important;

3) the patient is nurtured through the process of minimising their ED identity and replacing that empty space with their “healthy athlete identity”. {You can replace “athlete” and “training” with anything else relevant – student and school, physio and work, etc.}

The key to this process is to have a fantastic support team who can facilitate this transition. For me, it was a brilliant Sports Dietician (it was her idea to allow me to keep training – every other rehab program I had entered forced me to rest and spiral into depression), a brilliant Psychologist who specialises in treating athletes with eating disorders, a Coach who was on board with the plan, and a flexible workplace (I was still studying at University but my part-time job as a research assistant allowed me to set my own work hours, so I could go in when my energy levels were highest – early in the morning). For the most part, my dietician set out my goals for the week and my rewards – when and if I could train etc. All the while she communicated with my psychologist, who from the get-go has focussed on establishing my identity as an athlete. As he reminded me recently, I have always done best when we focus on what my body can do (as an athlete), not how it looks. All body fat % and weight measures were taken away from me, and replaced by more relevant measures like time trials and power outputs. And the only way I can get stronger, fitter, faster, and keep up with my teammates? To eat. Simple as that. I know when I skimp, I fall behind, and as a competitive person, that is motivation enough to nourish my body.

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The best part is that the system WORKS. And it’s not just a bandaid fix – it works in the long term. To this day, years on from the start of my “recovery”, I still have a crappy day at work, feel “fat” as my go-to coping mechanism, and then know that if I go and do a solid training session, by the time I walk back through that door at the end I am going to be happy with my body and what it can do for me. Nothing to do with how it looks or what it weighs. Simply what it can do. And that’s pretty cool. Add in the extra bonuses of a good training session – fresh air, endorphins, improved fitness, mental clarity, relaxation – and it’s a win-win situation.

I make it sound easy and like the obvious solution, which for me, it was (obvious, not easy!). Nothing else had worked over the decade beforehand. And certainly this system wouldn’t work for everyone either, but for athletes, I would argue that it is the best way to structure treatment. Realistically, there needs to be a change in the way we treat eating disorders in Australia as the current inpatient systems are not working in terms of long-term outcomes and relapse rates. There is no easy answer.

Food for thought anyway.

Happy training xo

The Broken: A Survival Guide Part III

Right now, I am at the point where my foot is essentially 95% healed, and I’m ramping my running back up.

Cue music: “Highway to the Danger Zone”……

You see, this is the magical moment where the bones are healed enough to need adequate loading in order to reach full strength and function. This means running every other day (yippee!!), but crucially it also means having the discipline to not overdo it. And to listen to my body. And put my pride and perfectionism to the side.

This is, in many ways, the hardest part. It’s the part where I have to test my growth over the past 9 months. Have I really become more patient? Stronger? Less perfectionistic? More realistic? Hell, will my body even remember how to run, let alone with decent pace or technique?! And then the toxic seeds of doubt creep in: what will my fellow runners think of me now? What if I’m not good enough? What if I never get back to where I was before I broke my foot? Will I ever beat my husband in an Ironman again?

Of course, it’s highly likely I will come back stronger than before, will continue to kick my husband’s butt in many an Ironman to come, will have learnt a boatload about myself and my body and most importantly, learnt how to train more efficiently and with less risk (cue Britney Spears: Stronger. Yep, I went there). This is my “logical voice” talking. But we all know, that illogical voice is the one that dominates when we have been out of the loop for some time.

Hiking in NZ with my better half

Hiking in NZ with my better half

Two weeks ago, I readied myself to go to running squad for the first time in over a year. It’s a super friendly bunch of runners who I have trained with throughout all my Ironmans in the last 5 years. Saturday mornings are usually a sociable 8-12km group run, with coffee afterwards. There is a front pack, of which I’m usually a member, and then there’s everything back to a 5km jog/walk group. In all, we have about 50 people turn up, so it’s not like I would be lonely.

Only I chickened out. Why? Because according to my return to run program from my Ortho, I still have to walk 2 minutes for every 8 minutes of running. And, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop and have the discipline to walk when everyone else was still running. And my pride didn’t want the slower runners to catch up (there I said it. I may be the world’s most competitive person). A week later and I decided to try again. I took off at decent pace with a largish pack, and I did manage to stop and walk when I was supposed to. It was harder than getting through an airport on crutches, I’ll tell you that much. My heart and soul just wanted to keep on running!!

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Whether you are getting back into training after an injury or after an eating disorder (or both), the hardest part is often sticking to the plan. I know from coaching beginner run groups that the three aspects of training that “normal” people struggle with most are 1) motivation; 2) fitness; and 3) being able to mentally push themselves. This is not the case for athletes or those of us with the ED birdy on our shoulder. These are some strategies that have helped me over the last couple of months:

1) Front and Centre: How Far You’ve Come (and how quickly it could go wrong). Its human nature to compare yourself to others, and even moreso for uber-competitive athletes like myself. There’s a bunch of people you used to be faster than lapping you around the park. But that’s OK, because they don’t have a metal plate in their reconstructed foot. They haven’t walked every step of that hard road to recovery. When the temptation to push yourself overwhelms you, it’s important to remember how broken you were and how quickly you could return there (ie another stress fracture or overuse injury). Sometimes fear can be a very good motivator! Write it on your hand, stick a photo in your wallet – whatever it takes, a not-so-subtle reminder is key.

2) Plan Ahead: The Insecurity Factor. As a flip side to point 1, remember that we are all humans and we do all have our own story and our own journey. When that little evil voice starts sprouting doubts in your mind, squash the insecurity by fighting back with basic logic. Those runners know what you’ve been through, know what kind of an athlete you are, and really couldn’t care less that you are running slower than you used to. They’re more than likely impressed by your motivation and determination, not judging you for your pace. They’re likely happy just to see you back at squad. Or they may not have even noticed that you’re not as fit as you were (you’d be surprised how remarkably un-observative “normal” people can be, really….you’d be shocked….not everyone can recite what the whole table ate at lunchtime and what times they ran on the track for the last 4 years….that’s a very unique trait!).

3) No Negotiations. Even if you feel like Paula Radcliffe today. Any changes to the plan MUST be pre-approved by your Physio/sports doc ahead of time. As with any rehab program, you have days where you just float like a butterfly….and days you feel like an elephant. Just enjoy the fact that you feel great, cherish every step, and know that if you stick to the plan, it’ll be that much sooner before you get to have another great training session. If that fails, revert to point 1.

4) Focus on how Amazing Your Achievements Are. And celebrate them. Who cares if your old training buddies smashed out 10km in sub-40min pace? YOU just did 36 minutes of quality running, and you had the discipline to stop and walk, and your technique was great, and you are coming back from major foot surgery, and you get to be outdoors in the fresh air running…you get the picture. Gratitude is the best emotion on the planet. Use it to your advantage. Write it in your training diary. You’re doing awesome. Repeat.

5) Enlist a Training Buddy who is on board. Does not have to be of the human breed. If you are going to squad, suss out who is about your pace at the moment or perhaps also coming back from injury. Or grab a friend who is willing to do walk breaks with you. My favourites for this are my husband and my dogs, the three of them are always whinging that I run too fast normally so they are happy for the walk breaks – much happier than I am!

6) Nutrition: ensure that you are adjusting your eating plan for the increased exercise load. You need to be eating for training, recovery AND healing – the triple threat. Bones have a lag time of about 3-4 weeks with increased load, so when increasing run kilometres it is best to have a training week that is about 50% of your normal current load for that week, to let your bones catch up and get stronger. Push over that and you may find another stress fracture. So if you are up to running say 40km a week, on the fourth week, stick to 20km and you can add some walking or cross training. It’s an annoying but foolproof investment, and any running coach on the planet worth their salt will stick to this plan for injury prevention. You’ll actually come out the other side feeling fitter, as your body will have “absorbed” your training up to that point and feel fresh again. Bonus!

7) Get a Hero or Two. Professional Triathlete Jesse Thomas actually broke his foot during Wildflower triathlon 2013 and subsequently had surgery about a month before I did the exact same thing. He has blogged about his rehab, the highs and lows, and I have found it hugely helpful following his progress along the way. His wife Lauren Fleshman is also a great role model and her blogs are highly entertaining for any athlete who has faced injury or childbirth and beyond. As a side note – be wary of Ironman athletes claiming to be recovered from their eating disorders. There are a lot of them around who hide behind “Ironman/triathlon” as their excuse to continue with disordered eating patterns. Chrissie Wellington’s book “A Life Without Limits” is probably one of the worst so don’t go there if you are still recovering. Same goes for any running or ultraendurance bio if you are recovering from a running injury – it’s like motivation on steroids to go do something really stupid!

I hope that helps! The journey back to health can be a long and lonely one, especially once you get towards the end and on the surface everything looks fine. Stay strong and remember how far you have come. Most importantly, reward your body for the amazing job it has done by nourishing it and letting it bloom into its full potential. It will serve you very well if you treat it right.

Happy Training xo

From Rehab to Racing

8 weeks post-foot surgery, happy to be out of plaster and trying to stay positive...

8 weeks post-foot surgery, happy to be out of plaster and trying to stay positive…

I flew today.

Well, it felt like it. 6km run at good pace with minimal foot discomfort, able to find my rhythm for the first time since July 2013. Excited much?! I was smiling from ear to ear for the rest of the day!

It’s been a huge challenge, a very long 9 months, and the biggest mountain I’ve had to climb in my post-ED life. But I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Today I entered two 5km fun runs, and an Olympic Distance Triathlon which I will do as a team (as my surgeon is not giving me the green light to run 10km at race pace just yet!).

Still a long road to another Ironman finish line but every day is a step forwards

Still a long road to another Ironman finish line but every day is a step forwards

So what have I learned along the way? Patience. Something I never had a lot of before. I’ve learned how to apply my discipline to my rehab like nobody’s business. That applied effort has allowed me to return to running 2 months ahead of the schedule my surgeon set out for me post-op. In fact, when my psychologist was warning me about the danger zone I am currently in (given my raging exercise addiction, it was a fair concern!) – I reassured him “don’t worry. I am treating my rehab program just like I once did Ana – I am aiming to be the “perfect” patient, which includes following the program to a tee, eating every nutritious food I can get my hands on, and doing every recovery strategy that is validated in the research – compression, ice, physio, you name it.” I’m not sure he 100% approved of my approach but was nonetheless impressed by my creativity and my insight into my personality characteristics (well, they weren’t going to go away just because my foot got cut in half and I couldn’t run for a while, let’s face it. May as well make use of them).

Full steam ahead: back on the bike and loving the training!

Full steam ahead: back on the bike and loving the training!

So, as my coach would tell me, it’s “onwards and upwards”. Every day is another opportunity to “practice perfection” – every stroke on the bike, arm turnover in the pool, step on the run, and weight in the gym, all tiny building blocks that will one day form the strongest Ironman body I’ve had yet. Every new day is another chance to be thankful for my health and my happiness. To breathe in the fresh air and feel alive.

I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in Karma. And I am grateful for the chance to rebuild my body and to live life to the fullest.

Happy training everyone!

K xoxo

Racing Weight

So yesterday I had a revelation. It’s only been, hhmmm, 18 years coming.

I was looking through some race results from a recent track meet and they had accompanying photos. One photo in particular really set me off – I felt a deep pang of ?yearning? to suddenly stop eating and to run a really long way. To look like that. ASAP.

I won't put the triggering photo up for obvious reasons.  Instead, here's a bunch of awesome, fit healthy chicks at the New Balance Games.

I won’t put the triggering photo up for obvious reasons. Instead, here’s a bunch of awesome, fit healthy chicks at the New Balance Games.

Ever since I started restricting calories at age 12, I have always been very easily triggered by certain people – for me, mainly athletes of the very lean, tanned, blonde and hot description. I most definitely have a “type”. For the longest time it was Anna Kournikova. I remember as a 12 year old looking up her height (same as mine – I was tall at 12. Incidentally, I never grew after that….amazing what starvation can do to the human skeleton) and weight. That was ground zero. Only, once I got to her weight, of course the ED/Ana was in full flight and I couldn’t stop there. I may have had the long blonde hair, the sports trophies, the tan….but I didn’t look like Anna Kournikova, because, well….she looks healthy. She glows. I had some grey death staring out my eyes to match the grey shades under them, and a bony back to boot.

Anna Kournikova in full flight.

Anna Kournikova in full flight.

Over the years the role models have evolved, and as I’ve talked about in previous posts, I now tend to look up to healthier athletes as a matter of requirement. I am simply too easily set off by the former. And of course a swap to a sport that suits my genetic make-up to a tee has helped as well: as a distance runner, being lean and super light was always an uphill battle, whereas I build the endurance and strength needed for long course triathlon almost by mistake, it happens so easily.

Anyway back to the point. To give you some context, my body at the moment is not at racing fitness and after being “Ironman fit” for the preceding 3 years straight, that’s a hard thing to get used to. I was as fit as I’ve ever been going into my foot surgery in July last year. But 3 months in a cast and non-weight bearing on crutches, when all I could do was core and upper body gym work and then after that, swimming….well for someone who builds muscle easily, I suddenly developed upper body muscles. Throw into the mix a couple of pregnancies then miscarriages in that period and well, needless to say, my body has changed. So I’m in the prime target zone of being affected by such triggers and constantly fighting the urge to overexercise and undereat, when in reality my body needs to be loved in every way in order to repair right now.

Only yesterday, for the first time ever, a shocking thing happened. I’m not even sure it was my brain producing the thought process, so foreign was that thought process. I suspect perhaps my psychologist or dietician found a way of tapping into my brain waves and altering them. For when I saw the picture, I yearned to starve and go run 35km. But then the next thought that followed was astounding: “yeah, if you want to be skinny-fat and unhealthy. If you want to get back to that level of fitness, you know what you need to do. You need to commit to training hard, and eating. A lot. Of really high quality food.” Sigh. Wait – whoah!! What just happened?!!!! Was that my head talking?

New, healthier role models: Caroline Steffen aka "Xena", 2nd fastest female Ironman athlete in the world.  Machine.

New, healthier role models: Caroline Steffen aka “Xena”, 2nd fastest female Ironman athlete in the world. Machine.

After deep consideration, I’m fairly certain it was me. I’m impressed. And when I analyse it, it’s true – the only times in my life I have been super race-fit, lean, healthy and glowing (and incidentally injury-free) have been when I’ve been able to train well and at a high intensity, and when I’ve been able to eat a lot of food to support that. For many of the other times, I may have been clocking in at my desired “racing weight” – for distance running, not triathlon – but I was far from glowing, and the fake tan and smiles were barely hiding a very frail skeleton with 10+ stress fractures in their short history.

As we all know a little too well, it’s far easier for us to undereat and overexercise. It’s comfy, predictable, safe, not scary. Eating like an athlete is frightening, uncomfortable, requires planning, and a lot of mental strength – and not just for a day, but for months. But when all is said and done, it’s always more rewarding doing something challenging than sticking to the same well-worn path. I don’t want to be a skinny-fat distance runner anymore; I will stand proud as an athlete. Glowing, too.

Bring it.

xoxo

My hand-made Easter chocolates for the family.  Happy Easter everyone! xoxo

My hand-made Easter chocolates for the family. Happy Easter everyone! xoxo

Our Body Responds to the Messages We Give It

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I have a friend in Brisbane who has just taken up Ironmans, which I am over the moon about. At first glance, she has all the right ingredients to make a solid long course athlete: she’s tall, muscular, mentally pretty tough and she has the support of her family – her husband also does Ironman triathlons. And boy does she like to train.

Before her first Ironman she was understandably nervous, and wanted to skype with me to pick my brains about a few things; I was more than happy to help out. I had a lot of fellow Ironman athletes take me under their wing when I first started out, and along with my coach I felt extremely well prepared going into my first race and subsequently had a great time. I was excited to be able to do the same for her, and so I wrote down some key nutrition, pacing and training concepts that work well for me (mainly female-specific things).
So you can understand my shock when no more than 5 minutes into said skype date, she blurts out “well of course I’m only doing Ironman to keep my weight under control – for the same reason you and every other girl does it!” she laughed. I was not laughing. I was actually trying not to choke on my espresso.

SAY WHAAAAATT??!!

Firstly, let me get this off my chest. Ironman is sacred. It is a place where you go to search the depths of your soul, to find out what you’re really made of in a way that daily life just doesn’t allow for. It is a celebration of the human body and mind, of the incredible things it can achieve. It is a magical place with a finish line that feels better than ecstasy. And when all is said and done – the months of discipline, the long, long rides with fellow athletes who become friends, the many memories made, the body chiselled and honed, the mind strengthened and the self-confidence firmly built one brick at a time – you become part of the “Ironman Family”. And THAT is what Ironman is about. Nothing short of a celebration of life in all its glory. Amen to that.

My second thought was “oh boy you are going to crash and burn in a big way, you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons”. (I didn’t say that out loud….). I do Ironman to celebrate my recovery, and to be around a couple of thousand people who don’t make excuses about why they can’t do things, they find a way to do things and be happy and loving and I am addicted to the joy and self-confidence that Ironman has brought to my life. I now respect my body for what it can do, NOT what it looks like or what the number on the scale is. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it has saved my life, by taking me away from Ana and onto richer pastures. I can’t believe how amazing this body now is, and also feel mortified sorry for the things I have done to it in the past.

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The third thought – and this is where the scientific nerd within kicked in – was “you’re not going to lose weight by doing what you’re doing, if that is your goal….”. She refused to take any nutrition other than water during any training sessions, scared that it would make her gain weight. Then she would try to restrict her calories during the day as well, to try to cut more corners. (Subsequently I am sure) she hated long rides because….well….she probably felt like crap, running on empty! Not surprisingly, she had a few niggles that she couldn’t settle and she wasn’t able to push the training up to the next level.

And sure enough, after her first Ironman, she didn’t enjoy the experience. She was too focused on trying to keep her weight under control, and stressing about not training in the couple of weeks after the race.
Here’s the thing. This may come as a revelation to non-athletes and to Anorexics, but our body responds to the messages we give it. If you starve yourself, it learns that food is scarce out there in the world and it better slow down its metabolism and store fat for the long cold winter (we still have the same DNA as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, remember). It learns that it better prioritise only the essential life-giving functions, like breathing and brain activity – so those niggles don’t heal and the muscles don’t repair from the hours of training. Minimal training adaptations occur, so you don’t really get fitter either, you just keep breaking down. Not to mention hating the training because, well, you never really feel good! In the short-term or if you get extreme about the starvation yes, you will lose weight (hello eating disorders). But eventually that weight loss slows down. And I can tell you from personal experience that after 10 years of it, your metabolism becomes very smart and very thrifty. I could go days on minimal food and not lose any weight. My body just knew it had to conserve to keep me alive.

On the flip side, if you train hard, and fuel your body, it will get the message that you want it to become fitter and stronger, and that since there is plenty of food around, it’s therefore safe to make those adaptations. You’ll lose fat, and gain bone density and muscle. Your mental health, sleep and mood will improve. You will have more energy through the day. And on race day, you will perform well and likely also enjoy yourself and the experience (which is the whole point, right?!).

Matching shoes and nails: check...

Matching shoes and nails: check…

And then the best part of all is the famous post-ironman “afterburn” phase, which lasts between 1-4 weeks depending on your metabolism and fitness and genetics. This is where you pretty much eat whatever you like, do minimal exercise, and lo and behold – you get leaner. It’s hilarious. Your body is working so hard to repair everything, and it’s still zooming from the 12-hour race, that if you feed it with A LOT of food, you will then set it up beautifully for the next phase of training and racing (or just life in general if you so choose). BUT if, like my friend, you decide to hardly eat anything at all after the race, you will actually halt that process and force your metabolism to really, really slow down. Your body is madly trying to repair and recoup, and if you don’t nourish it now, you will set it up for an ever slower metabolism and, unfortunately, you will likely actually lose muscle and gain fat. Which is what happened to my friend. And so the cycle continues, as she has signed up for the next race in order to “control her (now higher) weight”…..

I know it’s hard to get your head around the fact that eating more could result in losing weight. It certainly took me a long time to believe it. I tried it as a one-woman experiment and took all my measures weekly. Sure enough, over the course of 6-8 weeks I got leaner, stronger and my performance and recovery were better than ever (read: I was kicking my husband’s butt in training). The key is to keep the food as nutritious as possible, and to eat most when your body needs it most – before, during and after training. It still feels odd for me to do that, but it’s worth the mental discomfort in order to now feel like an athlete.

As a final disclaimer, I’m not saying that there aren’t people in Ironman who have eating disorders and abuse the system, and I’ve talked about this in previous posts. But they aren’t the ones succeeding in the long term. They’re the ones you see at one race, who look super fit and fast, but who end up walking the marathon because they have no fuel or endurance. They are the ones who, after 1 or if they’re lucky 2 years in the sport, you never see again. Or the ones who are one big chain of injuries one after the other – they never line up on race day 100% healthy. And they certainly aren’t the ones with the sparkle in their eyes, who will still be doing it when they’re 60 years old. Now those guys are the real superstars!

We all have one body in this life, and we all have a choice. We can nourish it and let it flourish to its true potential, or we can cut corners and watch it struggle.

I choose life!
Happy training.

K xo

Show me how Big your Brave is

Reporters love asking celebrities what they would go back and tell their younger self. They reply with some warm fuzzy blurb along the lines of “things get better” or “be more confident”. If I could go back to my younger self – probably around age 15 – I would say: grow some balls and scream for help, scream so loud that no-one can ignore you, to hell with the fear….it may just save your life”.

Finally - the media doing something proactive towards body confidence

Finally – the media doing something proactive towards body confidence

There is inevitably those fleeting moments in the eating disorder journey where the inner You is strong enough that you could probably ask for help. But these moments are so few and so far between, that the fear quickly envelops the soul and again sets you back down the path to Ana. I can still think of the few times during my decade with Ana – count them on one hand, actually – that I would have accepted help without too much of a fight. Those moments you remember, with clarity when it was just too hard to fight any more. Broken, at last. When I do think back on those few times, it still makes me feel physically violently ill to my stomach and sets my heart pounding, even all these years later. The extent of the fear of ratting Ana out is unlike anything else. To simply say the words “I need help”, comes with a plethora of assumed baggage weighing enough to drown anyone.

While eating disorders are rarely “silent” – those around you know there is something wrong – I would bet money on the fact that no one on this planet knows everything I did to myself during those years; the extent of the body abuse and the tricks that Ana played out. So while Ana may fool you into thinking “if it was that bad, someone would have intervened by now”; in reality, you and I both know that they have no idea what you are truly doing and what goes on in your mind. Looks can be incredibly deceiving.

My birthday cake.  Made by me, and yes, also eaten by me (well, one piece!  Baby steps)

My birthday cake. Made by me, and yes, also eaten by me (well, one piece! Baby steps)

But then the benefit of hindsight is that in all my wisdom, I can now look back with heartbreak, thinking “if only”. If only I had said to someone that I was unwell, and that I couldn’t stop myself. That I was so scared I wanted to vomit. That I thought I had control of this thing but that turns out to be the ultimate trickery. That I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to “act” like Me anymore; I want to find Me. If only….

There were many people in my life that I could have asked for help. My immediate family were a huge part of my problem and chose to be incredibly ignorant about my condition, so even as a 12 year old, I knew that was not an option. But my Aunty, my best friends, my boyfriend, my coach, and later my resident mentor at college, or my doctor…..any of these people would have given heart and soul to help me – and God knows how much they all tried at various times – if only I’d let them in. It would have taken a huge amount of guts and four words to change my life: “help me, I’m ready”.

Instead, I let Ana rule the world for a decade, pretending I was in control, but knowing full well for the latter years of my illness that I was not. In a final bid for freedom – of myself, not Ana – I jumped on a plane to Canada and set myself free in the world. I was going to get better. Only just 2 weeks in, failing miserably, alone in a backpackers in Vancouver, I collapse on the stairs from a near-lethal combination of starvation and a vomiting bug. For the record, I don’t count medical help that was not given by choice but rather by dire circumstance as “asking” for help. Clearly, this was not going to be a one-woman effort. By that stage, Ana was so strong that it was going to take a lot more than that to break her down.

On returning to Australia, this time as an adult, I checked myself into help for the first time ever. It was my choice. I was scared shitless and felt so out of control of my life, but it was what it came to. It took years of mess and emotional rollercoasters and a lot of help from my friends following that to find health and most importantly, Me. But I got there.

And yet the mind wanders at times…..How would things be different, if I’d gotten help so much sooner?

“Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live
Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is”

Help is scary, I know. But living alone with Ana is scarier. Just because it’s familiar, doesn’t mean it’s ok. Deep within every perfect little Anorexic is a voice that wants so desperately to stand up for You, for everything that should be yours and that you deserve just as much as everyone else in the world. Don’t let Ana fool you into thinking you don’t deserve it. Finding that inner voice and learning to use it is often the keystone to the mountain that is Recovery. It certainly was for me.

tattoo edited

Be brave. Kick and Scream. Beg for help. I know You can do it.

“Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do
And they settle ‘neath your skin
Kept on the inside and no sunlight
Sometimes a shadow wins
But I wonder what would happen if you

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave….

Don’t run, stop holding your tongue
Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live
Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is…

Honestly I wanna see you be brave”
– Sara Bareilles

K xoxo