Can you laugh about it now?

Then she pulled at my stitches one by one and looked at my insides clicking her tongue, and said ‘this will all have to come undone’  And doesn’t that sound familiar? Doesn’t that hit too close to home? Doesn’t that make you shiver: the way things could’ve gone?

And doesn’t it feel peculiar, when everyone wants a little more?  And so that I do remember, to never go that far, could you leave me with a scar”

– Missy Higgins, Scar

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So this last week I did something very mature, facing up to some things from my past and not burying my head in the sand about them. I was in an accident when I was at university, which basically involved me stepping out right in front of a bus in the middle of the Brisbane CBD…. I don’t actually remember from about 20mins before the accident to the whole two weeks I was in hospital. I had multiple fractures (skull, jaw, ribs, shoulderblade), torn hip labrum and some pretty gnarly road rash from hitting the bitumen. Everything healed, and life moved on….but now that I’m getting older I am finding that I’m having to face up to some of the consequences of that accident, likely confounded by my long-running relationship with Ana during that time which would have affected how well my bones and body healed.

My husband – who doubles as my physio (friends with benefits haha) – has been at me for some time now to get follow up scans done on my neck and left hip just to see how they are looking and whether we need to be concerned in the long run, since I am determined to be doing Ironmans or at least running until I skid full throttle into the grave at some point, hopefully a ripe old age. My neck still bothers me and the hip catches a lot, but neither of them stop me from doing anything right now.

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Cutest little bum you ever did see

So I went and visited the sports doctor who managed my foot injury a couple of years back, and he organised the scans; today I went back to discuss the results. We work with him a lot on a professional level as well – I consider him more of a friend than a doctor and I feel like I can talk openly to him about my past. My little mini (my 9 month old son) was with me, charming everyone left right and centre. We were making small talk about who he looks like and somehow got onto talking about genetic traits….and how one side of my family is full of eating disorders and mental health problems. Then we got on to talking about the actual accident, how it happened and the forces involved so that we could discuss the pathology together. I joked “so yeah, I stepped out in front of a bus. And no, before you ask, I wasn’t drunk or suicidal….but I probably hadn’t eaten for a week so I may as well have been!” then laughed it off, because that’s what I do.

And then he asked “can you joke about it now?”.

“What – the bus accident or the anorexia?!”.

“No, the eating disorder”.

I paused. “That’s a very serious question!”, I said again attempting to laugh it off.

He waited for a serious answer.

I thought about it.

“Well, I guess you have to laugh about it, right? Or else you cry about it. It’s one or the other. Why do you ask?”.

He replied that in his experience most people never get to a point where they feel ok talking about it. I still don’t feel comfortable with it, that’s for sure. But I do know that while that part of my life is now safely fairly hidden (since we moved from Brisbane 7 years ago I strategically don’t tell anyone…it’s nice that people here don’t know that part of my life and gives me a sense of freedom from their judgement about my body), it’s also important that there are a few people who I can turn to when I’m struggling. Dr C is one of those people. Two close girlfriends; my coach; and my husband are the others. And I guess when push comes to shove, I don’t really know that laughing about it is a healthy response.

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Preparing for my Ironman comeback one year post pregnancy, two years post foot surgery.

There’s nothing funny about anorexia.  It destroyed my mind, my body; took away my childhood and leaves me with a very deep pit of anger that bubbles only millimetres away from the surface (it does not take much scratching to delve there). And yet here I am, living an amazing life, at a “healthy” weight, and considered “recovered” (whatever that means).

But the scars remain and I can tell you that the voice of Ana never goes away…even after all this time I could flick a switch and go back there in a heartbeat. I don’t want to, because I have so much more to lose these days – my husband and son deserve so much more from me and I want to be fully present to experience all the happiness they give me on a daily basis. I don’t want to allow Ana to steal my ability to be present in those moments and replace that with anxiety about the next meal, the next opportunity to burn calories, or the number on the scale.

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BUT. And there has to be a But. I don’t know what other way to cope and to move forwards than to be able to face each day, give it my best, and be able to vent by joking about Ana to my “inner circle”; precious people who I know go way beyond judging me on my body weight or my scarred past. I still have to talk about the heavy shit (for one of a better description) with my psychologist on a fairly regular basis, which inevitably results in tears, slow progress and home truths…so I guess for me this is a way of processing all that went on and attempting to repackage it in a way that is more palatable. I have other friends from treatment who I’m still in touch with, and more still from around the world who I have connected with since recovering. Many of them never talk about their ED pasts except to fellow sufferers. Some go above and beyond to hide their history from everyone, denying anything. More still are what I would consider “partially recovered”, masquerading behind a healthier BMI but almost as neurotic as they ever were about their food and exercise consumption. A rare few are strong enough to cope with recovery by flipping it on its head and going fully public about it in the hope to help others who are struggling too. I don’t feel like I am bulletproof enough to do that; there still needs to be that barrier of anonymity there for me when going about my daily life not as a “Recovered Anorexic” but just as me, who used to have an ED but doesn’t any more. Especially with my job as a health professional. And still…when I see patient of mine, friends or even strangers walking down the street so obviously going through the hell of an ED, every cell of my body wants to run straight to them, hug them and take away all the pain. But I know I’m not the right person to do it, and I would not be strong enough to resist the pull myself.

 

So on goes life.

 

I’m not sure what the correct answer is but for now, “Yes, I Can Laugh About It”. I can also cry about it. Revert back to it for hours, days or weeks at a time. Flirt with the line in the sand between “recovered” and “disordered eating patterns”. And especially, I can be pissed off about it, mainly for the family issues that still exist and trigger me off so easily (case in point: during a 5 day stay with my parents recently I managed to lose an impressive 4kg…and I wasn’t even trying). I can be ashamed of it. I can be in denial about it. I can wish it never happened.

 

But above all, I have to be stronger than it, and to rise above it, and to ultimately think that it has made me who and what I am today. And for that, I have to be thankful and at peace.

 

Onwards and Upwards,

K xo

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FUNCTION OVER FORM. ALWAYS.

You never quite realise how much you take your mental cues from the physical body – that is, until you try to recover from an eating disorder. Or get pregnant. That glimpse of flat abs, outline of a six-pack, the toned and lean legs, tanned and glowing skin from hours in the sunshine; these things you take for granted at the time, but are all a daily reminder that you are fit, healthy and an athlete. Recovered.

Being so recovered, I thought of myself as being “above” all of that. Above needing physical clues – indeed, I didn’t even realise how much I relied on them until they went away. You do all this work on the mind during recovery, establishing yourself as a whole person being so much more meaningful than a weight on the scales or a dress size. But what I didn’t realise is that in my successful quest for recovery, I had replaced many of the anorexic cues with athlete cues – arguably, much more healthy for me, but nonetheless a crutch of sorts for self-esteem and self-worth.

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This was a deliberate strategy to a large extent on the behalf of both my psychologist and my dietician: as being particularly resistant to treatment after 10+ years of anorexia, it was eventually discovered that I work best when we replace the focus of weight with the focus of athletic performance. Function over form. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, a key component to the success of this strategy was in allowing me to continue with my athletic and University endeavours during this treatment process. My incentive was as simple as this: If I don’t fuel my body correctly, I cannot perform athletically to my potential nor academically. And for me, my self-esteem and self-worth became more hinged over time on my identity as an athlete and a smart, successful woman. I fuelled my body and mind and discovered, in doing so, that my potential was far greater than I had ever dreamed of. I found my niche in Ironman and my passion in physiotherapy and succeeded in recovery life. Together we created visions of where I wanted to be – career-wise and athletically – and honed in on what I required of my body and mind in order to achieve these goals. Ana did not fit in with those dreams. Fuelling my body for hard training sessions, recovering well for my mind to work, and achieving some sort of balance in the way of sleep and relaxation were all imperative to the puzzle working.

I realise this strategy may not work and indeed may not be necessary for some ED sufferers. It worked for me primarily because physiologically I was, while underweight, stable enough to be allowed to keep exercising, albeit at a reduced load to my previous program. I was also at a key age: old enough to be independent and choosing to be in recovery; but also still studying at University and therefore able to easily manipulate where I wished my career pathway to go from here. You could call it “lucky”; I prefer to think it was my time – I had been in several treatment programs at younger ages and none had worked. So successful was the strategy that even now, when I’m having particularly challenging Ana thoughts that last more than a few days, I am able to trace it back to either work or training not going well for me. Focus has gone away from the things I’m most passionate about and my go-to backup is Ana. It happens subconsciously, only now I am so much better at recognising it and addressing it. Function over form. Recalibrate your life, sort it out….there we go.

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The reason all of this is on my mind is that with the last 8 weeks of hell (being pregnant with the worse morning sickness ever) – there has been little training, time in the sun, intake of nutritious food, all-important sleep; even work has gone largely out the window (it’s difficult to treat patients when spontaneously vomiting). You’re growing a baby – possibly the ultimate function! – but you are so sick that it’s hard to comprehend this, and it’s also such a new identity: baby-grower. Person-manufacturer. Mum. So, day by day the Ana thoughts creep back and to make matters worse, all those lovely physical cues you didn’t even know you loved so much start slipping away – the stomach and boobs rounded, the skin grey and pale, dark circles under the eyes, muscle tone going….

But alas the solution lies in the past. Let’s get the focus back to my newest function: growing an awesome human. And yes, let’s remember that the morning sickness does not last forever. It is not Ana returning, just a transient loss of all the things that make me, me. Now that I am starting to get back outdoors, get into work, swimming and running, baking, and eating wonderful food again, sure enough the happiness grows too day by day. It might take me a while to get used to this new addition to my identity (“baby-grower”), but in time, it will come. It took a long time to see myself as an athlete, I can’t expect to click my fingers and have this happen overnight.

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Chin up, stay strong, and remember that those thoughts aren’t you…..you, my friend, are far more beautiful than that.

K xoxoxo

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.

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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

IMAG0632

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.

final Arpil 14

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

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

When all else fails, Bake.

Hormones rule the World…ok I get it, I GET IT!

It’s been a pretty stressful last few months, which largely stems from the fact that I am once again faced with the ever-challenging issue of learning to trust my body.

After having a miscarriage 4 months ago, my body has decided that it’s going to do its own thing, regardless of whatever I am choosing to do. Despite zero change in my food or exercise, I have been battling an influx of hormones presumably stemming from the miscarriage. My previously flat stomach is now decidedly curved and my breasts have gone from a small B cup to a large C cup. Initially I thought that this would level off over time, but it seems they are here to stay – at least for the time being.

Tiffany's-inspired Chocolate Cupcakes.  I dare you not to feel uplifted!

Tiffany’s-inspired Chocolate Cupcakes. I dare you not to feel uplifted!

It’s brought all those recovery memories flooding back. The overwhelming feeling that you are drowning in a sea of change and you don’t know when the wave is going to stop pummelling your body against the floor of the ocean. It’s also a bitter pill to swallow: that I would not only lose my baby, but that I would lose control over my body as well. My doctor reassures me that it’s a good thing, that my body is trying to set itself up to become pregnant again (which is what I want more than the world). My psychologist says that I should focus on the positives, like having amazing breasts – my husband has certainly had less trouble than me focussing on this one – and that this will not last forever. But for me, it’s all been downright confusing. Just when you think you truly know your body, know what it likes, know where its set point is, have come to accept a certain size as being healthy for your frame….it all gets thrown to the wayside. I can almost hear God laughing.

Once again it has reminded me that hormones do, in fact, control the world. Or at least our sleep, mood, emotions, fat deposition, curves, weight, fatigue and ultimately, fertility…. So what to do? The only thing I know how to do: make sure I am taking the best possible care of my body and mind and trust that it will settle into itself, wherever it is supposed to be. Which means, for me, cutting out caffeine and alcohol, eating A LOT of fruit, vegetables, good quality protein, nuts, seeds, good fats, and of course steering clear of gluten (I have Coeliac disease, as an aside, which does put me at a higher risk of miscarriage along with a history of Anorexia. Oh the joys.). It also means focussing on nourishing my body with activity that brings me joy and relaxation, namely running, dance, Pilates, group rides and swim sessions with my husband. Not because I have to do a set session or hit a predetermined interval; simply because my body can and it makes me happy. That is an important distinction. It means getting at least 8 hours of good quality sleep a night, and actively trying to relax during the day – deep breaths at work, 5 minutes of meditation when I get the chance, and laughing a lot. And of course, when all else fails, it means baking – the cheapest and best therapy of all.

Death by Chocolate: Chocolate Mousse Layer Cake with Chocolate Ganache

Death by Chocolate: Chocolate Mousse Layer Cake with Chocolate Ganache

I’m not sure that I will ever be able to accept that I cannot control what is happening with my body. Ultimately, your body will change at various stages during your life, and there is very little that you can do to stop that – short of being unhealthy and falling back into eating disorders patterns, or conversely, saying “stuff it” and allowing yourself to become significantly overweight, which is not healthy either. It is well established in the research that your body has a “set point” – a range of about 5 kg, that it will defend at all odds. So just like in recovery, when you have to trust that you won’t keep gaining and gaining indefinitely; I too have to now trust that if I nourish my body and treat it well it will do what it needs to do to create the optimal environment for baby-making and health. I can’t change what that shape ends up looking like on me, but I can change how I react to it. I am faced with a choice – to reject the change and stick to everything I have known up to this point, or to embrace that I do not have control of what is happening and to learn to love my body, no matter what form it presents in. After all, I am still the same person inside.

It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m pretty good at overcoming those.
Keep on keeping on fighting the Good Fight. This one is going to be tough.

“When doubt seeps in, you got two roads, you can take either road. You can go to the left or you can go to the right and believe me, they’ll tell you failure is not an option. That is ridiculous. Failure is always an option. Failure is the most readily available option at all times, but it’s a choice. You can choose to fail or you can choose to succeed.” – Chael Sonnen

K xoxo