by Danielle Burch

Every day, we are bombarded by a barrage of “demands” from social media, ranging from what to eat, do, wear, and be all the way up to how our bodies should look, according to some arbitrary social norm.  It’s hard. LIFE is hard. But if we learn from our past (the good, the bad, AND the ugly), our future can ONLY get better (I promise!)

A family of athletes

I grew up in sports. I was practically born into the world of athletics; my dad has been an Athletic Director my whole life, my mom was a Health Promotions Professor while I was younger, and my older brother was playing soccer before I could even crawl.  By the time I could walk, I was already dribbling the soccer ball, chasing after my brother, and attending all sorts of sporting events. Then my mom gave birth to my little sister, who is really the athletic superstar of our family, and the sports and love for it only grew!  Even losing my hearing at age five barely slowed me down. 

The day I lost my hearing, my family was at Myrtle Beach, and our plan was to enjoy a day at Myrtle Waves. There was nothing I loved more than floating down the Lazy River, so when I lost my hearing, and my parents were concerned about my life and what it might look like — all I cared about was making sure we would still get to ride the Lazy River! (In my defense, I was 5 years old).

But that’s not the story I’m sharing today.  We all have so many stories, don’t we? Some, we share openly and readily… others, not so much. This is one of those stories.  Not that I’m unwilling to share, but it might be hard to swallow for some people. Or it might hit a little too close to home.  It’s a story of learning from my past ugly to become a better person. 

From soccer to running

When I was in college (Brevard College Tornados!), I played soccer for the first three years. Then in the spring of my Junior year, I realized I wouldn’t really have time to play soccer, prepare a Senior Art Exhibit, AND complete a semester of student teaching.  Something had to give. That something ended up being soccer.

For the first time since I was four years old, I wasn’t playing. I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself. I knew I eventually wanted to run a marathon since I’d run cross country all through Middle and High School and loved it. I thought I needed something to replace the hours spent on the soccer field, so I began running more. A lot more.

To this day, I don’t know if there was a specific trigger, if it was a thing out of guilt, or something else altogether. I DO know that I lost weight, quickly, unhealthily, and to a dangerous extent. 

Extreme weight loss

My weight loss was relatively easy to hide, especially at first. I still ate meals in the cafeteria with the team — I would just eat less. My clothes still fit; they just got looser. Until I didn’t. Until they didn’t.  I’d brush off concerned comments with, “I’m fine, just running a lot to train for a marathon…” A marathon I’d never registered or even looked into, in reality. While I was at school, no one really ever approached me strictly and sat me down to lecture me, so I just kept going, without any push back.

It wasn’t until I went home for the summer and saw my family that I started getting “lectured.” Looking back, it was completely fair. I wasn’t in a rational state of mind because I’d malnourished my body for an entire semester. 

 I hadn’t done it intentionally, of course. I honestly didn’t realize what I was doing.  I just knew I wanted to be skinny. I saw girls who were skinnier than I was and they seemed perfectly healthy, so I thought I was, too. I thought as a runner, I “had” to be skinny.

The times my family pushed back, I felt personally attacked, and did not take it well.  I lashed out, I withdrew, and I came close to severing the most important relationships in my life Looking back, I feel awful, knowing that I put my family through hell; they basically were losing me. It seemed there was nothing they could do. I was down to 89 pounds at my worst.  

A turning point

There was one day that was sort of a turning point. I don’t remember many details of that day, but remember that I was given an ultimatum: Either go see a therapist, or don’t go back to Brevard to finish your senior year. Even in my horrible state of mind, I knew that I didn’t want to leave Brevard.

I began talking to my mom’s OB-GYN (I know, it seems an odd choice), and truthfully, she was absolutely wonderful.  Because of her, I am in full support of therapy. For me, it took talking to an outside person with an entirely unbiased and different perspective to start to shift my own perspective.

I’m no professional, but it seems that talking to someone OUTSIDE your normal reality about deep-seated personal fears and issues is so much easier  than trying to figure out how to explain it to people who are (seemingly) blinded by their caring of you. I was able to tell her things I’d never even realized about myself. 

I needed to get healthy. I loved running, and wanted to continue running long into my lifetime. That was NOT going to happen at the rate I was going; running OR a long lifetime. 

The road to recovery

My gynecologist introduced me to Myfitnesspal.com, and helped me set up an account with a plan to gain weight slowly so that I wouldn’t be as scared to eat the amount that the app told me to eat each day.

She played into my idiosyncratic tendency to rely on routine and schedules, and thank God it worked. I’ve always been an overachiever who wanted to tick all the boxes, complete every task. That mentality did not shift much with the rest of my behavior. 

I would enter my food each day, and have a snack as many times as I needed between meals to “hit my numbers.”  There were days that it was straight up HARD, but I had a goal. Most people tend to use a “cheat meal” on weekends, and I did too… but mine was the opposite; I’d ignore the numbers and eat as little as I wanted (still more than I used to, but not enough to feel stuffed to the brim). 

I remember talking to my dietician during one of our first meetings, and I asked if I had to stop running. I was genuinely scared to stop running.  Not scared of losing my identity as a runner, or at least, I don’t think… Scared of gaining weight. Scared of not knowing what to do with myself.  Scared of what might happen. The answer she gave me was music to my ears.

Knowing how important it would be to me to be able to have a constant to which to cling, she said no, I didn’t have to stop running.  Instead, just run less and maybe add some walking or biking for a while. Always make sure I factor that into Myfitnesspal and “make up for it.” 

A difficult journey

Eating to gain weight was HARD.  Not the hardest thing I’ve ever done (the Promiseland 50k++ has that role down pat), but I felt like I was eating SO much.  I never felt hungry, and honestly, I usually still don’t. I never was the kid who got hungry all the time or always wanted snacks growing up, so being in a situation where I had to force myself to eat was not pleasant. 

I KNEW, though, that I needed to. I had a plan. I counted calories and used Myfitnesspal to track the gains and meals. Having a system that I could visually see and input my progress kept me on track. 

The copious amount of support from my family helped too. They’d all get me snacks if I needed.  That summer, I was painting the porch for my parents, and I distinctly remember my sister (bless her sweet heart) bringing me a spoonful of peanut butter with some chocolate chips on top because I was “low” on fats and proteins for the day.  It made me kind of sad that foods I used to enjoy were hard to eat now; I didn’t like them as much, or maybe I trained myself not to like them, but I ate them anyway.  

Eating for fuel 

Eventually, once I was back at Brevard for my senior year, I moved into eating to fuel.  Eating to run, not just to gain weight. While this is NOT a mindset I encourage in the long term, it CAN be (and was, for me) a really good stepping stone.  Just like a marathon is one step after another; gaining, building, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is incremental.

While I was in this stage, I felt pretty good… I was putting in fuel either the equivalent or more than what my body was exerting.  I was getting to a healthy weight, and then was able to maintain. I graduated from Brevard in 2012, began working, and I signed up for my first marathon: The Asheville Marathon at the Biltmore House (2013), actually!  

I used Myfitnesspal strictly as it is intended for a long time.  In recent years, though, I’ve found myself wanting more. I wasn’t getting what I needed from the app; replacing all the calories from running was causing me to gain weight, and not in a healthy sense, at times.  I talked to a friend about Macronutrients, HIIT, and how our lifestyle needs change as we get older, so I decided to give it a try.

I began with a cut and reverse diet, incorporating HIIT, and still working on distance when in training for a race.  I was hooked. Not only was I able to start building muscle, gain speed and agility, but all of a sudden, so many foods I typically shied away from (even with Myfitnesspal) were no longer viewed as “bad” for me… I could rearrange my macros to suit what I wanted and needed to eat. 

Figuring out how to hit my macros each day became kind of like a game, a puzzle.  At first, it took a long time, and I was still very scared to eat out or experiment.  This would frustrate my family when we’d eat out or make plans. If the restaurant wasn’t in Myfitnesspal, I freaked out a little and had to find something similar to what I wanted.  This meant I had to find menus prior to eating anywhere, at least until I learned to estimate on the fly, which came over time.  

Please don’t take any of this as a professional opinion or advice; I’m still learning, I still track macros, incorporate HIIT workouts, and am in the process of a very slow cut and reverse diet to “reset” before the Asheville Marathon 2020!

While it might be logical to worry that a cut and reverse diet could trigger my Athletica Anorexia again (I’ve been told that I’ll always have it)), I genuinely don’t think it will.  My goal for this current cut and reverse leading into my next training cycle is to tone up, gain muscle mass, build speed, agility, and to reset my metabolism. 

A positive outcome and mindset

This whole experience, while not entirely positive, has had a positive outcome.  I’ve learned from it. I am SO different than that little college junior who didn’t know what to do with herself when she gave up soccer. 

Now, I know what my body needs. I know how to listen to my body, and I do NOT feel guilty when my body needs a rest day. Rest days mean I can perform better and work harder during workouts, optimizing every day.  Life, fitness and healthy living/eating is all about perspective, and it all starts with my heart and mind. For me, it took an outside perspective bluntly telling me I was destroying myself to get me to realize I needed instead, to learn about and love myself at any stage of fitness.  From there, the rest will fall into place.  

For those of us who want to learn how to really LIVE a healthy lifestyle (long term, not just a fad diet), it starts with learning.  Learn what your body needs. If that means you need to talk to someone more knowledgeable, that’s OKAY! We aren’t meant to be experts in every single thing.  That would be a rather boring existence.

As we learn, we embrace things differently. We incorporate new habits into our lifestyle, changing the old to make way for the fresh, brought by a new perspective.  Once we shift the way we think and perceive the world, we can literally do anything. 

Danielle is an Asheville Marathon & Half Ambassador. Read more about Danielle and the rest of our 2020 ambassadors by clicking here

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