Running into (and away from) an eating disorder: NIPR’s Sarah Delia

It’s always cool to discover a person is a runner. But NIPR radio host Sarah Delia’s revelation that she used to run cross country threw me for a loop.

NIPR’s Sarah Delia

She’d been quizzing me about my running experiences during a weight-loss interview on her “Midday Matters: Health 360” show. But I hadn’t pegged her as a runner, and I was instantly intimidated. What could I possibly tell her about running that she didn’t already know?

We moved on. But later I found myself wishing I could interview her. Did she still run, or had her cross country experiences “ruined” her ability to  enjoy running — a question raised in yesterday’s post?

Sarah’s story, it turns out, is way more complicated than I imagined. She does still run several days a week. But there was a time when she got too obsessed with racking up mileage and burning calories, enough so that she gave running a rest and sought help for what a therapist described as an eating disorder with “anorexic tendencies.”

“I was never, like, a skeleton, really,” she said last week when we got together for a chat at Starbucks. But she did go through a period where she routinely threw her school lunch away. And felt proud of herself afterward for exerting such self control.

It was during this time that she recalls trying on a dress for a homecoming dance that fit perfectly at the store, only to get looser and looser as the dance approached.

“Hmm, that’s weird,” she recalls her mom saying as she realized she’d have to take in the dress. But by the day of the dance, it had somehow gotten loose again.

Sarah’s running and dieting started at 15, after a checkup in which a doctor warned her that she was developing a weight problem.

She discovered she liked running, and she loved the way it made the pounds just melt off her body. She joined her Virginia high school’s cross  country team as a junior, in part because her boyfriend was going out for the team. At first she loved it. And she still doesn’t regret the experience, because a lot of good things came out of it.

“I was a really angst-y teen,” she says, wanting to please with good grades yet revealing a rebellious streak in her frequently dyed hair. It was nice to break out of her comfort zone and hang out with kids who were more popular than her usual crowd.

She also learned a lot about running, from how to deal with a crooked toe to what shoes work best for her. (She likes Asics.)

Still, fretting over races (she describes her high school career as “really, really OK”) and worrying that her body, even at its thinnest, didn’t fit the narrow, flat-chested form typical of the other girls on the team, took its toll.

“I would hear these skinny girls talk in the locker room about how they were getting fat,” she said. “And I’d think, ‘If they’re fat, then what am I?’”

Eventually, she says, putting too much emphasis on times, mileage and calories “sucked the joy out of running for me.” A fixation on numbers, she now realizes, “just manifests itself in a really negative way for me.”

After seeking therapy in college — “I realized this service was available and it would be someone I could talk to so I wouldn’t get on my friends’ nerves” — she eventually returned to running with a whole new attitude.

Instead of causing stress, running now relieves hers. As someone who spends her day on the airwaves, she loves to strap on her Ipod and head out on the Greenway for what she calls her “Sarah time.”

“My relationship with running is a lot better now,” she says. “I try to be kind to myself when I’m running. I don’t wear a watch. It’s OK if I need to walk… It’s definitely about the experience, and not the time. It’s a mental release.”

As for her eating disorder, she feels like she has that under control. She’s been a vegetarian since age 18 — she’s now 25 — and she loves to cook, experimenting with organic ingredients.

“I figure I may eat too much sometimes, but at least it‘s healthy food,” she says.

Still, she‘s aware of her triggers. Sometimes when she’s stressed out she’ll suddenly realize it’s 5 p.m. and she hasn’t eaten anything that day. She doesn’t freak. She just reminds herself to eat something.

“I think it (the eating disorder) will always be a part of my life,” she says.

But so is running. Not races. Not long distances. She limits herself to 4 miles to avoid falling into a 6-7 mile a day habit that continued long after cross country season was over, a habit she associates with a time when she was running herself into the ground.

Now she’s even started to think of running as a form of transportation, dropping off her rent check or stopping by to see friends during a run.
“This story,” she says, “has a happy ending.”

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