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ADVENTURES IN FOOD AND FITNESS

Passion for running turns into an eating disorder

Therapy helped young woman reset her attitude toward running

Monday, October 15, 2012 - 12:01 am

Northeast Indiana Public Radio host Sarah Delia loves to run.

But there was a time when the former high school cross country runner got so obsessed with mileage and calories that she sought help for what a therapist described as an eating disorder with “anorexic tendencies.”

“I would hear these skinny girls talk in the locker room about how they were getting fat,” says Delia, now 25. “And I'd think, 'If they're fat, then what am I?' ”

But Delia doesn't regret her cross country career. And running is now one of the things that helps keep those old impulses in check.

“This story,” she says, “has a happy ending.”

Delia, who describes herself as “a really angst-y teen” with good grades and dyed hair, started running and dieting at 15 after a doctor warned she might be developing a weight problem. She loved the way jogging seemed to make the pounds just melt off her body.

She joined her Herndon, Va., high school's cross country team as a junior, in part because her boyfriend was going out for the team.

It was fun to hang out with kids who were more popular than her usual crowd, and she was learning a lot about running. But fretting over races and worrying that her body, even at its thinnest, didn't fit the narrow, flat-chested form of her teammates “sucked the joy out of running for me,” she says.

Delia started throwing away her school lunches — and felt proud of herself for exerting such self control. After the season, she kept up a grueling workout schedule, feeling tense if she didn't log 6 or 7 miles a day.

“I was never, like, a skeleton, really,” she says.

But she does remember trying on a dress for a 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.

By the time she moved on to James Madison University, Delia was beginning to realize that putting too much emphasis on numbers — times, mileage, calories — “just manifests itself in a really negative way for me.”

Realizing her school offered therapy services, she decided to get help, figuring “it would be someone I could talk to so I wouldn't get on my friends' nerves.”

And she gave running a rest.

Delia cites a book her therapist gave her, “The Body Project,” by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, as helping her learn to appreciate the variety of body types instead of shooting for some unattainable ideal.

Eventually she returned to running with a whole new attitude. Instead of causing stress, it now helps relieve hers.

“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. A vegetarian since age 18, she now 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 on a particularly stressful day she'll realize it's 5 p.m. and she hasn't eaten anything yet. 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. Lately she's even started to think of it as a form of transportation, dropping off her rent check or stopping by to see friends.

No races, though. And she limits her runs to 4 miles to avoid getting obsessed.

“I have no idea what my mile time is,” she says.

And that's just the way she likes it.

Tanya Isch Caylor, a News-Sentinel copy editor, blogs on diet and fitness at www.90in9.wordpress.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.