NEDAwareness Week Day 7: Welcome to the Ninth Lane
I wanted gloves. It was a cold Saturday morning when we came together, and my fingers were pressed tightly within my thin sleeves. Jacket gloves, some would say. We were meeting by a nearby trail, a good friend of mine and a new friend. She was the first one there, also shivering. Small talk ensued until we saw Heather running down the trail, ponytail swinging. Hellos were exchanged, and watches chimed in unison. We started running. Sparse chatter evolved into a chorus of “Yes! Me too!” Hands slipped out of sleeves, and the pace quickened with excitement. Within a few miles, Lane Nine was born.
There’s something powerful about community. Shared experiences and passions have an extraordinary effect on the human spirit. The people you choose to surround yourself with shift the human experience from a robotic display to a tangible, authentic adventure.
On that chilly Saturday morning, we embarked on an adventure.
Shivering over warm mugs of coffee, the conversations continued. A common thread was deeply embedded in each of our lives: Female Athlete Triad – and a willingness to talk about it.
Female Athlete Triad (the triad) is a syndrome of three interrelated conditions: energy deficiency, menstrual irregularity/amenorrhea, and bone loss. Energy deficiency, often via food restriction or obsessive exercising, typically precedes the other conditions. A lack of fuel leads to irregular (or nonexistent) periods. Menstrual and hormonal irregularity leads to bone loss. Bone loss leads to injury. And injury leads to less running, more mental anguish, and a greater desire for control. At least, this has been my experience.
I was introduced to the triad in high school. I was a cross country runner and was diagnosed with a tibial stress fracture five days before what would have been my first meet. We trained hard over the summer, and I thrived under the systematic and predictable environment. I ran well, and the sport became my identity. Until I lost it.
Injuries rob you of normalcy and routine. They force you to relinquish control and redefine your identity. I was not prepared for this. This initial stress fracture sparked an ongoing battle between my body and my mind. I lost my greatest expression of control and sought that same relief in other areas of life. Restricting food intake – something I had already adopted in an effort to get lean and fast – shifted from a satisfying practice to an addictive, compulsory ritual. Running was my escape, my outlet from the stresses of high school; without it I was forced to be still, to face my fears and insecurities. My harsh internal voice gained strength and courage. I became fixated on how I looked in the mirror. Miles ran became meals earned, and a missed workout left me frantic, stressed, and anxious.
This was my first of nine stress fractures. I flirted with anorexia. I tried – and failed – to purge. My bone density plummeted, and I was diagnosed with osteoporosis by 16. I didn’t have a regular period until I was 22. I played charades with various therapists and nutritionists, nodding and smiling while silently calculating the number of calories I’d permit myself at lunch. The triad followed me through cross country, collegiate triathlon, and years of road racing.
After college, my priorities shifted. I stepped away from competitive racing and found the courage and community I needed to heal. Running remains my sanctuary; however, instead of dictating my life, it is part of my recovery. It’s amazing how impactful the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other can be. Running provided irreplaceable friendships. It taught me to listen to my body, respect my limits, and prioritize rest and recovery. It continues to carry me to mountain tops, countless sunrises, and multiple finish lines. My journey with the triad is far from over – I continue to cope with the aftermath of my previous decisions hormonally, mentally, and emotionally – but I am recovering. I am replacing control with gratitude, fear with grit, and insecurity with rebellion.
I have spent a lot of time in the ninth lane, in this undefined state of mind so many of us run in. It’s rarely talked about, but it’s always quick to make its presence known. It pulls you in with the allure of faster miles and fewer pounds; with the control and comfort in restriction; with fear, insecurity, and that all-too-familiar inadequacy found in front of the mirror.
I still find myself in this lane, but, I’m no longer alone. None of us are. And it’s in this shared experience, community, and act of placing one foot in front of the other that I’ve found the courage to heal.
This project is our opportunity to shine light on the ninth lane, to empower women through community, education, and advocacy. It is our opportunity to educate active girls and women on the issues of the triad – on the long term effects of missed periods, chronic fatigue, and under-fueling for our bodies’ needs. This is why, while wishing for gloves on a chilly Saturday morning, we did more than finish the week’s long run. We found the courage to share our stories. We stood together with gratitude, grit, and rebellion. We discovered the power of community. We brought light to the ninth lane.