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Anorexia is a runner's gnarliest opponent

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Ronshaugen: 'This isn't a problem that's fixed by just eating something.' - TIM BERGSTEN
  • Tim Bergsten
  • Ronshaugen: 'This isn't a problem that's fixed by just eating something.'

The moment of surrender did not come easily for Julie Ronshaugen. She had no semblance of a real diet, no basic nourishment. Her body melted away, but, hey, she could manage. She was a nurse, an Army veteran, the single mother of three, a loved member of the running community. Dammit, she'd beat this thing.

It took the very real fear of dying to convince her to seek help.

Through much of the summer of 2016, Julie, 48, consumed almost nothing. A handful of peanuts would get her through the day. She realized her choices were not sustainable.

"I wasn't a happy person," she says. "I would promise my kids that I would try harder. But the harder I tried the more I failed. I'd go days without eating and never feel hungry."

Her therapist set her straight. Julie suffered from anorexia. She was on a suicidal path. "I knew then that I had no idea what I was doing anymore," she says. "That was when I kind of freaked out. I told myself I didn't want to die, I just wanted the pain to stop. I was trying so hard to eat. I knew how many calories I needed to stay alive. I had a great plan and never made it happen. I would get so frustrated missing my calorie count on one day that I would give up on the other.

There are many reasons that a human body forfeits the urge for nourishment. For Julie it was the deep impact of loss that left her battling depression. Her mother passed away in 2002, she endured two miscarriages followed by divorce in 2009. She'd been adopted at 7 months old. "The first thing I knew about life was being given up," she says. "My depression is deeply driven by the thought that I'm never going to be good enough, no matter how hard I try."

Food became the weapon she chose in the battle with herself. "Between my depression and the anorexia, I was a ticking bomb."

Anorexia is the No. 1 killer among all mental disorders, with about a 5 percent mortality rate, according to statistics compiled by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa. Suicide accounts for 20 percent of anorexia deaths. Anorexia occurs with undernourishment, but the cure is more complex than simply eating.

Ronshaugen: 'This isn't a problem that's fixed by just eating something.' - TIM BERGSTEN
  • Tim Bergsten
  • Ronshaugen: 'This isn't a problem that's fixed by just eating something.'

"The reasons that someone gets to that point are so personal and so different," says Stephanie Hill, Julie's therapist, who spoke with her permission.

It's not always about creating a perfect image for the world to see. "It's often a reflection of how someone feels about themselves on the inside. Her [Julie's] disorder serves the purpose of disconnecting from emotion. That's why she loses her appetite. As she does deeper work on the things she has not fully addressed, yet, she will not need to disconnect."

Julie's anorexia was not linked to running. She doesn't run for her self image. She runs to battle her depression and to stay connected to friends. "It's inexpensive therapy," she says.

That isn't always the case, however. Running, cycling ... unhealthy participation in almost any sport can lead to an eating disorder. Jenn Sommer, a nutrition manager at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, says that 18 to 20 percent of college-age female athletes struggle with their diet.

"I think in running we think about race weight, and we think we should look a certain way and weigh a certain weight," Sommer says. "Eating disorders are pretty prevalent in the running population."

Before making the decision to seek help, Julie had lost one-third of her body weight. Before she began treatment at the Eating Recovery Center on Sept. 28, her youngest son told her that "her happy was gone."

"I went from eating a handful of peanuts a day to eating three meals and three snacks every day while in treatment," Julie says.

She remained in treatment for two months and put weight on quickly. After 10 days her family visited and her son noticed that "there was more of me to hug," she says.

Julie told her story as we sat and looked over the Garden of the Gods and snow-covered Pikes Peak. I asked what she would like to tell the folks in the running community. Her eyes filled with tears.

"This isn't a problem that's fixed by just eating something," she says. "If it was that easy there'd be a lot of therapists and dietitians out of work. It's okay to ask for help and it's okay to offer help if you think someone is struggling."

She learned that there is a 90 percent rate of relapse following treatment. "I'm trying so hard to fall into that 10 percent that don't."

The more she shares her story, the easier her day-to-day living becomes.

"Holding it in, I feel like I have this lie that I'm not telling," she says. "None of it is awful or horrible. It's just ... shit happens and people do what they have to do to survive."

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