Photo Credit: Tyler Copeland/Flrunners
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MileSplit is publishing a film centered around the issues of performance anxiety, body image and eating disorders in track and field. Earlier this year, we met with three figures in the sport at both the professional and high school levels, in order to better understand and profile the truths of the individuals who endure these diagnosis' and combat issues surrounding them. Over the next three days, we will also publish personal essays by them. Today, we hear from Timber Creek (FL) senior Amber Schulz. An Orlando native, Schulz has been open and honest about her struggles with an eating disorder, even as she's maintained a rigid schedule and a competitive slate as a high-level distance runner. With the regional championships approaching in Florida, she's looking to qualify for the state championships -- and maybe win a title -- one last time before arriving at High Point University next fall. We thank her for being a part of this project.
"Getting to this point has been more challenging than any race or workout could ever be. But it's all been worth it. I've dealt with so many injuries and setbacks, but they've taught me to be a more resilient version of myself."
High Point University signee
I've always been online. I've shared my journey on social media since the beginning. I have always wanted people to come to my page and feel inspired to work toward their goals and be who they were. I have always felt like I was different and I wanted people who felt the same to know that it wasn't something they needed to change, it was their super power.
I posted my food, workouts and daily life. I even started a Youtube channel.
I feel like social media is what really kickstarted my eating disorder recovery. I met friends online who shared their journeys and realized they didn't have to stay trapped in the vicious cycle I was in. Their stories inspired me to get help. It was like a light switch had gone off. I finally understood that if I wanted to be a good athlete and live a fulfilled life, I needed to change. I was tired of being weak.
The strong girl who loved beating the boys was now struggling to hold her own. I wasn't becoming the athlete I wanted to be, but instead I was risking my long-term health for what I thought would bring short-term success.
Both of my parents were athletes growing up and maybe that's why I've always loved to compete. Part of me thinks it's in my blood.
My mom is a life-long competitive runner and my dad was a pro bodybuilder. As soon as I could walk, my parents put me into kid's races and I would run as fast as my little legs could take me. I loved it. For as long as I can remember, I've been running and racing. I still have a cork board full of kids' run ribbons. I played soccer and did triathlons throughout elementary school, but running was always my favorite. I loved being fast. I consistently beat the boys during PE, no matter what sport we were playing. The competitive drive has always been in me. Although there have been many times it became toxic, I'm convinced it's also the thing that saved my life.
I had a healthy relationship with food and my body during elementary school. I was outgoing, loud, strong, energetic, and ready to conquer the world. I wrote down my goals on my mirror, eager to achieve them all. I still hold the mile record for fifth graders at my elementary school with a 6:04. But it wasn't until middle school things started to change.
During seventh grade, I started taking running a lot more seriously. I idolized pro athletes, my mom and girls that were faster than me. I noticed differences in my body compared to others. I started noticing that I ate more than my friends. I hated the way my body looked and became consumed with the idea of looking like the pro athletes I followed online, with ripped abs and a slim figure. I began eating what I perceived as healthy, but in reality I was starving myself. I cut out almost all food groups, only ate at certain times, never ate out with friends and would deprive myself of the foods I used to love. Including my favorite chocolate cake for my birthday. I thought that the less I ate, the better. In two months I lost almost 15 pounds. I was still feeling good during all of my runs and races. But my parents, family and friends all began to notice and ask questions.
My dad explained the importance of fueling my body for running and life. So I doubled what I was eating and started fueling my body correctly. I began to understand why food was important. I gained weight. I got faster, felt stronger and was happier. I got second at the middle school state championships and fifth at the 2017 Junior Olympics, where I medaled for the first time. The competitive drive inside of me was still hungry for more. I had goals to be the best and losing weight was what I thought would get me there.
I picked my body apart again. That day, I decided to lose weight again. This time, I knew what I was doing, but I didn't care.
I entered high school, and my parents got divorced. I moved in with my mom 15 minutes away and switched schools, a different school than my friends. I had a reputation as the "fast freshman," which at first was true. I ran a 17:56 for 5,000 meters and was the regional champ. I remember the grueling hours of working out, of feeling dizzy but refusing to stop. Every night I'd lay in bed checking the steps on my watch, calculating what I ate that day. I'd lay there for hours trying to quiet the noise in my head and stomach. This made me feel in control, even though I was completely out of control.
I remember going to my chiropractor. He stared me up and down, looking at me with sadness and saying, "You've lost a lot of weight." This was the moment my mom realized how much weight I'd lost. They made me get on a scale and my mom began to cry.
At school, I ate lunch alone and had almost no friends. In order to achieve my goals of looking and performing like an elite athlete, I isolated myself and kept to my rigid schedule. My brain was in a constant haze, fixated on getting faster, always thinking about what I'd allow myself to eat next.
It's hard to think about who I'd become during this time because it wasn't truly me. I judged everyone and was disgusted by people if they questioned my behavior. I felt attacked when people asked if I was okay. Of course I was okay, I would say to myself. I was running faster than ever.
At least that's what I wanted to believe. If someone mentioned my eating or weight loss, a sense of panic sent through my body. I'd immediately avoid the topic. The Amber filled with passion and love had been chained up by an eating disorder. It convinced her that the only thing that mattered was running fast and staying as small as possible.
I remember going to my chiropractor. He stared me up and down, looking at me with sadness and saying, "You've lost a lot of weight." This was the moment my mom realized how much weight I'd lost. They made me get on a scale and my mom began to cry. My parents decided to make an appointment to get my blood work done. Once we got the results, it was clear that I was malnourished. I sat in the doctor's office, my heart pounding as the doctor came in with a concerned look on his face. He sat down in front of me. My mom looked over at his computer. After a few moments, he looked up and told me I was classified as anorexic.
I'd grown three inches and lost more than 20 pounds. I was somehow still convinced I was OK. I did an excellent job convincing others the same. I remember sitting in my room as my mom knocked on the door in tears. I could see the desperation in her eyes as she tried to explain to me my behavior was not normal. But she was wrong. She didn't understand that my goals were my ultimate priority.
But I couldn't finish track workouts. Race after race, my body began to break down. I remember feeling like my body would shatter at any moment. I was so wrapped up in winning that somehow I always managed to pull through on race day. This made it easy to hide behind a good performance and a smile, but looking back, I see how obvious it was.
I think the scariest thing is that no one ever actually made me stop.
At the Florida State Cross Country Championships, the damage caught up to me. I felt broken. I ran 90 seconds slower than my 5K season best of 17:56. But I decided to keep my season going and ran at the Foot Locker South Regional. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I was at the peak of my eating disorder and all I remember is the frigid cold against my frail body and the pangs in my stomach.
I ate a salad to fuel that race. My body barely had enough energy to stand and keep myself warm, let alone race 3.1 miles with some really strong athletes. After the race, I remember being flooded by followers from my Instagram telling me what an inspiration I was. But why? I was miserable and people were telling me they looked up to my positivity. I felt like a hypocrite. That was the first time I admitted to myself that I had a problem. I agreed to go to therapy.
At first, therapy didn't do much. I knew I had a problem, but I only wanted to do the bare minimum to fix it. During track season, I started eating more ... but just enough to maintain my low weight. Even though I had the ripped abs I wanted, I was the least confident I'd ever been and my eyes seemed lost when I looked in the mirror. I was no longer Amber. I was the product of fear.
I performed incredibly well during track. Race announcers and officials called me a "freshman phenom." I placed third at states in the 3,200m and then finished third in the 3K at the USATF Junior Olympics. Fast forward to sophomore year, and I'd gained a little weight back, got fourth at states in cross country and was the third-fastest underclassmen in the state. I was seeing a sports physiologist who helped me see how irrational my fears were. Just like it'd happened before, I quickly slipped back into my old habits and lost all my progress. Track season started, then it ended promptly because of COVID.
Within a few months, my weight was restored. I began running faster, but more importantly I was the happiest I'd ever been. I still struggled with comparing my body to others and my old self. I remember feeling homesick for weeks, because of my changing body and me not recognizing who I saw in the mirror. But I channeled my competitive drive to recover and become the strongest version of myself.
Recovery became a competition to me ... one that I would not lose. I wanted to recover not only for myself but to show other struggling people that they can recover. I wrote a note to myself: "Would you rather be remembered as the girl who broke down to look a certain way? Or remembered as the bad ass runner who was confident, strong, determined, and had a zest for life?" I kept this note in my drawer.
After the race, I remember being flooded by followers from my Instagram telling me what an inspiration I was. But why? I was miserable and people were telling me they looked up to my positivity. I felt like a hypocrite. That was the first time I admitted to myself that I had a problem. I agreed to go to therapy.
I'm 18 now. I've won a state title in cross country and I'm committed to run for a NCAA Division I program. I've re-found the little Amber I once was. To me, it was beautiful to watch myself form into a much wiser version of the girl that I knew I was before my eating disorder. Recovery has shown me how wonderful life can be. I was able to travel to Oregon this past fall. I attended a running camp where I created memories and friendships I will carry throughout the rest of my life. I also traveled with my team to a running camp where our bond grew stronger than ever. I even went skydiving and shark diving.
I've been able to be present with the people who mean the most to me, and yes, I have even eaten the chocolate cake I used to love. My eating disorder would have never allowed me to do that.
Getting to this point has been more challenging than any race or workout could ever be. But I keep telling myself that it's all worth it. I've dealt with so many injuries and setbacks, but each of them has taught me to be a more resilient version of myself.
A strong mind and positive mindset are the foundation for any successful athlete. The same can be said for leading a fulfilling life. You can't run fast and have longevity in the sport if you neglect your body. I've had to go through some pretty dark times to realize this. At the worst times, I believed that my worth was based on my looks and performance on the track. I now realize that running is what I do and not who I am and my eating disorder is part of my story, but it is not my whole story and it is not a part of my future. My strong support system helped me realize this.
The running world can be a toxic place that promotes shallow comparisons, but we're all writing our stories, on entirely different pages and chapters.
So remember the question I did: What do you want to be remembered for? Would you rather be remembered as the person who broke down to look a certain way? Or do you want to be remembered as the badass runner and PERSON who was confident, strong, determined and had a zest for life?
Timber Creek '22
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