The body is an amazing machine: reclaiming my body through ultra running

Posted 14/12/2018

A few months ago I ran my first ultra-marathon. An ultra-marathon is any run longer than a marathon. In my case, being my very first one, it was comparatively short. Still, for me, it was a great achievement.

During the summer of 1998, 20 years ago, I was on a holiday with the local volleyball team in which I had been playing for a few years. I have very random memories of that holiday. A distant one, though, from the very last day, stuck with me all these years. I remember standing with everyone else by some ping pong tables where an afternoon snack had been laid out for us. I remember deciding, at that point, that I was not going to have part of it and I would lose some weight before starting middle school in September.

That thought had been triggered by a series of small events (a mock catwalk; a tight, childish swimsuit among older girls wearing bikinis; feeling isolated; etc) that happened during that holiday and that at that time I did not think much of. I was a healthy, normal child at that point, living in a relatively remote area in Northern Italy. I enjoyed simple activities in the outdoors; I did not have a phone or a computer and, definitely had never heard before of eating disorders.

As you might guess, from that summer afternoon, things slowly spiralled down, fed by other events (beginning of middle school with new classmates; my first period I did not know anything about; the first boyfriend…) and exactly a year later I was lying in a hospital bed of a psychiatric department (as said, eating disorders were not well known at that point in rural Italy, so there were not many specific structures to cure them) where I had been admitted with a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. That was going to be just the first of several hospitalizations. The following eight years, between 1999 and 2007, saw me going in and out of hospitals and rehab centres, force feeding, intravenous therapy, taking lots of pills to stabilise the mood, cure depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, etc… all kinds of psychotherapy, art therapy, garden therapy; losing weight, putting on weight, low blood pressure, osteoporosis… At one point I even lost sensitivity in a calf and had an epileptic seizure.  

But the body is an amazing machine, and, probably against my will at times, it fought through everything I was throwing at it. And I am so grateful it did.

And after all what it had gone through, after the high and the lows, this amazing machine that is my body has bounced back and, a few months back, carried me through a run up and down hills to the finish line.

For someone like me, with such a long history of anorexia nervosa behind me, exercising is a tricky affair and, unlike people who never experienced that, I can never lower the guard. I have been extremely lucky to have found a brilliant therapist a few years ago who, when I started training for the run, helped me stay focused on where I wanted to go, rather than slipping back in the not-so-good old habits.  Following her suggestion, when I started running I sought the help of a coach who gave me a training plan detailing how much and for how long I had to run every week. I trusted him and I knew that that was good for me. A nutritionist helped me see the (intentional?) flaws in my nutrition. I knew while I was training at very high intensity that once again I was toying around with anorexic thoughts, and my brain was once again divided between following those voices or shutting them down. It was not easy to go out and ask someone to put more food on my plate, but I knew that was the right thing to do. And that I did.

I did it first of all because I did not want to lose all the beautiful things that I had achieved after my physical recovery: a PhD, exciting working experiences, new friends, physical and mental independence, my parent’s wellbeing, and, above all, a loving husband who never saw that dark side of my past.

But I also did it for myself. I did it as I wanted to keep on running and do something amazing with my amazing body and wonderful free mind. Because the body and the mind are the two intertwined elements of the most amazing machine, capable of incredible things if we treat it with the respect that it deserves, if we feed it and care for it properly.

As I was running my last miles, I thought how great it felt to run and just enjoy it, smiling at fellow runners and doing it just for the sake of it. It was in that moment that I heard my inner self shouting: “We will never go back!”

Contributed by Roberta