By Kelly Tyrrell
I first started writing this last year, when Oiselle hosted its inaugural National Sports Bra Squad day, a day intended to encourage all women to embrace their shirtless bodies and show the world that strength comes in many forms. But it’s taken me a while to work up the confidence to post it.
For a long time, I felt too self-conscious to run in just my sports bra, and #sportsbrasquad day forced me into some introspection. I realized there used to be a time that I didn’t think twice about running without a shirt on in the heat of the summer, unless I thought I would scandalize some children or elderly folks.
Ironically, that’s about when things were their worst.
For this story, I need to go back, though how far back I’m not really sure. So, bear with me. Maybe it’s best to start in 2012, when I learned, at the age of 28, that I had fractured my right hip.
It wasn’t an accident, or trauma. It was because of running.
At first I thought: “I have an unhealthy relationship with running.” Because obviously I had just overdone it, right? But a 28-year-old doesn’t just break her hip because she ran two miles too many. In fact, at that age, I should have been at or approaching my peak bone density, and running is, after all, a great load-bearing exercise for helping thwart the deterioration our bones experience with age.
That’s when I had to reckon with the reality that I had an unhealthy relationship with myself.
From the earliest age I can remember, I was a perfectionist. I learned to write my name at age 3 because I wanted my library card. I got perfect scores on school assignments, beat myself up when I didn’t feel I’d played my best in soccer games, and mastered playing music. Then, in my early 20s, all those years of planning and perfecting came crashing down. Hard.
First, I left a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania, coming to grips with the fact that, for me, it was the wrong place at the wrong time. Then, not a year later, my high school sweetheart, whom I’d also gone to all four years of college with and moved with from Florida to Philadelphia, broke off our engagement without warning. It was just six months before our wedding day.
Many things transpired during this time, but two very important things coincided. During the early fog of the breakup, I lost my sense of direction. There was no up or down or forward or back. There was just my friend’s couch and her Harry Potter audiobooks helping me fall asleep each night. And there wasn’t much space for food.
The other is that I started running. It helped me cope with the nothingness I felt. And the everything I felt, too.
In middle school, I decided I was fat. I was transitioning from childhood to young womanhood and my body was changing. As that perfectionist kid, I wanted my body to be just right and I got so concerned about what it looked like on the outside that I started creating rules about what I was putting inside. Arbitrary rules, like no more than 3 grams of fat per meal.
By high school, I would eat no food at all if I was headed to the beach with friends that day, at least until after the swimsuit portion was over. Definitely no chips or candies or those Little Debbie snack cakes my brother loved so much. However, as a soccer player my weight eventually leveled off and I was healthy enough, thanks to muscle and a sports-induced appetite, but my mindset never really changed.
So, in my early twenties, in the wake of a jolting breakup, the inability to eat, and my newfound pastime, I lost weight. Quickly. People immediately took note, out loud, and it made me feel good about my new appearance. If I looked better with eight fewer pounds, then how about 10? Once I hit 10, what would I look like with 15 less on my 5’2″* frame?
The only way to find out was to run more and eat less. I was also lifting weights at the gym for two hours a day, and working a part-time job on top of my full-time one. And in the dizzying weeks and months that followed, as I explored life as a young, newly single woman, it was easy to skip meals, drink more than I should, and revel in this skin that made me feel sexy and desirable. I got attention from men, and women, wherever I went. My times got faster and faster in training runs as I heaped on more miles while consuming fewer calories. I was powerful and in control.
Ultimately, my hair started to fall out and I developed a bald spot on the crown of my head. My clavicles could slice the wind. Size 0 clothes were baggy. But still, I had a stubborn bit of flesh at the tops of my hips (years of soccer led to sizeable muscles on the tops of my hip bones, where most of us know as the “muffin-top” area). In fact, at the height of my loss, while visiting my best friend from high school, she grabbed at this area, pinching the flesh, and said: “At least you still have this.”
It signaled to me that as long as I still had visible “fat” on my body, I was not doing enough.
Then, I woke up. Or so I thought. I met my now-husband, James, and realized that I didn’t want to bring all this emotional baggage into my relationship. I realized all the restrictions and fears and rules were sucking the joy out of life. So I strived to do better, and I did. It just wasn’t enough. Despite gaining about five pounds back, I still fractured my hip in 2012. All those years of restricting calories had depleted my body of estrogen and my bones of the Vitamin D and calcium they needed to be strong and healthy. Over the course of so many runs, the neck of my right femur threw in the towel.
What followed were months of hobbling around on crutches and no physical activity whatsoever. That led to weeks of physical therapy, at a cost of hundreds of dollars. And, it meant seeing a nutritionist, who, upon taking my body fat reading several weeks after my fracture (which meant several weeks of no exercise) gasped: “I can’t even imagine where you were before!”
In my mind, that sounded like winning. But it was hard to feel like I’d won. My doctor diagnosed me with Female Athlete Triad – a combination of disordered eating, bone loss and missed periods.**
Running was and still is an important part of my life. At that point, it had long been my escape and my release, my source of pride and accomplishment and my control over whatever life threw at me. And then it was taken away. Not being able to experience that love and freedom was incredibly challenging. I was glum, apathetic and anxious in the months that followed. James tried to encourage me to take up new hobbies with my newfound time, but I was disinterested. I didn’t feel like myself.
It took more than a year, but eventually, I healed. In body and in mind. With my nutritionist I equipped myself with new “rules” for eating, focusing on eating enough calories and fat and protein to sustain my level of activity. She helped me overcome my fear that eating enough to be healthy would also make me “fat.” And I had to simply learn to be ok with a “healthy” body. I am lucky for what this body does for me.
I started revising this blog post a couple weeks ago, but still, it sat unpublished. Then, Allie Kiefer, an elite runner for Oiselle, began talking more about her weight, and how gaining has helped her become a better runner. Her interview with Runner’s World made the rounds among my running friends and I decided it was time to share this post.
Because gaining weight helped me, too, become a better runner. I have shaved 9-minutes off of my marathon time since coming back from my stress fracture. I have run multiple ultramarathons and I more often than not find the podium. My speed workouts are faster, my stamina and endurance workouts are stronger, and I don’t spend my days feeling hollow and empty, like so many days before. I run many more weekly miles than ever.
Today, I run in a sports bra when it’s hot and I want to, and most days, I feel just fine about it. Some days, I’m still self-conscious. But I imagine we all are, and I credit #sportsbrasquad for helping me become more comfortable showing some skin.
So, the next time you see me out there with a little bit of a jiggle here or there, remember that I fought hard to get this body healthy again. That it took work to go from protruding bones and bald spots to a strong body and a healthy frame. But I also hope that, no matter what, we all feel comfortable with who we are and get out there. Life’s too short to let our body image defeat us.
*I used to be 5’2″, but because I malnourished myself for so long, I developed osteopenia, which means I have less bone material than I should. It’s sort of like pre-osteoporosis. This caused me to shrink nearly an inch. I am now 5’1 1/4.”
**My good friend David Despain made me aware of a more inclusive term for Female Athlete Triad, called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). It recognizes that men can also suffer from intentional or unintentional deficiencies in metabolic energy – aka, we burn more calories than we put back. Body image issues are not the domain of just one gender or sex.
Kelly has been running since 2007 and has been known to use running as an excuse to travel and visit with people she loves. She began running ultramarathons in 2015 with the encouragement of a friend and has been hooked ever since. Kelly ran her first 50-mile race in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and if she didn’t live in Wisconsin, she’d spend all her time in the high places. When not running, Kelly works as a science writer to help make science more accessible to more people. She also loves to ride her bike, climb, ski, read, drink coffee and craft beer, and spend time with friends and family. She’s on Instagram @prairiekat7, Twitter @kellyperil and on the web at https://katintheprairie.com/