A s Boulder-native Lize Brittin began recovering from a lifelong battle with anorexia, the best days were when she realized she hadn’t thought about her body.
While in the throes of the illness, Brittin writes in her book, “Training on Empty,” thoughts about her body, her weight and food consumed her mind constantly.
“Oddly enough, I am happier with my body and more accepting of it now than when I was at my sickest,” Brittin writes. “At 80 pounds, I constantly felt fat. Today, I sometimes forget my body.”
Brittin, who will turn 46 in January, was a standout runner at Fairview High in the early 1980s, winning back-to-back cross-country state championships in 1983 and 1984.
She went on to race at Brigham Young University, and then the University of Colorado-Boulder, to be near her old high school coach.
At 16, she set the record for the 14.3-mile, 7,700-vertical-feet Pikes Peak Ascent race with a time of 2 hours, 39 minutes and 44 seconds. But the 5-foot-3, 92-pound teen collapsed after crossing the finish line. She recovered 45 minutes later after receiving oxygen.
But while she was setting records, on the inside Brittin struggled with control, self-esteem, body issues and depression. Those are some of the same issues that women — and men — face every day when they are bombarded with confusing messages about their bodies and sexuality, Brittin said.
Coached to win, not to live
In the book, Brittin describes how joining the cross-country team in middle school exacerbated her body image issues.
Her coach encouraged her to be thin because for a time, it made her faster. But Brittin writes, “it’s a fine line between being race fit and being too thin.” Once she passed the point of healthy, she was plagued by injuries, and had no energy. Her race times increased, and she stopped winning.
Once Brittin became dangerously thin, her coach couldn’t stand by her or support her through her illness, she writes. The book describes how he gave her an ultimatum: get healthy or you’re off the team.
Looking back, Brittin said she can see her coach’s negative influence on her self-esteem. Now, Brittin advocates for changes in the way athletes and coaches interact, starting with no talk of weight or size, other than how to eat healthy.
“It’s difficult to know how to intervene,” said former Fairview cross country and track coach Joanne Ernst in the book. (Ernst took over after Brittin graduated.) “There is new science today that helps confront the issue, but the information is still changing.”
Though being thin may help a runner race faster for a while, it’s not sustainable, Brittin says. In fact, many of the women she raced with in high school dealt with some kind of eating disorder, which ended their running careers prematurely.
“If coaches could take that time and say, ‘What is going to get my athlete to the next level in the healthiest way possible?’ rather than, ‘Oh wow, she’s running well so I’m just going to exploit it,'” Brittin said. “There are certain times where it’s more important to keep that person healthy than to have them run well.”
Removing the stigma
Brittin says she hasn’t stepped on a scale in at least 15 years — a sign to her that she’s on the way to full recovery. She still runs, but around an hour a day instead of the dozens of miles she ran almost compulsively during the worst of her anorexia.
The book describes every agonizing moment during Brittin’s fight against anorexia, from her time in rehabilitation centers to her recurring bouts of bulimia — eating more than the allotted amount of food she gave herself that day, then forcing herself to throw up.
Brittin speaks freely and easily about the darkest moments in her life. Writing the book was cathartic, but she said she’s most interested in how it can help others open up about their struggles with food.
“I’m trying to move into a direction that shows one, it’s possible to recover, and two, that we don’t have to be embarrassed about what we’ve done,” she said. “For those of us who can’t self-regulate when we’re over-stressed, we tend to turn to addiction. It’s nothing to be ashamed about.”
Under the guise of being healthy
Here in Boulder, Brittin said she worries that she’s surrounded by athletes who have some form of addiction — exercising too much, training too hard or eating too little.
It’s that type of environment that prompts healthy individuals to head toward unhealthy behaviors, she said.
“If you’re not super fit or some kind of hardcore athlete and you’re just normal, that’s somehow not acceptable,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are struggling who are fooling themselves into thinking it’s OK. You see a lot of people who are over-training or doing too much yoga, and they sort of have this guise that it’s healthy and it may not be.”
Brittin’s mother, Janine Brittin, described how difficult it can be for young people to sort out messages from their coaches, teachers, friends and parents about exercise and weight because they are “on a different psychological radar,” she said.
Lize Brittin’s eating disorder began when she was just 12 years old. It took her decades to recover, in part because she had to discover how to be healthy, her mother said.
“In the end it is up to the individual,” Janine Brittin said. “And there is the rub, because it is very difficult to arrive at this kind of discovery. Only when Lize perceived that she was involved in her own recovery did her health begin to improve.”
–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.