To mark Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2017, parkrun Marketing Executive Tom Fairbrother (on the left) shares his personal story with us, explaining how running has impacted his life and the role parkrun has in changing perceptions.
You may not know this, but eating disorders claim more lives than any other mental illness – one in five of the most seriously affected will die prematurely from the physical consequences, or from suicide. More than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by eating disorders, but only 20% of cases are made up of men.
And one of those was me.
Stereotypically, eating disorders are seen as something only affecting teenage girls – not fit, healthy grown men in their 20s. However, at the age of 24 I developed bulimia nervosa which I suffered with every single day for two years, from January 2013 up until December 2014.
As an aspiring 24-year-old marathon runner with a PB of 2:38, I decided to self-fund a three-month high-altitude training camp to Kenya, the mecca of long-distance running, in order to train for the 2013 London Marathon prior to starting my Sport & Exercise Science degree at the University of Suffolk later that year.
When I arrived in Iten, I was recovering from an injury and was unable to train. Surrounded by world-class Olympic athletes, such as Mo Farah and Wilson Kipsang, it was a daunting environment and it was demoralising watching others return from training runs whilst I was resigned to the sun lounger or the cross trainer.
One day whilst sitting by the pool enjoying the African sunshine, another runner in the camp asked me how much I weighed. Quite an odd question, but I told him and he replied that if could lose a few more kilos, I would greatly improve my marathon time. For some reason, whether it was because I was missing my friends and family, or the comforts of home back in Suffolk, this comment sparked something which led to my mental health and eating habits spiralling out of control.
With wounded pride, an incredibly poor self-worth, a dodgy calf and in the early stages of anorexia, I returned home to Suffolk feeling like I had let everybody down after the fanfare of my departure, and I became obsessed with my weight. Initially, I would starve myself for long periods, sometimes even days at a time, despite the fact I had returned to fitness soon after and was back running 80-100 miles per week.
Unable to sustain this severe malnourishment, I would binge eat at which point I developed bulimia nervosa. This eating disorder controlled me for the next two years. I hid my rapid and severe weight loss from friends and family behind the volume of my running and training. Forcing yourself to run twice per day despite feeling weak, permanently exhausted and wild animalistic-hunger meant that running just wasn’t fun anymore – my hobby, my passion and something I was quite good at became something I resented.
Unsurprisingly, my body eventually gave way under the strain and injury followed injury. Not being able to run made things worse as I no longer had anything to hide my weight loss. In my head I felt that people viewed me not as a human being, but as Tom the skinny runner. I felt pressure to live up to people’s expectations of me, and being unable to run meant I had lost my identity. I was trapped.
Most people think that eating disorders are purely physical, affecting just your appearance. However, the real damage is psychological. For someone with an eating disorder, the first step in tackling your anxiety around food is to remove yourself from any social situations that involve eating. Simple, right?
But if you stop and think about how many activities in our daily lives involve food – coffees with friends, birthdays, BBQs, weddings, parties, family meals, work lunches and so on – there really isn’t much left. As a result, I became very reclusive and continually let my friends down. I would make excuses not to see my them, and I was the one who sent a last minute excuse by text with an implausible explanation for cancelling plans. Needless to say by this point I had an incredibly poor opinion of myself and my confidence was eroded to nothing.
The turning point was when I was experiencing toothache in December 2014, and went to see my local dentist. After my appointment he asked to speak to me in private and he confronted me. By this stage, my front teeth had been eroded to stubs from excessive vomiting, and coupled with my gaunt and fragile appearance, bulimia was the only logical explanation.
It was the first time I had ever been asked directly, and I had no choice but to confess to him. He informed me that if this behaviour continued, within six months I would lose my front teeth entirely. What was I going to do? I had been able to hide my weight loss with my running, and my reclusiveness behind my dedication to training, but how could I hide being 26 years old with no front teeth? That was when I realised I had to stop and overcome my eating disorder for good.
My dentist was the only person who knew of my illness, and initially I did not tell anyone else out of fear of ridicule and embarrassment, which meant the first few weeks of my recovery were very challenging, especially with Christmas just a few days away – and you know what Christmas traditionally means? Food!
Whilst my family enjoyed a mountainous roast dinner with all the trimmings on Christmas Day, I forced myself to eat a bowl of vegetable soup, which for me was a landmark in itself. I got away with it as I had a race the next day, which I used as my excuse. For the next few weeks, I was filled with immense guilt after every meal, but I managed to get through the worst times by distracting myself after each meal to help fight the negative thoughts and urges that were in my head.
A further nine months passed before I told another soul of my struggles, but eventually opening up to friends and family was the final step to accepting what I had been through was not my fault. My feelings of shame and guilt are now replaced with pride and strength, and I use my recovery to try to help raise awareness.
A year into my recovery and I had managed to break my PBs for every distance from 5k right up to the Marathon. For me this was incredibly powerful; I weighed significantly more than before, yet I was faster than ever. I was no longer frail and weak, I was healthy and strong. It completely defied the logic of the runner in Kenya who claimed I needed to be a certain weight to become a better runner, which had sparked this devastating series of events.
In 2016 I ran 10 marathons around the UK in the space of six months to raise awareness of male eating disorders, and in December I passed two years in recovery, meaning I have now been “recovered” for longer than I suffered for and my girlfriend Coralie has been an integral part of that.
Physically, I have now returned to my original healthy body weight, replaced all my clothes and running kit (which were all now too small), and I no longer weigh myself. My front six teeth had to be replaced which involved more than 20 dentist appointments over the course of 26 months and I have a much better relationship with food, although I still stick to my list of ‘safe foods’ – but this list is growing as time passes.
But most importantly, I’ve also recaptured my love of running simply for the joy of it. I now run because I want to, not because I feel I have to. Running is no longer who I am, it’s what I enjoy and I do it because I want to, not because I need to in order to be certain number on the scales. The nature of my illness means I’ll never be the life and soul of the party – I’ve always been introverted and hiding an illness from friends and family doesn’t exactly encourage a care-free, open attitude, but I am happier than I have ever been, and that’s enough for me. I now act as a Media Volunteer for eating disorder charity Beat to help other men see they are not alone.
Looking back, like a lot of men I initially refused to accept I had a mental illness. For the whole two years I suffered, I felt my behaviour was something I could stop at any time, even though I had tried and failed on numerous occasions. I was embarrassed by my actions and feared what people would say, so I decided to suffer in silence for so long. But eating disorders, just like all other mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety can affect anyone – it wasn’t my fault.
Thousands if not millions of people suffer, usually in silence, every single day. Unlike most physical illnesses which have obvious, visible symptoms, a mental illness is harder to spot and easier to hide. And these illnesses can affect anyone, not just certain pockets of society. But the sooner we can help people understand that you have nothing – absolutely nothing at all to be embarrassed about by telling someone about what you are thinking and experiencing, and that it is not a sign of weakness to ask for help, the sooner we can start treating mental illness with the same care and urgency that we do any other physical illness.
What my journey has taught me is that skinny does not equal fast. And it definitely doesn’t equal happy. People who think “all runners are and should be skinny” are completely and utterly wrong. This stereotype is dangerous and incorrect. Whilst the top 0.01% of runners you watch on TV winning major marathons may be slim, they are highly trained elite athletes. The other 99.9% of runners are everyday people just like me and you. If you go for a run, you are a runner. It doesn’t matter what size your clothes are.
Now in my role as Marketing Executive at parkrun, I have the opportunity to change this false and damaging stereotype of what runners should and really do look like and showcase the truth. My aim is to make sure parkrun leads the way in removing this barrier and change people’s perceptions of what a “runner” looks like by using real images of real people, and I work closely with our volunteer photographers in the field such as the incredibly talented Bruce Li to ensure we are presenting reality.
I hope that by doing this we can show the general public that whether you complete your parkrun in 45 minutes or 14, we are all athletes and everyone is welcome. We need to remove this barrier and show the general public that being a certain weight or clothing size is not a prerequisite of participation. What we look like and what we weigh does not define us. If you lace up your trainers and head out the front door, you are a runner and we are all the same. We want everyone to know that they can join us, whether that’s power walking, Couch to 5k or a jog and a chat with friends.
The more we showcase the heroes of parkrun and running in general for who they are, not because of their weight or what they look like, the more we can help change the way the general public views the sport we all love and get more people active. Happiness does not come from reaching a certain number on the scales. Happiness comes from shared experiences. Happiness comes from actually experiencing and living, not merely existing.
Because you know what? If I’m a runner, you’re a runner.
Communications Executive, parkrun Global
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