This post deals with eating disorders and exercise addiction and might be triggering for some readers.
My obsession with distance running began when I was 11 and continued into my 30s.
My period became irregular in my late 20s, and by the time I was 31 it had vanished.
The technical term for your periods stopping is amenorrhea, and a common cause for this is Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S). RED-S occurs when there’s an imbalance between a person’s energy input and energy output - this results in less energy to support normal physiological functioning, like menstruation.
I was a decent enough club runner, but I wasn’t born with the natural lean physique of athletes like Paula Radcliffe or Kerryn McCann. I used to stand on the start-line of races and compare myself to the bony structures of many of my competitors and berate myself. Throw in a few well-intentioned comments ("You would run so much faster if you were a bit lighter") and an unhealthy relationship with food emerged.
While I never starved myself - and in fact, I probably ate more than the average young woman - I wasn’t providing my body with adequate calories to run up to 120kms per week.
I started to lose weight and began getting compliments about ‘how fit’ I was looking. I was running reasonably well, but probably not much faster than when I was a few kilograms heavier. I was tired all the time and missed a number of marathons I had trained hard for, as I was trapped in a cycle of injuries. I didn’t consider backing off - I reasoned that plenty of the female friends I ran with were doing similar kilometres, and I relished the challenge of restricting my evening meals, waking up sore and tired and forcing myself out the door for a run.
I always wanted children. I used to think that all I would need to do was back off exercising when I was ready to start trying for a baby, and my menstrual cycle would kick back in. How wrong I was.
I tried cutting back on exercise. I tried cutting out exercise altogether. I even embarked on a crazy campaign of cramming in as many calories as I could, after reading British marathoner Tina Muir’s book 'Overcoming Amenorrhea'.
Muir’s book outlines how she fell pregnant by ceasing all exercise and flooding her body with excess calories. I tried it for a week - indulging in the childhood fantasy of caramel slice for breakfast and chowing my way through countless slices of sourdough smeared thickly with butter and peanut butter.
By the end of the week I felt so ill from constant blood sugar spikes and bloating that I abandoned the plan. I’m not writing this to cast doubt on Muir’s theory, merely to outline how desperate I was.
As any woman battling fertility issues would know, the problem consumes you. Getting pregnant was the first thing I thought about when I got up and the thing that kept me awake each night. I was anxious and miserable. It impacted my work and my relationship with my partner and cast a permanent shadow over our lives.