Yesterday I stood on the startline of a race. It was my first in just under two years. And I did not finish...
I've never had those letters beside my name before and it hurts. But more than anything I'm realising I have to keep trusting my own process - now more than ever. I'm still coming to terms with the fact that healing can't happen overnight. My body is still paying for my past mistakes.
I have to stop comparing myself to the girl and athlete I was when I was suffering with RED-s... she's long gone. But like anything lost, it's only natural that she's being grieved too. It's all part of the healing and recovery process. I can't wait for the day I can turn around and say honestly that I don't miss the old Heidi anymore - the Heidi that short cut her way to success. I can't wait for the day when I feel 100% happy in my own skin and my own journey. At this point in time I'm not afraid to admit it - I'm not there yet.
I ask myself though - does anyone ever fully recover from disordered eating or an eating disorder? Will I ever not have that nagging voice in the back of my head that tells me I need to restrict my food intake - that a skinnier version of myself is more worthy even though deep down I know how toxic that train of thought is? Or on the other hand, will I ever not feel the urge to open up the cupboard and eat everything I can find? Certainly, these voices are a lot quieter now and I feel in a much healthier place mentally but I do still carry around some fear about these issues... I wonder whether I'll ever be able to get back to that healthy, strong athlete I was when I was younger before my first stress fracture hit. I look back at this journey I've been on over the past four years and I honestly still don't know what full recovery looks like. I wonder whether I should reach out for professional help around these issues ... but even after sharing my story over the last few days I still wouldn't know where to turn.
And now I think back to the athlete I was when I was younger and all the training camps I attended with British Athletics or Welsh Athletics and I realise nobody ever mentioned anything about any of these issues. As a young athlete I was not educated about these topics. RED-s was never mentioned - I didn't even know what it was and so when I found myself in the middle of it I didn't feel like I had anywhere to turn. Maybe it was naive of me to believe I had to struggle along by myself, but when nobody within the athletic world is talking about these issues or even highlights to you how unhealthy it is that you're missing your period - you don't begin to realise the downward spiral you're on until it's way too late.
You know what - this makes me angry. The fact that this is still a taboo subject despite the fact that some athletes are starting to open up about their journeys and struggles now. We can see it in our sport... sometimes it's so goddamn obvious and yet we are still scared to open up about it, to be fully honest and admit there is more work to be done to make RED-s and all the repercussions it causes something the next generation of athletes are aware of and educated about. So that they don't feel like they have to suffer in silence.
Perhaps all it would've taken was a quick workshop provided by British or Welsh Athletics when I was enrolled in their coaching programs to have prevented these past four years of hell I've been through. Yes I know we can't go back and change the past but we can look forward and make a change and an impact on the future of our sport. Wouldn't prevention be better than cure?
I want the next generation of athletes to grow up in a safe environment where these issues are talked about. Where athletes are warned about how the short term success they may have when they find themselves stuck in the cycle of pushing their bodies way too much is only detrimental in the long term. It is not sustainable. It is unhealthy, toxic and the short term success is never worth it - the painful past two years I've been living have taught me that. We need to stop celebrating this short term success - I think maybe this is part of the problem. We need to stop placing so much of our self worth on race wins, on body size, on body shape. We need to start placing self worth on strength and longevity of athletes... start placing more faith and trust in the long term process and enjoyment.
I'm not a doctor. I'm not a coach. I can't give you any scientific information or any proper research. I'm just an athlete who feels like she's been through hell and back over the past four years and now she's angry and also deeply saddened at the thought that it could've somehow been prevented. Maybe all it would've taken was more awareness, more conversations, more focus on overall health as an athlete and the long term process rather than short term success and race wins. I'm just here telling my story in the hope that this will create more noise and awareness around these subjects. I can see more and more athletes are speaking out - together we can do so much. These are just the beginnings of creating a healthier environment in our sport. I look towards the future and I hope something can be done to create safe spaces for younger athletes to learn about these issues - so that they don't have to suffer like so many of us have. We have to be the change we wish to see in the world.
And so here I stand now. My name is Heidi. I'm 23 years old and I'm living my dream in the Italian mountains alongside Zak - a fellow mountain lover from Ireland and I'm so excited for all the adventures ahead.
I stand here - my head held high despite of all the mistakes I've made in the past. I stand here and I'm going back to basics, learning how to be an athlete again, taking each day at a time and finding joy in the process. Moving from one step to the next towards my goals, now knowing there are no short cuts. I know it'll take several years of dedication and determination to get back to where I want to be... but this time it'll be sustainable. This time my body won't break, because this time I'll be treating it with the love and care it deserves. I have a body that functions again and I vow to you all reading this - I won't ever take it for granted or abuse it the way I did before ever again.
Yesterday I may have had my first ever DNF, but it was the beginning of the final realisation that there really is no overnight fix after the journey I've been on. Instead it's a long term lifelong project... and in these sorts of races, there are no finish lines.