Allie Outram represented Great Britain as a junior athlete, but also battled with an exercise and eating disorder. She explains how God helped her through
I had been brought up in a very sporty and active family and excelled in many activities. I represented my region in both tennis and lacrosse, was a member of all my school sports teams and was voted school games captain.
However, at the age of 13 when I began restricting my food intake at the onset of anorexia, I developed frantic exercise programmes, pushing my body to physical extremes.
I gravitated towards long-distance running and joined an athletics club. I very quickly became successful due to my drive to succeed, steely motivation, uncompromising discipline and ability to push my body to the limit. Within three months of starting training I was asked to represent England in a series of races.
I loved athletics and racing as they allowed me to temporarily escape from myself, but I was really running from life. I also discovered others in the international circuit who had a similar mindset.
As an athlete with an eating disorder, I was a member of a special population with a special problem. With its emphasis on a lean body, and through its endorsement of excessive exercise, the athletics environment made it easier for me to be eating-disordered, but more difficult for this disorder to be identified and subsequently treated.
Additionally, many of the traits that are characteristic of individuals with eating disorders are also characteristics found in good or elite athletes (compliance, dedication, perfectionism, ability to withstand pain or discomfort, a high need for achievement).
We have become conditioned to expect certain athletes to have a particular size or shape. For example, distance runners are expected to be thin, and female gymnasts are supposed to be tiny. These stereotyped standards make it difficult for observers to notice when a particular athlete has moved too far in the expected direction in terms of size, shape, or weight.
I competed at an international level for eight years as a junior and a further four years as a senior athlete in cross country, track and road events. I achieved a high level of success including a 7th placing whilst running for Great Britain in the World Schools Cross Country Championships in China.
There were six of us in the team and four of us had some form of eating disorder.
Deep down I knew that exercise was controlling my life. My day became structured in such a way that home, work and relationships took a back seat to exercise. Exercise deterred rather than enhanced my psychological and physiological functioning.
At times of injury I fell apart because I didn’t have a bigger plan or purpose to my life other than training and racing. Without my identity as an athlete to hide behind I felt insignificant and worthless. I started questioning who I was, whether I really mattered and what life was all about.
As CS Lewis once wrote: “God whispers in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. By this point, God had his megaphone out and I began to hear his call and developed a hunger to find him.
I became a Christian after attending an Alpha course while studying at Bristol University. After several years I stumbled across Mercy Ministries, a Christian organisation that helps young women who face life-controlling issues. I found expert knowledge and understanding there and I learnt to hand over to God every area of my life – including my disordered eating and exercising patterns.
While it isn’t a sin to achieve in athletics and academia, the driving force in my life has now changed. I have been a world-class athlete, but my ambition now is to be a world-class Christian who has been saved to serve God and reach out to others with his life-saving message.
Allie Outram is the author of Running on Empty (Walking Free Publications, £7.99). Order copies from www.walkingfree.org or www.amazon.co.uk Alternatively, call 07764 606614.
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