My journey from a 3-year-old sprinter to a marathoner
by Mallary Tenore Tarpley
I’ve heard people say that runners like to run away from their problems. As a lifelong runner, I’ve always run toward something — a goal, a relief from stress, my mom’s arms.
My penchant for running started at a young age. Shortly after my 3rd birthday, my mom signed me up for youth track and field. Every Monday night throughout that summer, she took me to the high school track, where the town held 50- to 400- yard races for kids ages 3 and up.
We’d run down the track, our elbows brushing up against each other, our little bodies weaving in and out of the track lanes like free spirits rebelling against the straight and narrow. Some of us turned around, confused as to what we were doing. Others would stop in the middle of the track and sit down. Plop.
I’d run into her arms and she’d swoop me up and give me a big hug. Then she’d wave my ribbon in the air. At that age, in my pre-perfectionism days, I didn’t care what place I came in. I just enjoyed running, and finishing with the promise of a ribbon. Over the years, I earned more ribbons and became more focused on coming in first.
Every Marathon Monday, we’d get up early and pack sliced oranges, jellybeans, and water bottles to hand to the runners. My voice and little hands were always sore by the end of the marathon from all the cheering and high-fives.
Mom had a fascination with watching runners, especially marathoners, but she didn’t actually like to run. She was more of a power walker — the kind that’s hard not to poke fun at. With a determined look on her face, she’d extend her arms in an exaggerated manner high above her head, and stretch out her legs as far as they could go. She’d charge down the streets of our tiny town, decked out in fluorescent workout gear. When I joined her, I had to run to keep up.
She was diagnosed when I was 8 years old. Even when she was really sick, she still took me to the marathon. In 1996, on the 99th anniversary of the Boston Marathon, she told me that she’d be better the following year.
Mom had a mastectomy and was in remission for a brief period of time, which made me optimistic. But the cancer soon came back in her other breast. One day, she looked in the mirror, tilted her head and asked: “Mal, do you think I’m beautiful?” She had one breast, no hair, and yellow skin from the cancer, which had spread to her liver, her bone-marrow, and her brain.
“Of course you are, mommy.” I truly believed she was, but as I said it, I remember doubting my own beauty for the first time. Wrapped up in a package of perfection, I never realized the ugly truth about being perfect: you can’t be. I tried to control life’s blemishes and blunders, which became more prevalent in my life the sicker Mom got.
Playing pretend was one way to escape. When you’re a little girl and your mom is diagnosed with cancer, you try to tell yourself that she’ll make it, that you can wave your fairy princess magic wand and make her all better. You believe her when she tells you she’s a brave soldier in a battle, that she’s the Little Engine That Could, that even though she’s lost all her hair, one breast and 35 pounds, she’ll survive.
That night, all I wanted to do was go to bed. The hospice workers and my grandparents were gone by 7:00 p.m., leaving me and Dad in a house that no longer seemed like home. He turned on the TV just in time for the start of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Canned laughter ensued. I wondered how people could be happy when it seemed the whole world should be sad.
Skipping dinner, I went to bed feeling empty. I pulled the covers over my head and stared into the darkness, hoping I’d wake up to find that what had happened that night was nothing but a bad dream. I pretended things were fine and told myself not to cry.
“Erase it from my mind, erase it from my mind,” I whispered, scratching my head and repeating a refrain that I often said when something bad happened. I didn’t know that, years later, everything I had temporarily erased would leave such a lasting mark.
Mom wasn’t there to tell me she’d be ok, so I tried to be ok for her. I went to school the day after she died and told my sixth-grade teachers that I was fine and ready to move on. Two days after her death, I went to my sixth-grade Valentine’s Day and wore a smile the whole time. In photos, I looked like I was trying to be as proper and as poised as possible.
“Dad,” I said after Mom died, “I want to write a eulogy for Mom’s funeral.” “Eulogy” was one of those big words that I had heard Dad talk about behind closed doors. I remember looking it up in the dictionary, hoping I’d never have to hear one about my mother.
And yet, at age 11, I wrote one about Mom and read it at her funeral, composed and without tears. The eulogy, all 480 words of it, was my attempt to comfort everyone else and perhaps convince myself that all would be well. Part of it read:
“Everything happens for a reason, although that reason is often hard to find. But believe me, sooner or later in life you will find that reason. Now we should all still cry, and we should always keep Robin in our hearts, but we cannot let it bother us for the rest of our lives. We can’t keep going back to that old chapter, but look forward to the new chapter in our lives, and just hope that it brings us the best of luck and much happiness.
“This is hard to do, I know, to find that new chapter, but we can all do it if we try. Just think, my mother, Robin Jo Tenore, is walking along the streets of gold. She’s having the time of her life. She no longer suffers from pain. She is now in the hands of God. She is now in Heaven — a place where she truly belongs.”
At the time, I thought I was strong. I wanted to seem brave, but inside I was slowly falling apart. I scrambled to pick up the pieces, wishing I could run away from it all. I kept picturing the Runaway Bunny from the classic children’s tale that Mom used to read to me.
The bunny fantasizes about what he’ll do if he’s free — he’ll become a fish in a trout stream; a circus performer on a flying trapeze; a crocus in a hidden garden. His mother tells him that, now matter where he goes, she will find him and bring him home.
Children who lose a parent between the ages of 6 and 12 have an especially difficult time with death, research has found. They’re old enough to understand what death means, and yet they’re too young to know how to best deal with a profound loss.
I remember telling others around me that I had come to terms with my mom passing away. I drew pictures of dozens of smiley faces, as if to suggest I had moved on and was happy. But when I wrote in my journal at night, I wrote about my mom in the present tense on tear-stained pages. This co-existence of acceptance and denial is what Sigmund Freud called “splitting the ego.” In some ways, it’s a coping mechanism.”
The more I thought about mom’s death, the more I felt like I had lost all control. As much as I wanted to bring Mom back and stop my little world from changing, I couldn’t. Looking for something I could control, I started to focus on my food intake. Food didn’t taste as good as it once did, and didn’t fill me up the same way Mom’s home-cooked meals did.
I thought that if I stayed the same weight that I was before Mom died, I could live life in a standstill. If I wore my hair in pigtails and pretended I was forever young, then people would care for me. I’d be the little girl, the one without a Mom, the one who needed their love and attention. I’d be special.
Hope Edelman, author of “Motherless Daughters,” writes about this phenomenon, saying some children identify with an earlier stage of maturity as a way of keeping their Mom’s memory alive and avoiding the finality of death. “The result,” she writes, “is an adult who retains some characteristics of an earlier developmental time, one who feels as if a piece of her were still ‘stuck’ in childhood or adolescence. To this daughter, ‘growing up’ feels not only like a mystery but also a practical impossibility. She’s still too wedded to her childhood.”
Edelman goes on to say that “when a mother dies too young, something inside her daughter always feels incomplete. There’s a missing piece she continues to look for, an emptiness she keeps trying to fill.”
I always felt empty, emotionally and physically. Restricting my food intake didn’t help, but it gave me some semblance of control. So I kept on restricting. And I ran — a lot. Running became a way to obsessively burn calories and lose more weight. All the while, I limited myself to foods like green beans, carrots, and cottage cheese. Common foods for people with anorexia.
Caroline Knapp wrote about the cottage cheese curse in her memoir “Appetites”:
“Cottage cheese, of course, is the food God developed specifically to torture women, to make them keen with yearning. Picture it on a plate, lumpy and bland atop a limp lettuce leaf and half a canned peach. Consider the taste and feel of it: wet, bitter little curds. now compare it to the real thing: a thick, oozing slab of brie, or a dense and silky smear of cream cheese. Cottage cheese is one of our culture’s most visible symbols of self-denial; marketed honestly, it would appear in dairy cases with warning labels: THIS SUBSTANCE IS SELF-PUNITIVE; INGEST WITH CAUTION.”
Still, I wanted to lose more weight. There’s a tendency among anorexics to equate skinniness with perfection. The problem is, no matter how skinny anorexics get, it’s never skinny enough. Marya Hornbacher, author of “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia” once wrote: “We turn skeletons into goddesses and look to them as if they might teach us how not to need.”
My battle with anorexia led to four hospitalizations, two month-long stays in a psychiatric unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston and a year-and-a-half-long stay at Germaine Lawrence, a residential treatment facility for troubled girls in Massachusetts.
The hospitalizations stabilized my physically, but they didn’t address all of the emotional and mental issues under the surface. It wasn’t until I went to residential treatment that I really started to make connections between my mom’s death and my eating disorder. My counselors there helped me realize that by trying to sprint through the grieving process, I had paved the way for a painful marathon. Slowly, I began to make better choices to the point where I was healthy enough to leave in-patient treatment and live at home with my dad.
After missing three years of school, I returned to my high school junior year and joined the cross-country team. Running on the team felt empowering; I was running not because I wanted to burn calories but because I had always liked running. I met some of my closest friends on the team, one of whom remains my best friend all these years later.
I listened to my body and ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full. It seems so simple — to just listen to your body — but it’s complicated when you have a history with eating. It’s so much easier to focus on food and your body than it is to feel.
Several women struggle with this same type of distorted eating. Because it doesn’t fall under the category of “anorexia” or “bulimia,” it’s more often categorized as “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or EDNOS. (How’s that for a vague categorization?) Symptoms include night eating syndrome, chewing and spitting out food, purging, binging, repeated patterns of binging and restricting, and even picky eating.
The International Journal of Eating Disorders says EDNOS — which is themost common eating disorder in the U.S. — is “often a way station between an eating disorder and recovery or, less commonly, from recovery to a full-blown eating disorder.” A 2009 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that more people die from EDNOS than from bulimia or anorexia.
This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve always believed that it’s easier to identify the symptoms of (and subsequently treat) bulimia and anorexia. When you’re bulimic, people start to notice when you repeatedly go to the bathroom after meals. When you’re anorexic, people see that you’re losing weight and get concerned. In my case, my weight has more or less stayed the same, making it easier to mask my disordered eating habits.
Recovery is possible, but elusive. And it’s hard to define: Does recovery mean you’re “all better,” that you never worry about your weight and always listen to your body? Does it mean you’re able to eat three meals a day? Does it mean you’re at your ideal body weight?
So often, recovery and sickness are set up as two extremes. People assume that if you’re no longer “sick,” you must be “recovered.” I’ve realized, though, that many people who struggle with eating disorders or milder forms of disordered eating are somewhere in between recovery and sickness.
They’re in the middle place.
Aimee Liu, author of “Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives,” says that many people experience the “half life” of anorexia when on the road to recovery. They struggle to define it because it’s so nuanced. Those who are in this middle place “recover nutritionally and suspend the behaviors of starving, bingeing and purging. But the self-criticism, self-abuse, perfectionism, judgmentalism and restrictive mindset persist.”
I try to remind myself that it’s important to make progress in the middle place — a spot where it’s easy to get stuck.
Progress isn’t always about food. Sometimes it’s about making ourselves vulnerable enough to be loved. After years of dating and being hard on myself when none of the dates turned into relationships, I found a man (on Match.com, no less) who made me feel loved and beautiful. Troy knew about my issues with eating but instead of abandoning me because of them, he sought ways to help me. Being with Troy made my eating issues less of a secret. I couldn’t hide my weird eating quirks as much, and I could no longer pretend I was “perfectly fine.”
It’s hard being in a healthy relationship with a man you love and an abusive relationship with a disease you loathe.
I kept thinking about my future kids. I didn’t want to pass along my bad habits, and I wanted to be healthy enough to have kids in the first place. Even though I have an incredibly supportive husband, I knew I needed outside support to be able to move forward in my journey. So I researched therapists and finally found one I liked. She specializes in eating disorders and understands how complicated they can be.
It’s easy to hide behind perceptions — to pretend you have it all together when inside, you’re crumbling. The crumbly part of life becomes your secret — one that you don’t want to share for fear that people will look differently at you, judge you, or stop loving you. Vulnerability is a bitch, and a blessing.
I’ve found that the foods we turn down (but secretly want) in public are the foods we turn toward in private. The chocolate that I won’t let myself eat in public is the food I crave, the food I hide and hoard.
My therapist and nutritionist have pushed me to be more open about what I want, and to not let my disordered eating habits steal my desires. They’ve understood when I’ve slipped up and have helped me strive for progress, not perfection. They’ve taught me to treat my body with kindness instead of cruelty. To thank my feet and runner’s legs for carrying me so far.
Geneen Roth, who has written a lot on binge eating, says that “during the first few bites, and before we get dazed by overeating, everything we want is possible. Everything we’ve lost is here now. And so we settle for the concrete version of our lost selves in the form of food. And once food has become synonymous with goodness or love or fulfillment, you cannot help but choose it, no matter how high the stakes are.”
Over the past year, I’ve been developing other ways to find nourishment. I’ve slowly realized that when I eat a lot one day and deprive myself of food the next, I’m setting myself up for a binge-restrict cycle that can last for days or weeks.
The danger of this cycle has become clearer to me over the past 18 weeks, which I’ve spent training for my first marathon. When I told my therapist and nutritionist that I had signed up for a marathon, they raised their eyebrows.
I was willing to risk it, though. Part of me wanted to train for the marathon to prove that I could, as a sort of fuck you to eating issues that have affected me for the past 17 years. Training, it seemed, would be a test to see if I could exercise more and stay healthy enough to maintain my weight. It would be a test to see if I was willing enough to give my body the fuel and care that it needs.
My husband Troy helped me every mile of the way. He listened to my concerns, pushed me to eat, and told me he had faith in me. He became my number one cheerleader. Every time I ran a long run on weekends, he’d meet me three miles before the finish and ride his bike alongside me. He’d cheer me on, give me high-gives, and tell passerby: “My wife is training for a marathon!” They’d usually slip in a high-five, too.
Some days, I had to run on very little sleep. Other days, I had to run at odd hours on unknown paths. Up paved hills. Down wooded trails. Beside the ocean. On treadmills overlooking beautiful views of a city skyline. On treadmills in hotel gyms that were more like windowless hovels. I ran rain or shine. In 85-degree-weather. 26-degree weather. Brrr.
Throughout the course of my 18-week training, I traveled for work, weddings, holidays, a bachelorette party, and a funeral. I took 10 trips — to Cape Cod, San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Boston, D.C., Fort Worth, New Orleans, and Austin — and ran in all but one of those cities.
I’ve tried for so long to be perfect in all aspects of my life — mainly because I’ve always thought my mom wanted me to be perfect. Whenever I made a mistake, she yelled at me and made me feel guilty. When she died, I told myself I needed to be perfect; it was my warped way of holding onto her.
At first it was hard for me to remember the gifts Mom gave me. But the harder my training got, the more I thought about the connection between my mom and running. All those track meets. The ribbons. The marathon outings.
During my last long run, a 22-miler, I tried running toward the good memories and away from perfectionism. It wasn’t perfect; I still worried a little about my time. But it felt freeing to let it go. To let it be.
I wrote down everything I ate and showed it to my nutritionist. She added everything up and estimated that I had eaten only 1,540 calories — not even enough for a non-exercise day. At first I didn’t believe her. Was she trying to trick me? But the more I looked at the numbers, the more I started to put things in perspective. All those days when I think I’ve binged and eaten too much, I probably still haven’t eaten enough.
She set me up with a carb-load plan for the three days leading up to the marathon and said I needed to eat 500+ grams of carbs and aim for 3,000 calories per day. She said she was proud of how well I had been doing and knew I could do it.
For as much as I’ve thought about weight loss, it hasn’t been a motivating factor while training. I’ve realized throughout the past 18 weeks that I’ve been more focused on feeling strong during my long runs than on losing weight. I spent so many years feeling physically weak when I was younger; I like feeling strong — and healthy.
As I run through Walt Disney World on marathon day, I’ll be thinking of my mom. I’ll remember her love for cheering on runners, and her big hugs at the end of the 50-yard dash races. I’ll embrace her legacy of bravery and strength.
Update: Mallary finished the marathon at 3:48 — placing in the top 2% of female racers. More importantly, she felt strong during the run and crossed the finish line wearing a smile and happy tears.