Real Life

I was an anorexic marathon champ

The Kiwi athlete’s sporting success masked a dangerous and deadly disease

Crossing the finish line after running a marathon, Emma Lloyd should have been at the peak of athletic health. But the reality was far from it. The Dunedin 21-year-old was in the grip of a dangerous eating disorder that often saw her survive on nothing but a bunch of grapes per day and caused her weight to plummet to a tiny 36kg.

Now recovered and weighing a healthy 67kg, Emma looks back in fear at how she nearly ran herself to death. “No-one understands how I was able to run so well,” says Emma. “I was always so dizzy and cold when I ran that I thought I’d collapse. I would become tearful when going to the start line in case I died during the race and never saw my mum again, but I kept running. I feel incredibly lucky to have survived. Not everyone is so lucky.”

Emma’s weight obsession began in September 2009, when she saw photos of herself taken during a half marathon. “As a child, I was happy and healthy. My mum was a runner and I joined the same athletics club as her when I was eight,” explains the nursing student. “Then I ran my first half marathon and the photos devastated me. I thought I looked big in them.”

The 15-year-old declined food that same afternoon and soon mealtimes made her so anxious, she stopped eating at school. She ceased running and became increasingly withdrawn. Over the Christmas holidays, Emma continued avoiding food and became obsessed with pro-anorexia blogs.

By the time she returned to school in February 2010, she’d lost more than 19kg. Worried, her mum took her to hospital, where she was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Emma was admitted for treatment to Dunedin Hospital in December 2010 and was discharged two days before Christmas Day.

At first it seemed she was improving, but her problems returned when, a year later, she started running again. Emma recalls, “I ran a half marathon 37 minutes faster than back in 2009, and all my newly-acquired speed and endurance fed my disorder. I’d run over 50km per week, sometimes having to stop and sit in the bushes because I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”

Once, on a 25km mountain run, a stranger had to come to her aid when she almost collapsed with hypothermia. The incident scared her, but she was back running within a couple of days. “If I didn’t run, I would miss out on burning calories, which was not OK with me,” she admits.

In 2010, Emma was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

Shrinking fast

Emma deteriorated further when she again added dieting to her daily routine, cutting back to eating just a few apples or vegetables each day. In 2013, when she began a full-time nursing course at the University of Otago, her weight was the lowest it had ever been at 36kg. She admits she could feel her bones through her skin. “Each day was a battle,” she recalls. “I was excruciatingly hungry, counting down the hours until I could eat a bunch of cooked apples or a bag of frozen vegetables. Sometimes it would be just a bunch of grapes.

“I was so cold all the time that my hands would be swollen with chilblains and massive veins would stick out of my arms. I could feel my protruding bones grind against the bed sheets at night and I’d end up with big bruises on my hip bones and between my knees.”

Against the odds, Emma’s talents as a runner went from strength to strength. In 2013, she ran the Dunedin Marathon in an impressive three hours and 26 minutes. She then came third in the Invercargill event. The same year, she also completed a half marathon in a personal-best time of one hour and 27 minutes.

Emma says, “I kept reaching my time goals and winning titles. I got used to the stares from the spectators and learned to ignore them.” But despite thriving on the running track, it became clear to Emma that she needed help. Not only were her health problems worsening, but she also faced being kicked off her nursing course. In 2014, she finally sought professional help and slowly began her journey back to health.

Now, she runs a YouTube channel in which she talks about eating disorders. Emma tells, “I love to help people who have been through what I have. When I think back to the day I refused my first meal, I can’t believe how that diet ended up dominating my life. I starved myself for almost six years, but I’ll keep fighting to make sure I never go back to that place.”

Emma hopes to take up running again one day – but only casually. She reveals, “I am slowly starting to pick up racing again, but running was a major part of my illness and my recovery will take time.”

Emma is now helping fellow sufferers via her YouTube channel, which pet rabbit Milly pops up on.

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