In the Fall of 2016, Rachele Schulist was in the middle of a battle many distance runners know all too well. She was in her senior cross country season at Michigan State, battling struggles with disordered eating and an obsession with maintaining a small frame that were dictating her performance. She had convinced herself that in order to run fast, she had to look like she did in 2014, the year she placed 4th at NCAAs. These preoccupations with body image were threatening her running career and affecting her overall wellbeing.
By the week of the Big Ten Conference Championships, Schulist was so discouraged she had convinced herself she would quit running. Something clicked when her coach at the time, Walt Drenth (now coach to Boston Marathon champion Des Linden), called her in to talk the night before the race. “He asked me at what point I was going to draw a line in the sand and put an end to whatever was holding me back from running the way I know I can,” said Schulist. “So I did. Because the truth is, the idea that you have to look a certain way and be thin to be a fast runner is bullsh*t.”
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Left:NCAA 2014. Right: NCAA 2016. Look at the picture on the left. If in your mind this is what a "good" or competitive distance runner looks like, please, keep reading. The truth is I was very unhealthy. My teammates and coaches will tell you that I was not happy; I was disengaged with my teammates and missing out on life. My coaches warned me about the consequences of running in this unhealthy state, but seeing as my running was going well I ignored them and figured they were wrong. And in the fall of 2015 I paid for it when I found I had a stress fracture. Last year consisted for the most part of training in a pool and sitting on the sidelines while the rest of my teammates got to train and compete. Slowly my body healed and I could start to run again. But mentally, another battle had begun. Even though I knew being too small is not sustainable, it was hard for me to believe that I could achieve success and be the runner I used to be without it, and I allowed myself to believe this for the better part of this season. My coaches told me time and time again that I am still the same runner as 2014, just stronger now and have the talent to be successful, but whenever I looked back at what I used to be I was discouraged all over again. The better part of this season I allowed this lie to dictate my running, and my running suffered as a consequence. The day before our conference meet I was so discouraged and worn down from beating myself up I could only lay in bed, and decided that after this meet I was going to give up and quit running because I doubted I could ever be good again without being unhealthy. My coach could tell from my race plan that I was not mentally engaged and the night before Big Tens called me in to talk. He asked me at what point I was going to draw a line in the sand and put an end to whatever was holding me back from running the way I know I can. So I did. Because the truth is, the idea that you have to look a certain way and be thin to be a fast runner is bullshit. It's a lie that a lot of people in the running community buy into. (Continued in comments)
Soon after her senior season ended, she opened up about her struggles via Instagram. “Even though I knew being too small is not sustainable,” Schulist wrote. “It was hard for me to believe that I could achieve success and be the runner I used to be without it, and I allowed myself to believe this for the better part of the season.”
In being vulnerable with her followers, she had encouraged thousands of distance runners to let go of their insecurities; but restructuring her own mindset had only just begun. “I did not realize it at the time I wrote the post about body image, but I was only in the middle of that battle myself,” said Schulist. “I think what a lot of people do not realize is that the battle with eating disorders and body image does not cease once the individual recognizes and changes their disordered behaviors/thinking. I spent a good part of two years, (and still work daily), struggling to trust myself again.”
Comparing oneself to others is especially hard to avoid in the elite running community. Many runners develop strict rules for themselves when it comes to diet and get caught up in the myth that skinnier equals faster. Runners who have struggled with body image issues will tell you they never intended to lose weight, but instead developed an obsession with controlling it. This can easily go too far and lead to lack of proper fueling, fatigue, and in the worst case, an eating disorder.
Schulist says she never set out to lose weight to run fast, it was more of a byproduct of a too rigid mindset that led to her adopting unhealthy habits. “I made a strict routine for myself and eventually became afraid to stray from it,” said Schulist. “That led to me avoiding social events where I could not control my food, or exercise. It also made me become very selfish and self-absorbed. When I look back now at how I used to live, I realize just how much I was missing out on life.”
While training in an unhealthy state may improve your running temporarily, it is not sustainable. Many runners pay for this when they develop stress fractures as a result of their body tearing itself down from lack of nutrition. “I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to nourish your body correctly,” said Schulist. “As my Hansons teammate Danna Herrick says, ‘The body always keeps score.’ If you deprive it of nutrients or food, it will steal what it needs from itself and slowly break down. Why would I make my body work harder than it already does?”
After battling multiple injuries as a result of years of undernourishment and overtraining, Schulist had a fresh start when she joined the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in 2017. “Because of a plantar injury I had to spend January-April of 2017 cross training and then was totally off of my feet for three months that summer,” said Schulist. “I was unsure if I would be able to run again at any capacity, let alone professionally. When I finally did start running again, it was one-minute intervals. It was truly humbling but in a way it was what I needed: a fresh start, with no outside pressure from the collegiate running world or a race schedule. Coming off this break I decided that moving forward I was not going to force anything but let the process unfold naturally.”
Currently, Schulist is injury-free training in Rochester, Michigan. With the help of her coaches and teammates, she has made immense progress in and out of running. She’s learned that by fueling her body and giving herself grace, she’s not only becoming a successful professional athlete, but a happier, more-engaged athlete as well.
“I am at peace with myself and am enjoying the sport again. As far as being confident in myself, I realize that if I do the workouts, run the miles, and give my body nutritious food, the rest will take care of itself,” said Schulist. “I will not look like every professional runner out there but, who cares?” Her advice to runners struggling with body image issues? “Trust the process. Be yourself, be confident, be kind, and do your best.”