Endurance runner Rowan Preece speaks openly about his own battle with an eating disorder in an effort to increase awareness of the health issues facing males.
Eating disorders and mental health are still taboo subjects, especially among men and boys, and few open up about their struggles with family and friends or speak about their experiences in the public domain.
In 2016, Rowan Preece ran a 2:26 marathon best, a fantastic achievement, but his journey up to that point wasn’t an easy one, with an unhealthy relationship with food and training ever present.
Now, in an effort to encourage others to seek help, he has bravely shares his own story.
In recent months, it has been very positive to see the number of female athletes coming forward and sharing the impact that an unhealthy relationship with food and training has had on their lives. However, it’s also important to not stereotype this as a female only issue, and I hope speaking about my experiences will highlight that eating disorders are increasingly becoming a male problem too.
This illness has tried its best to ruin my relationship with my main passion in life – running – and at times has led me to some very dark places. Thankfully, I now know that talking about such a topic can only be a good thing, and I really hope this article will encourage more male athletes to speak up and seek help.
I was never a big kid and have always been very small for my age. I played many sports when I was younger and rarely was I found indoors playing video games. Up until the age of 13, I never took anything too seriously and was quite happy running and racing off of a few sessions a week with football practice in between.
However, once I started to see my potential in running, I decided to put all my focus into the one sport, something which I now look back on as the starting point of a very unhealthy approach to life and my supposed ‘ hobby’ of running.
Going through secondary school I took running more seriously, desperate to be the best I could be. Being your typical type A personality, I was a perfectionist and wanted to leave no stone unturned. I had to be as healthy as I could because that’s what it took to be a top athlete, right?
This is all well and good before it is taken to the extreme. Bit by bit I began cutting certain food groups out and ate to a very structured plan, not veering off in fear I would lose control.
This didn’t go unnoticed and my parents became increasingly concerned. I was in denial and tried to prevent any intervention by hiding and lying about what I ate.
After several months of my parents trying to help, it was clear that I was not getting any better and my anxiety around food was impacting not only myself but my whole family. There were many meal times ruined by my inability to eat the same as everyone else and the resulting arguments about why. I now admitted I needed help.
Doctors recommended psychiatric help and I visited CHAMS (Child and adolescent mental health services), a specialist service run by the NHS for young patients. This was certainly not how I imagined spending my teen years.
When I first heard the word anorexia, and based on what I had previously seen in the media, I associated it with females and people who didn’t eat. That couldn’t be me because I still ate and was just trying to be healthy?
Yet there I was in a psychiatric centre for teens suffering from mental health issues. After many one on one sessions, I began to improve slightly and introduced foods back into my diet.
At that young age, it was easier as my parents had a lot more control over me and the foods I ate. Stopping me from training was an obvious punishment and I soon started to live a more normal life.
I appeared to be getting things together in my remaining years at secondary school, although still very controlling, I was in a fairly good place and was healthy and happy.
Late teenage years
At the age of 16 came college and things changed for the worse with my old chimp returning. I was older and therefore increasingly stubborn, never listening to what my parents said, and being away from home, I was in control.
I increased my training and reduced my food intake at the same time, and the worst part was that I saw quick improvements in my performances. A lot of people don’t realise, but at first your body goes into a sort of starvation mode, you are lighter, and improvements come with this, but you soon realise it is not worth it.
Success is short lived and your body gives in, eventually putting you further and further into a hole, both physically and mentally. I was at a point in my life where I was still growing and maturing, and without providing the body with the nutrition it needed it was unable to cope with the stress – especially with massive outputs through exercise.
Moving to university
When I finished college I wasn’t in a great place but decided I needed to go to university and went to Loughborough. However, my time there ended after only two months, I reached an all-time low weight and hit rock bottom.
My body was giving up, I was cold all the time, my entire day was thinking about my next meal, my concentration went out the window and I was severely depressed. I sometimes even imagined how I could ‘get out’, away from the voices in my head and the anxiety I was facing. Luckily I never acted upon these as I knew deep down it wasn’t the answer.
I went home, although far from ideal, it was needed in order to get better. Issues like this rip you from your true self, they make you into something you’re not and you become a new self-centred individual, with food and exercise your only thoughts.
Often people can’t see what is truly going on, you become a master of hiding things and lying. When speaking to others I find you can be 70% there, the other 30% is debating between how many glasses of orange juice you are ‘allowed’ in one day.
The following year I spent at home and with the help of my parents, again, I began to really get things together. I was enjoying my running again and not just because I could reward myself with food. I was fuelling myself and really seeing the benefits.
This meant for the first time in a long time I started to feel like myself again, my personality was returning and I was a lot less miserable. I began to race more and train properly. I started to enjoy the things I used to and could relax a lot more.
I was then heavily motivated to give university one more chance and I headed to St Mary’s.
By the time the following year arrived I had put on a good 4-5kg and positively I wasn’t bothered by it, I wasn’t concerned with a number on the scale or what food I was eating. I was running well and the happiest I had been for a while.
During my time at St Mary’s I have had my ups and downs and been through some very dark times, but I am increasingly aware of how to cope now.
London Marathon 2016
Although running is a sub-story to this, I always regard the London Marathon in 2016 as a special moment, and not just because of how I ran. It was special because it felt like a turning point in my life after years of struggling and battling with food and training behind closed doors.
Anyone that I interacted with in 2016 knew that I was in a good place and that has acted as a symbol of how great life can be.
However, my illness wasn’t going to disappear. I have always found balancing what I eat around how much I train difficult. An illness like this lends itself to wanting to do more and more and suddenly your 10-mile morning run isn’t enough, and you must go out the door for a second run.
The very nature of being called a ‘marathon runner’ was what hit me hard after London.
I thought that I was required to do all the miles a marathon runner ‘should do’ if they want to run quick over the distance, when in fact at the young age of 20 this was not the answer.
My coach Mick Woods was great in my build up to London in 2016 and this combined with my relaxed attitude towards life is what helped me run 2:26:27.
I was disciplined and very rarely ran any mileage over 75 miles with only two double days running a week and a long run of no more than 13 miles. It’s crazy that I ended up running 26.2 miles, however, this is what I could manage while balancing my nutrition with my training. Any more than this and I could have tipped the scales the wrong way (no pun intended).
Fast forward to the present
Now I am very open with people about my struggles and often find humour in it with those close to me to rationalise thoughts I may have.
However, thoughts of cutting out certain foods never leave you. I will always have voices in my head telling me that cheese and fat is the devil or that carbohydrates (the main source of fuel for an athlete) should be avoided. I have realised that certain things will act as a trigger and lead me down the wrong path again – so I do my best to avoid them.
Someone like me is very much influenced by what you see online, so I recently took the decision to deactivate both my Instagram and Twitter accounts. On too many occasions I saw posts that made me think about food and therefore caused issues, so I took action to prevent being influenced by it.
Everyone should be aware that a huge percentage of what you see online is a ‘perfect projection’ from someone and usually fails to show the whole picture.
I feel a lot more needs to be done by everyone online, but also by those in sport, to ensure people do not misinterpret what is posted by athletes and brands.
Dealing with my illness, you begin to see signs in other people and I have met many individuals, including a lot of males, that have issues but won’t speak about it or admit the truth. I hope they don’t have to learn the hard way as I did because this shouldn’t be the only way to get help.
While I have had help from specialists and doctors, I believe this sort of illness does not get better until you yourself take hold of it and decide to take action. From my experience, no one can tell you to eat this, eat that, as it will only increase your anxieties about food.
Once you are able to talk to your inner chimp you can begin to reason with yourself about what is right and what is wrong. Setting up a network of people around you is essential and this is where you need your friends and family to assist you as you go through peaks and troughs in your recovery.
I can’t stress enough how talking about my issues has helped me. Still to this day, the more conversations I have, the easier it becomes to rationalise the things I worry about.
I hope at least one person can benefit from what I have had to say and is encouraged to speak up and seek help too.