Overcoming disordered eating to find success in ultras
Sarah McMahon joined her sixth-grade cross country team at the urging of a friend. The simplicity of the sport was a surprise.
“When I got to practice, all we had to do was run,” she recalls. “That's all it was. But I kind of just stumbled into something I was good at, honestly.”
Indeed she was — and is. McMahon placed at her first meet in junior high where she grew up in the small town of Colfax, Wis. She won 12 second-place medals in state meets, finishing behind Saucony athlete Molly Seidel. McMahon earned All-American status in cross country at Bradley University in Illinois. More recently she took third place at the Sean O’Brien 100K in California.
While McMahon enjoyed early success as an athlete, she also delved into disordered eating about the same time.
Around age 10, she began restricting food, exercising obsessively and growing concerned about body image.
“It got worse in high school, and it got really bad in college,” she remembers. “The pressure to perform was really high. I saw all these runners around me who were just tiny and thin. I was like, ‘Well, if I'm tiny and thin, I'll be just as fast as them.’"
‘I wanted to be good. I wanted to be fast.’
Eating disorders are a common trait among runners.
“I've met a lot of runners who've had eating disorders,” she says. “The trajectory is always the same. You lose a bunch of weight and you're fast for a few months, maybe a year. Then you start to plateau, and then you probably get hurt. That happened to me. I got to get a little boost, and then I just kind of plateaued, and then I got hurt.”
At Bradley, McMahon competed at a high level but became injured during her senior year. Hip surgery forced her to take a year off.
Her college coach was “very, very concerned with our weight. He would weigh us every time we went into the weight room, and our body fat was taken,” she says. “He really emphasized weight. I remember after my freshman year, he told me to go home and lose 20 pounds, and he told me I'd be a better runner.”
McMahon understood that there were many variables that could affect performance. Still, she wanted to excel at her sport.
“That's such a bad coaching tactic because there could be a million things going on that could impact your performance other than weight,” she says. “They zeroed in on that as the first thing to address. That definitely made it worse because I just wanted to be good. I wanted to be fast.”
At the time she was taking diet pills and diuretics. Her boyfriend encouraged her to get help.
“I was bulimic for a while, and I would restrict heavily,” she says. “I ordered diet pills on Amazon. He opened the package, and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ That's when I realized this might be a problem, and so I sought help at the campus mental counseling center.”
McMahon was referred to a nearby outpatient program and has been in therapy ever since. “It was tough to come to terms with my eating disorder, but I think it's something that is common in the running community because there's such emphasis on body weight and size.”
Through all the miles, through her battle with disordered eating, McMahon has stayed mentally sharp. “I just really liked how mentally challenging running was,” she says. “A lot of it was the mental challenge of staying in it and seeing how good I could be. I was really obsessed for a long time with seeing how fast I could get.”
The unintentional vegan
Running became her salvation from the eating disorder.
“Running was the one place I could go and kind of escape my eating disorder,” she says. “When my injury came, it really made me re-evaluate my relationship with running because my identity was so wrapped in it for so long that I had to take a step back and figure out what else I was interested in or wanted to do with my life. It was good for me. That injury was really good for me.”
Today, McMahon follows a vegan diet. Even though she grew up in an area where hunting is prevalent, she feels better without eating meat. She also dropped dairy after learning she’s lactose intolerant.
“I didn't intentionally choose to be vegan, but that's just where I'm at now,” she says. “I eat when I'm hungry. I see a dietician who teaches intuitive eating, and it's all about listening to your body's hunger cues, really tuning in and eating what your body is telling you you need.”
McMahon’s weight has been consistent for the past five years. “I feel healthier and better than ever.
My diet is just being really intuitive with my body, listening to my body and just avoiding animal products.”
As an endurance athlete, she also enjoys quicker recovery thanks to the vegan diet. A few days after finishing Sean O'Brien, her first 100K, McMahon says she felt fine. “I've remained pretty injury-free, so I do notice the recovery is quick.”
McMahon does prioritize getting enough protein, usually with tempeh and tofu.
“I really love tempeh,” she says. “But there's protein in everything. There's protein in fruits and vegetables, and I eat a lot of legumes and beans and seeds. I don't ever feel like I'm at a protein deficit. I've never been tired. I'm not anemic anymore. I was anemic when I was anorexic. I had super low iron levels and I was on an iron supplement forever, and I'm off that now even without eating any red meat or anything like that.”
She recommends vegan athletes take B12 supplements, but more importantly to get bloodwork done to get a better understanding of any deficiencies. (I swear by InsideTracker to get my bloodwork analyzed and the customized recommendations that follow. Check them out and use this special link for a 15 percent discount.)
Re-igniting the fire
After finishing at Bradley, McMahon felt burned out. That’s also when she entered treatment and didn’t run for about eight or nine months. “I didn't know if I would want to run again, especially after my bad experiences with my coaches and my injuries. The fire that I had before, it was just totally gone.”
In 2017, she ran the Chicago Marathon. “I didn't hate it, but I also didn't love it. ‘Maybe this road racing thing isn't for me,’" she wondered.
Then a move to California and a discovery of trails changed everything.
"Trails are way more fun,” says McMahon, who did her first trail marathon last summer followed by her first 50-miler. "That's what I'm doing now, and I love it."
She did another 50-miler — winning the That’s No Moon Ultras in Silverado, Calif.— before moving to Sean O'Brien.
“I was pretty nervous going in (to Sean O’Brien) just because I hadn't run that distance before, and for some reason, mentally, 62 miles felt so much longer than 50 even though it's not. I was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is crazy.’ The morning of the race, it was so cold, and I was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It was like 32 degrees at the starting line.”
McMahon knows to be patient during ultras.
“I can start real conservatively and pick people off,” she says. “You can see when people are waning a little bit. I dialed in my nutrition. I was eating at least every 30 minutes. I was taking some fuel and I was using Fluid (the brand) as a nutrition and making sure I was drinking enough. That was my big mistake in my first 50-miler. I didn't eat or drink enough, and it really bit my ass, so I just made sure that was really dialed in, and I felt pretty good the whole time. I don't know if I could go faster or whatnot, but I'm really excited to do another a 100K and see how I can improve.”
McMahon is heading back to Wisconsin for the Ice Age 50 this year and then will hit the 100-mile distance at Kodiak, where she did her first 50K. “I'm excited to go back there. I know a bunch of people that do that race every year. I just love the environment of Kodiak. It's really fun.”
Advocating for mental health
For McMahon, running and writing are what define her. No motivation required.
“Running is a good way to test myself to see what I can accomplish,” she says. “I'm never angry after I run. I always regret not running, but I've never regretted going for a run. The motivation is pretty innate at this point. I've been doing it for so long that it's hard to imagine my life without it. There'd be a pretty big hole in my life if I gave up running. It' social for me. It's a mental challenge. It's everything.”
Like me, McMahon is an ambassador for Bigger than the Trail, a group that advocates for mental health through trail running. (Please join me in supporting mental health through trail running.)
“Mental health is still so hard for people to talk about,” she says. “It's very shameful. When I first admitted out loud that I had an eating disorder, it was so terrifying to me because I felt like something was broken. Mental illnesses can’t be seen, even eating disorders. Even people who are overweight can have an eating disorder. Same is true for depression or anxiety or anything.”
BTTT is focused on getting people to talk about mental health and getting them the help they need.
“I love their mission,” she says. “It's such a cool organization, and it kind of blends two of my big loves, running and mental health. It just felt like such a perfect fit. Everyone on that team is just super down to earth, amazing people. I really love that organization.”
‘Recovery is totally possible’
McMahon is in a good place now. She’s running competitively. She is controlling her eating disorder. She is spreading joy.
“Now that I have a healthier relationship with my body and with food, I feel a hundred times better,” she says. “I feel healthier. I feel like I can run longer. I'm stronger.”
She sees food as fuel, not the enemy.
“Before I had to run to earn my food,” she says. “Therapy has definitely helped me be more in tune with my body and my dietary needs.”
With her diet and mental awareness in place, she is able to push through challenging times.
“I had some dark moments during Sean O'Brien where I just wanted to give up,” she recalls. “I felt terrible physically for a while, but then having a positive mindset can pull you out of that. It's kind of interesting how powerful our minds are.”
McMahon knows she will have to continue to stay strong and focused so her eating disorder does not negatively affect her.
“I always want to tell anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder, they're not alone,” she advises. “It's such a prevalent issue, especially in the running community. When I was really, really sick with my eating disorder, my liver was shutting down. I was not in a good place physically or mentally at all. I got through it, and anyone can. Recovery is totally possible.”
Name: Sarah McMahon
Hometown: Colfax, Wis., and now I live in Laguna Beach, Calif.
Number of years running: 15 (started at 12!)
How many miles a week do you typically run: Between 35 and 60, depending on my training cycle.
Point of pride: I really pride myself on never giving up. I think most limitations are self-imposed, and the key to being successful is just getting out of my own way. If something scares me, I know I should probably pursue that thing. Not giving up is something I take pride in across all aspects of life, not just running. But pushing through a difficult race or workout gives me that extra confidence boost to remind myself that I can, in fact, do difficult things.
Favorite race distance: Currently, 50 miles. I love that I can finish in a day (no night running), and it's mentally pretty manageable at this point.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I usually have oatmeal before a race, with a banana and some peanut butter. During races I use cliff blocks, liquid nutrition like carbopro, and usually eat whatever looks good at aid stations. Sometimes that's citrus and sometimes that's potato chips.
Favorite piece of gear: This is tough! I love my Orange Mud Endurance pack. It holds two liters, which is perfect for long mountain runs. I also love my Altras. I run all my long runs and races in the Altra Olympus, which have thick soles that allow me to run over pretty large rocks and not feel anything. I specifically love the zero drop/foot shape of Altras. I have wide, monkey feet, so they need all that extra room!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don't really run to music. I prefer a podcast/audiobook or nothing. My favorite podcasts include Rich Roll, The Guilty Feminist, You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes and Freakonomics.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: I love my mantra! I only started using this last year, but it works, "I am strong. I am capable. Nothing can bring me down."
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Blog: https://www.theprosiest.com
• Instagram @the_prosiest
• Facebook just as Sarah McMahon.