‘I Don’t Run To Burn Calo­ries Any­more’

Anorexia stole her teenage years, but Hope Virgo fought hard to over­come her demons and re­dis­cover the joy of run­ning

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

How run­ning helped Hope Virgo re­cover from anorexia

AS A BRIGHT young woman and a pub­lished au­thor, and with a 3:26 marathon un­der her belt, it’s hard to imag­ine 26-year-old Hope Virgo as she was nine years ago: liv­ing on a psy­chi­atric ward bat­tling the eat­ing dis­or­der that had rav­aged her mind and body to the point where her heart al­most stopped.

At the age of 13, strug­gling to deal with an of­ten tu­mul­tuous fam­ily life and a trau­matic re­la­tion­ship, Hope be­gan lim­it­ing her food in­take and skip­ping meals. ‘I stopped eat­ing as a way to cope with how I was feel­ing,’ she says. This soon de­vel­oped into anorexia.

A keen young ath­lete, Hope’s free time had al­ways been filled with ex­tracur­ric­u­lar sports – she en­joyed cross-coun­try, hockey

and net­ball af­ter school – but as her ill­ness got worse, ex­er­cise be­gan to take on a sin­is­ter role in her life, be­com­ing a method of self-con­trol. ‘I ended up miss­ing a lot of school be­cause I couldn’t be both­ered; I wanted to ex­er­cise in­stead. Pretty much every Fri­day af­ter­noon I’d miss school and go to the gym.’

Hope’s ob­ses­sion with con­trol­ling her diet and over-ex­er­cis­ing blocked out the painful emo­tions she was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. How­ever, her strug­gles didn’t go un­no­ticed by her fam­ily, who be­came in­creas­ingly con­cerned about her eat­ing habits and be­hav­iour. ‘Most fam­ily meal­times would end up with a mas­sive ar­gu­ment,’ she re­calls. ‘It had a big im­pact on my younger brother, as my mum would ask him to make sure I’d eaten breakfast. He’d of­ten get an­noyed with me and then we’d ar­gue about that.’

‘It was a very un­happy time. Not eat­ing made me feel bet­ter and I en­joyed the feel­ing as the weight dropped off, but it was al­ways short-lived, as it never felt like enough. Anorexia made me feel like I wasn’t good enough and I got trapped in a cy­cle that lasted through my teenage years.’

Fi­nally, Hope’s school and fam­ily con­vinced her to at­tend out­pa­tient treat­ment with the Child and Ado­les­cent Men­tal Health Ser­vices. But she found ways to trick them into think­ing she had gained weight while she con­tin­ued to lose it. One week, they caught her out. ‘My mum got re­ally strict with mon­i­tor­ing me af­ter that, so I re­sorted to mak­ing my­self sick af­ter the meals she was mak­ing me eat.’

In Novem­ber 2007, mat­ters were taken out her hands. Af­ter col­laps­ing on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, the 17-year-old was given an elec­tro­car­dio­gram (ECG), which con­firmed that her heart was se­verely dam­aged. The next day, she was ad­mit­ted to an ado­les­cent psy­chi­atric ward, where she spent the next year. With the ward’s strict rules around eat­ing, Hope gained weight quickly. How­ever, her men­tal re­cov­ery took much longer. ‘My weight went up re­ally quickly but the men­tal stuff doesn’t change that fast. For the first few weeks I felt rub­bish all the time but I re­alised that I had to do some­thing to change it. I had to learn to talk about how I was feel­ing.’

Eight months into her stay, there were signs of im­prove­ment and Hope was al­lowed to run again. ‘I’d go out for a 20-minute run twice a week with one of the nurses. They taught me about the dan­gers of overex­er­cise and en­cour­aged me to ex­er­cise with a more bal­anced ap­proach.’

It worked – and since she was dis­charged, Hope has con­tin­ued to re­con­nect with the joy of run­ning. ‘I don’t do it to burn calo­ries any­more, I do it be­cause I en­joy it,’ she says. ‘Part of it is about be­ing on my own and just switch­ing off from ev­ery­thing.’

Hope ran the Lon­don Marathon in 2011; she fin­ished in four hours and raised more than £1,000 for men­tal health char­ity Mind. But it wasn’t un­til 2015, when she ran the Brighton Marathon, that ‘ev­ery­thing clicked into place. I trained re­ally well for it and was eat­ing prop­erly. I was aim­ing for 3:45, but fin­ished in 3:26. As I neared the fin­ish I tried to say to my boyfriend, who was watch­ing, “Oh my god, I’m go­ing to do un­der 3:30,” and he shouted, “Just run!”’

Hope now feels able to use a watch to mea­sure pace and dis­tance – some­thing she couldn’t trust her­self to do a few years ago with­out get­ting ob­sessed, push­ing her­self too hard. She has writ­ten a book – Stand Tall, Lit­tle Girl – about her ex­pe­ri­ences with anorexia. ‘I got frus­trated be­cause peo­ple talk about men­tal health in such a neg­a­tive way,’ she says. ‘ They get trapped in the idea that you can’t re­cover – you’re al­ways go­ing to be liv­ing with it. I still have bad days, but I man­age it now and I know what to do stay well. I want to share my story to show oth­ers that you can get bet­ter.’

Hope Virgo has learned how to run for just the un­al­loyed joy of it; (be­low), show­ing off her medal af­ter the 2016 Rich­mond Half Marathon

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