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'I was in a truly dangerous situation'

There was a time when I was not sure I would ever be able to run again.

When I was 15 years old I developed a psychosomatic disorder; an invisible mental condition that creates very real physical pain. I would feel sick whenever I ate anything, fuelled by the pressure to be so-called ‘perfect’. I thought that under-eating and over-training would help me get faster and give me the results I wanted to see, both in the mirror and on the track, but nothing was ever enough. Eventually I ended up not wanting to eat at all, knowing I would just end up in pain.

I spent two years going through this without a diagnosis. The doctors prescribed me with all sorts of painkillers, but after 12 failed attempts I was eventually referred for a gastroscopy to investigate the source of my pain. The results confirmed that there was no physical source, and I was referred to a psychological specialist. After 8 months of hypnotherapy and CBT, I was finally pain-free and back to eating as I should be.

It’s only when looking back now that I realise how dangerous the situation I was in truly was. I collapsed in school and on the track frequently and barely got through the day without being sent to First Aid. My coach ended up banning me from the track and from all physical exercise, so that the only thing I really wanted to do I no longer could, but it was a necessary evil. My body could not cope. There was a time it was thought I would never be able to return to the track, or even finish school. I was spiralling out of control, but I could not see it.

Last weekend, I competed in Roses Cross Country.

I am now a UK top 80 400m runner, and I never thought I would have been able to say that. My mindset has completely changed and my relationship with food has become one of enjoyment, not dread and resentment. My target is to eat 3,000 calories a day to maintain my training schedule and although I do still find this difficult, I know how important it is to eat properly to fuel my body, so I can train and compete. I am in the best shape of my life and am actually far happier with my body now than when I was not eating. I am living proof that starving yourself does not give you the results you want and that fuelling your body is crucial to achieving your goals.

The mind is extremely powerful, but it is crucial to know that it is not something that can just be controlled. After my diagnosis, many people used to say to me that the pain ‘was all in my head’ but this was just not the case. The pain was real, the pain was debilitating, and the pain would not just be wished away.

I was extremely fortunate to have an incredible support network around me who helped me get better, and quite frankly I owe them my life. I want everyone to learn from my lesson and if you only take one message from my story I want it to be this: you are stronger than you know. I used to think I would never be able to get through the day, but my days of being in pain are over. I finished school and have made it to university and made an extraordinary comeback to the sport I love. I am now able to run pain-free, and it is the biggest sigh of relief to be able to say that.

Roses 'BEAT' story - by Francesca Riley