Not all storms come to disrupt your life; some come to clear your path. – Paulo Coehlo
This message was originally going to be titled “Erin 7.0” or maybe “Facing Fundamental Flaws.” But the weeks have slipped by with ease, filled with focused training and work and enjoying the transition of seasons almost as much as my body’s changes.
And not changes in the way you might think. Yes, the shoulder is healed and I’m back to double poling, doing prone combo, and many push up variations. Lately however, I’ve also been enjoying changes that were a long time coming and painfully difficult, but in hindsight so obviously necessary it’s laughable. You see, this post would now need to be called “Erin 11.0,” and maybe in a few weeks, “Erin 13.0”, and so on and so forth, as I have gained eleven pounds since surgery and am damn proud of it. Maybe “She’s f&*%ing finally walking the walk, not just talking the talk” would be the most appropriate title.
Very few people know that I had I NOT re-dislocated my shoulder this past winter, I would have retired from biathlon and moved on to the next chapter of my life. I would have rounded out my European tours and finished at Nationals and thrown in the towel. At that time, I was frustrated with lack of speed and power on the ski course and therefore struggling to hit all my standing targets; all while knowing I hadn’t made many of my goals in sport, but feeling as if I’d basically done all I could. Given my blood, sweat, and tears full-time since age 18.
Then my shoulder hung out of the joint for 90 minutes and I realized I’m actually capable of a lot more than I thought I am. A rude awakening, if you will. I first thought this injury was the universe saying, “QUIT ALREADY, how dare you still be pursuing this dream that is clearly never going to come to fruition.” And though it was not easy during the Olympics, I tried not to let myself think about biathlon for a couple of months, one month before and one month after surgery. Living in the liminal space post surgery of not knowing what I should do with my immediate future was more painful than the recovery process itself. Give me wall-fisting and straining for zero degrees of external rotation any day over addressing the slurry of confusion in the mind.
The only thing I prayed for through the entire process was clarity on whether I should retire from sport. That clarity arrived slowly and stealthily, almost like the snow globe that was my life - shaken upside down - was settling; as the sparkles cleared I could see what was actually within the crystal ball.
And what was within was an endurance athlete that had been treating her anxiety issues by controlling her food intake for an entire quadrennial; four long years; the end of my junior career and the entirety of my senior career thus far. What was within was someone with body dysmorphia* so extreme she was 5’9” and 122 pounds going into the winter of “her real shot” at an Olympics, but still worried her (very flat) ass was too big to carry up the hills. Little did she know she didn’t even have enough muscle mass to properly propel the length of her limbs at the speed she needed to be moving at; let alone enough flesh to support hormone health and have a regular cycle.
The only “ah-ha” Eureka moment I experienced was during the 24hr fog of general anesthetic post surgery, seeing a photo of myself racing in the Canada suit, and wondering who that waif was, and why she wasn’t using her legs to ski properly. And then realizing that the cold hard truth was, that was me, I really WASN’T strong enough to ski fast in this sport that requires so much power, and in my relentless pursuit of my sport and “getting lean,” I’d taken it way too far. I was never going to be as lean as I wished to be – I don’t have the genetics for paper thin skin over defined muscles – and I’d gotten to the point where I was burning through the little muscle mass I actually possessed. I am using the numbers in this post because I want to have 100% transparency. For comparison, Paula Radcliffe was 5’8” and 119lbs when she set the world record in the marathon – a very different sport from mine – I need to produce high power and speed for ~18-50min long ski races.
I realized that there was no “right” or “wrong” decision about whether I was “meant” to continue biathlon; there was only the truth: that I was too thin and too weak to ever ski at the speed I wanted to. And whatever decision I made, moving on or continuing, wouldn’t really matter anyways, as it would be the decision I was destined to make. I do believe in fate, and that we all have a greater purpose on this Earth. If we listen to our intuition and look for the signs the universe is showing us, we will muddle our way along the path we were meant to take; learn the lessons we need to learn; and, interact with all the people and places we need to know and experience.
The warrior realizes these repeat experiences have but one aim: to teach her what she does not want to learn. - PC
So in using some fundamental decision theory, I realized that I had two options. I could either A) finish my schooling and continue self-medicating my need for the illusion of control through the use of the bathroom scale, and aim my neurotic tendencies towards another sport…. or, I could B) face the gnarly demon in the mirror and continue my pursuit of mastery in the sport I love so much, and still felt I had unfinished business with.
Choice B was the much more difficult one; I’d have to rebuild my fitness and strength post surgery; it was unknown at the time if I’d be able to shoot or ski with two poles properly again; I’d have to fight for new and returning sponsors and my places on teams… And, most of all, I’d have to learn to let go of the illusion of control that had made me feel grounded for so many years, learning to say f&#* it to the voice inside that desperately wanted me to be perfect.
But in sitting in the discomfort of the liminal space, I knew there was also a light inside me that needed to grow and evolve…it was time to face the demon in the mirror. I was ok with the worst-case outcome of this decision; my international results not improving…but I was not ok with the worse-case outcome of moving on from sport; never knowing if in turning over this massive stone in my sporting journey could end up in faster skiing. I owed it to myself, and to the many other women and girls out there suffering silently in similar ways, to find out.
So, because the only way I know how to live is passionately, 110% all-in, I reached out for help and began the messy process that is personal evolution. I truly believe change is a choice, and it has to come from within. The moment we decide to change a fundamental flaw in ourselves - the moment we decide to live in alignment with the truth - is a tipping point we can’t return from. Which is lucky, because as much as the demons come out when I’m tired or sad, I know deep down I don’t want to return to the dark side, ever.
Warriors of light are not perfect. Their beauty lies in accepting this fact and still desiring to grow and to learn. - PC
There are a lot of mundane details about the process of gaining strength as an endurance athlete you may or may not be interested in. Please reach out if there’s anything at all you would like to know about recovering from issues like this – I have nothing to hide! In flipping over this massive log in my path, with gross grubs and stuff underneath, I figured I’d at least share the juiciest ones:
Change is really, really hard. Owning up to your biggest flaws, weaknesses, and vices takes grit and guts and really WANTING to be a better person than you were before. And I want this, I really do, to be strong and powerful and not hindered all the time by thoughts of food or what my pull on gravity says about my self worth. But it’s taking a lot of courage to face that demon in the mirror, day after day, and realize I literally can’t trust the view I have of myself. I’d gotten so twisted, I saw things that weren’t really there (too much fat)…and I was completely ignoring the things that were absent (muscle mass and a period). It’s time to live in truth now.
For 3 years now my coach had told me to gain weight. I talked the talk with teammates, friends, and family about eating more and having healthy hormone levels, but I only tried half heartedly to walk the walk…and that was basically via an attempt at progesterone stimulus and tweaking my macros by including a little more fat in my diet. What it actually took to get a regular period back was gaining weight: being in a positive caloric balance for a few months IN A ROW. And you know what, for those of you who are scared to do so, like I was, it doesn’t event take that much. You don’t have to throw your other healthy habits to the wind and eat a pint of ice cream every day. You just have to listen to your body and trust your hunger signals.
‘That’s just how it is,’ thinks the warrior. ‘I was the one who chose to walk this path.’
In these words lie all her power: she chose the path along which she is walking, and so has no complaints. - PC
Coaches, I challenge you to check in with your female athletes every month. A lean, healthy endurance athlete CAN have a regular cycle EVERY month year-round. It’s actually not rocket science and doesn’t even require hormone therapy, acupuncture, or any other special secret. I know because I am a hypothyroid control freak with high cortisol and low testosterone, that didn’t even hit puberty until age 19, and still I managed to get mine back.
Overall, I don’t know why this subject is still so goddamn taboo. As women we’re lucky we have a (literal) red warning flag saying “whoa, you’re not in energy balance right now.” For male endurance athletes, it’s trickier, yes…. but I do wonder if men feel slightly less pressure to look a certain way, or if most have less tendencies towards perfectionism. I’m not sure. But I do know if we want our young women to be strong, fast, badass endurance athletes, we need to prioritize complete physical health. We need to see the bigger picture from the bird’s eye view: first and foremost the mind needs to be healthy, endocrine system and physical body running smoothly, and soul happy. Even though other women, some very close to me, told me that same message a number of years ago, I still had to learn the hard way…so it makes me sad to think how many deaf ears this message will fall on. And determined to wake some of them up to reality before it’s too late.
A lot of female endurance athletes have suffered from similar issues, usually caused by a similar mindset to mine. You only have to read Olympic Champion Jessie Diggins’ latest blog, runner/writer/businesswoman/mother/coach extraordinaire Lauren Fleshman’s opinions on the topic, or even my own previous attempts to overcome this to see how pervasive body dysmorphia*, disordered eating, and RED-S** (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport - this term replaced the “female athlete triad” about three years ago) really are…and how difficult they are to overcome. Part of the problem is the taboo nature of the topic: the lack of open conversation between most athletes and their coaches, support team, teammates, family, and friends. One of my pet peeves about women in endurance sport is the “gee, you look fit right now” comment we make to each other on the trails/track/gym. “You look fit,” I have found, is code for “you should be eating more; you’re getting too thin.” But no one ever comes out and says that to your face...I think it’s this urge to somehow communicate that you’ve gone too far, but not knowing how to say it.
In writing this, I want to make it clear that it’s ok to just reach out to others and ASK if they’re doing ok. Let’s no longer skirt around this issue. While we’re at it, let’s compliment each other’s emotional and mental strengths a hell of a lot more than our physical bodies. If I heard “gee, you are one smart, sassy skier” for every time someone said “gee, you look fit” my ego would be bigger than Beyonce’s (she walk like this cuz she can back it up…).
In closing, I want to leave everyone with a challenge. Face that fear you’ve been hiding in the closet for years. Dust off your courage and make the change you don’t want to make; do the impossibly hard thing you don’t think you ever could. Ask not what you want from life, but what life wants from you… what’s trying to come into being through you?
Because let me tell you, I spent four long years unwilling to change my mindset; resisting the light and strength that was growing inside me, dying to be set free. I told myself I was not lean enough; I was not fast enough; I would always have to be a “quick and light” athlete and not a “power skier.” Turns out, I was wrong. 110% passionately, all-in, wrong. I can be physically and mentally strong, and it wasn’t even that hard, now that I’m reflecting back on it… So ok, the strength workouts have been soul-crushingly difficult, the grocery bills have gone up, and letting go of so much control in my life is still an ongoing process, but that’s about it… The most difficult part was the tipping point: owning up to my flaw and recognizing that there was a part of me that was holding me back. I was lean and light, but I was tired and weighed down by the shame, stress, and drudgery of my neuroticism. There’s a much more fun, freer way to live, and it involves embracing who I am - thick arms, stronger ass, flaws, and all.
To attain her dream, she needs a strong will, and an enormous capacity for acceptance. - PC
So I have to thank my sisters, teammates, parents, friends, coaches, nutrition coach, sport psychologist, visceral therapist, massage therapist, hypnotherapist, and mentors for every day helping me fumble my way forward toward the light. No one ever said change was easy, but they did say it would be worth it. I have felt ashamed of these hidden demons for years, but now I accept that the longing to continue in sport, this flame inside, still burns because I hadn’t yet seen my journey through to its bitter glorious end. I could go out weak, with a shoulder dangling from its socket, a DNF next to my name, or I could fight a little longer and learn to accept both the darkness and light within me. I think part of the fire inside is I need to leave a legacy behind whenever I close out this chapter of my life. As much as I would have liked that legacy to be an international gold, I think my legacy was working through this incredibly complicated issue; advocating for others going through the same thing; and who knows, maybe showing you can come back from it a badass. We’ll see what the next while brings.
I didn’t ask for this to be my legacy, but we don’t get what we want from life; we get what we need from it. So for now, I’ll keep working every damn day to be a better version of myself in my pursuit of mastery: kinder, stronger, and wiser. And hopefully inspire and assist others as they turn over their own stones in any small way I can.
That is why she is a Warrior of the Light, because she has been through all this and yet has never lost hope of being better than she is. - PC
*Body Dysmorphia: a mental disorder in which you can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that, to others, is either minor or not even observable (ie. Fat that doesn’t exist). But you may feel so ashamed and anxious that you avoid social situations that draw attention to it or dress in certain ways to hide it.
**RED-S: Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport is basically a bunch of negative processes caused by low energy availability. It causes a whack-load of detrimental health outcomes (not just a triad as previously thought) including but not limited to: hormonal/ menstrual/reproductive issues, low bone density, psychological issues (depression, irritability, anxiety, neuroticism, OCD behaviour, etc.), lower protein synthesis, low immune function, disordered eating patterns, insomnia/extreme fatigue, and the list goes on.
A special thank-you to Peter Collins Photography for all of the roller skiing, running, and other epic-looking photos in this post. Special thanks also to my fiction literary hero, my mom, for transferring her love of storytelling to me…and to my non-fiction hero, Brad Stulberg, for having the courage to share his own personal battles. Lastly, thank you to Florence and the Machine and her new album “High as Hope” for getting me through the grind (and, ok, Classified's "She Ain't Gotta do Much").
This is where the latest RMR news will be posted. Postings will be contributed by numerous RMR athletes, RMR volunteers, and the coaches.