on Dec. 14, 2012 :
About a year and a half ago, a post on LetsRun led me to She was Once a Runner, a blog written by an anonymous runner about her college running career, an experience destroyed by a disturbed psyche and an unhealthy environment filled with her toxic coach, teammates, and parents. Quite different from the usual running books you see, like Running with the Buffaloes and Running for the Hansons, but unfortunately a story that proved to be all-too-familiar with many athletes on LetsRun, who all chimed in with their own experiences as they waited eagerly for updates. When the author stopped updating her blog (she did eventually publish the rest of her story on Smashwords), one poster managed to get in touch with her, posting an interview with SWOAR's author on her own blog, Training on Empty. This poster was Lize Brittin, whom those of you up on their running history trivia may recognize as four-time Colorado state cross-country and track champion, Pikes Peak Ascent record holder, and elite mountain runner. However, Brittin also struggled with an eating disorder, one that would eventually end her elite career (and nearly her life). Training on Empty (the name of her book as well as her blog) is the story of both her fight with the disease and how she eventually managed to overcome it.
Training on Empty is dark and disturbing (moreso than I even expected, having previously read both Brittin's blog and the full text of SWOAR), yet is also somehow captivating and impossible to put down, as Brittin tells the story of her troubled childhood and dance with death with the same easy to read style with which she writes on her blog. A definite page-turner, I finished it in a day. Though anyone who reads her blog knows how the book ends (and anyone with a shred of common sense can see that she must be alive if she wrote the book), I still found it impossible to put down until I saw how Brittin found her way out of her personal hell, a hell into which she spent years spiraling deeper and deeper, and a hell from which many never escape.
Training on Empty is also refreshing in that it's a story told from the perspective of someone who has been there: been there as an elite athlete, and been there at the lowest depths of an eating disorder. This isn't a textbook written by some psychiatrist who's detached from his writing, nor is it some psychology grad student's thesis that he wrote just so he can graduate. This is the personal life story of an athlete who has been at the very top...an athlete who also happens to be a woman who suffered from an eating disorder and who has also been at the very bottom. Brittin spares no details in her description of her struggle. There is no glorification or romanticization, just pure, brutal, painful, terrifying, and heartbreaking honesty. Considering how dark this book gets, it's almost surprising that there was a light at the end of the tunnel at all for Brittin. That light at the end of the tunnel is part of what makes this book so powerful...it's easy for a psychiatrist to write a book on something in which they specialize. It's much different when you realize how Brittin opens herself to the world, and the ending has the powerful potential to give the reader that glimmer of hope that despite the fact that it's a terrifying path to let go of the one thing that you feel is keeping you safe but is also simultaneously blocking your path to recovery, there can be happiness on the other side of the scary part.
Interspersed between the biographical chapters on Brittin's life are chapters containing information on eating disorders. Most of this information I have seen before, but it is certainly informative for those who have not. However, I definitely enjoyed ("enjoyed" may not be the right word here, but you know what I mean) the biographical chapters better. Brittin's writing truly shines when she talks about her own experiences, and the other chapters lack some of the style and personality that makes both the biographical chapters and her blog so interesting. However, they definitely serve a purpose in the book and certainly have the potential to help inform many people about eating disorders.
I'm glad that Brittin finally explains why coach Bobby McGee was such an important figure in her life. She's mentioned him numerous times in her blog, but I must have missed the part where she said what he's done for her. Training on Empty finally explains his impact on her life.
Also a cool note: the forward is written by Lorraine Moller, Olympian and author of On the Wings of Mercury. Also a very good and highly recommended running book (and very different from Training on Empty).
While I would never consider Training on Empty "light reading," I do think it is an absolute must-read for coaches of any sport where eating disorders are prevalent (and not just women's coaches, but men's coaches as well, since men suffer from eating disorders too). This is a book that anyone who advises athletes, especially young athletes, should, without a doubt, have on their bookshelf (well, technically on their computer, tablet, or eReader, but I digress). This book is also great for anyone who could use a little bit of hope that yes, you can get through this (though there is potentially triggering content...you know who you are if this will have a negative effect on you). And not just for those suffering from eating disorders, but anyone struggling with self-image issues or any type of mental illness or addictive behavior. Finally, this book has the potential to spread awareness. For anyone with a loved one, friend, or teammate who suffers from disordered eating patterns, or for anyone who just seeks to understand the disease from the viewpoint of an anorexic, Training on Empty is extremely informative and eye-opening. I will warn you though that this book is not something that you should give a little girl who's just taking up running and who you want to scare away from eating disorders...mental illness does not work that way, and this book would likely terrify and disturb her.
(reviewed 23 days after purchase)
on Nov. 4, 2012 :
Books by athletes who have survived serious eating disorders, as well as books about EDs presented from a clinician’s point of view, are not in short supply; I’ve read a number of them, and among them have been several well-written, informative, and deeply engaging pieces of literature.
Training on Empty breaks the mold in important ways, and thus presents itself as a genuinely fresh addition to the genre. As I noted, there are personal accounts and there are didactic tomes by medical professionals and other therapeutic types. Brittin, on the other hand, has seamlessly confined a frank and often terrifying personal memoir with a text that explores the psychological, medical, sociological and even spiritual aspects of a range of related illnesses that affect over ten million young people and adults in the United States alone. And critically, she writes as someone who has truly “been there”: She is an unusually accomplished distance runner who at age sixteen set the record at the Pike’s Peak Ascent, one of the preeminent mountain races in the world. She was a two-time finalist at the Kinney (now Foot Locker) National High-School Cross-Country Championships, placing seventh as a senior, and as a college freshman was the runner-up at the TAC (now USATF) Junior National Cross-Country Championships.
In terms of style, Brittin is a straight shooter without being melodramatic, a wordsmith who can turn a phrase without overreaching. “Training on Empty” includes mention of youthful pharmacological and sexual interludes, and descriptions of a tumultuous and sometimes tortured upbringing, but these are presented only to the extent that they help explain their contribution to Brittin’s progression down a diseased path that very nearly ended in her death. By far the most gripping angle, for want of a better term, of the book is Lize’s in-depth description of what it was like to be her own relentless and brutal tormentor for so many years. The fear, the resolve, the pathological ideas and plans and actions that few people could ever conceive of, the relentless hours spent both training and maliciously wounding herself — the way she presents these, particularly in the later chapters when she describes her post-collegiate life in hell, is literally enough to bring a grown man to tears. Yet that’s not the important thing. What is amazing, what sells Brittin’s story – the horrific details of which are far from unique – is that she got well. In reading her account, there are various points at which one expects the book to conclude with the admission that she wrote and submitted the entire thing from within the confines of a psychiatric hospital or medical ward. That she is not only alive but functioning on a better-than-even keel is why people need to read Training On Empty.
Put in metaphorical terms, it’s one thing to write, glass in hand, about being a blackout gutter drunk; it’s another to give vivid, uncompromising and clearly valid descriptions of camping out interminably at death’s door and then describing the way out of that terrible place. This is what Brittin has done in a way I don’t believe many people are capable of. Not only have relatively few people been to the depths that she has, but only a distressingly small fraction of those who have truly recover, and in that group, precious few have the ability or the willingness to put pen to paper and offer their accounts as possible solutions for others suffering from the same poison-ugly problem.
Brittin enchants the reader by interspersing her own story with interludes that include interviews with notable figures in her life who have been privy to her struggles — fellow elite athletes, her own mother, respected running coach Bobby McGee, and others. Even poetry makes an appearance, as does the role of holistic care in healing from anorexia. The foreword is written by Lorraine Moller, a four-time Olympian and the pinnacle of class and thought. Reading the book is like watching your favorite television drama and actually having the commercials be entertaining and memorable in their own right rather than obligatory interruptions.
Brittin, notably and humbly, promises nothing in terms of results. While she has spoken at local high schools and made other overtures aimed at reducing the incidence of her own type of suffering, she matter-of-factly acknowledges that a sea change in attitude is about the only thing that can lead to recovery. At the same time, she describes just how to set up the right conditions. It’s truly titillating as well as exciting.
Yes. Yes, you can get better, and this book proves it. And the author unabashedly reveals what’s needed in order to ensure this.
It would be wrong to simply cheerlead unconditionally, as even the most compelling stories include questionable elements in their telling. True to stereotype, Brittin minimizes her own talent, going to some lengths to portray herself as naturally slow, an awkward and workmanlike runner with an overly clipped gait. As someone who has been around the top levels of the sport for a long time, I can say that this is most likely overstated self-deprecation.
Yet at the same time her downplaying of her talents and accomplishments implicitly adds weight to her work: Anorexics, as Brittin herself ironically notes, are magicians when it comes to seeing the absolute worst in themselves and denying the positive attributes evident to others. So in going overboard here, Brittin offers readers a window into what helped make and keep her sick in the first place, both in her thoughts as a teenager and the way she relates those thoughts even today.
If you’re sensing at this point that I most vociferously approve of this book, you’re catching on. At $5.99 it’s a steal and it can be downloaded in a variety of formats, so there’s no reason not to bite. Even if you aren’t personally affected by an eating disorder and have never run a step in your life, you’ve emerge from reading this captivating memoir more ready to do battle with whatever mental malice-makers might be making the rounds in your days and ways. I guarantee it.
– Kevin Beck
(reviewed 22 days after purchase)