PCT Prep with an Eating Disorder, A Process of Recovery

“I just ate cake for breakfast.”

This is the text message one of my best friends had to wake up to on her birthday, when she should have been having breakfast cake.

“And now I’m trying not to panic.”

These are the kind of thoughts I’m experiencing during recovery.

“One good point for allowing yourself to eat the cake in the first place. But wait. It’s not about keeping track, ” Recovery Me says. So how about, “Cake is a food. You need to eat food. You simply ate breakfast, neither good nor bad.”

“But you can only have it because you are about to hike eight miles, and then you have to count calories for the rest of the day,” says ED (eating disorder) Brain Me.

“No. No. No. You need to delete the calorie counting app from your phone, and focus on doing things that make you feel good and build strength.” Recovery Me, again.

OK. I delete the app. And then reinstall it. And then promise to delete it later.  And keep walking up the hill, fighting the small voice in the back of my head that sometimes says the only reason I’m hiking the PCT is so I can finally be as thin as I want to be. (It’s not the only reason, but my ED brain has a tendency to discredit my goals.)

These are the things at the forefront of my mind as I prepare for walking from Mexico to Canada. Resupply planning has been a bit triggering, with the counting calories a legitimately necessary practice for the first time in my life. A few months ago my therapist told me to stop counting calories altogether, and to get rid of my scale. I did both for a while and my eating disorder almost instantly subsided considerably. But I have been tempted by the wiles of both counting and weighing in the last few weeks.

It is a daily struggle to get a handle on balance. In order to be my strongest self, I have to get back into the habit of making growth and strength the goals, rather than weight loss. This is so hard to do, and I know many people reading right now can relate. For our entire lives we are told to be smaller, thinner, faster—so we can be “better.” So we are worthy. Rerouting the neural pathways in my brain is a a legitimate practice that requires a concerted effort, and I haven’t been doing my homework like I need to be.

When I consider eating, I have a tremendously hard time with the relationship between exercise and food. Something I’m trying to learn is that “You do not have to earn your food.” I have no idea how to understand this, and thru-hiking for five to six months seems to operate in direct opposition to this theory. All I’ll do for the next half-year is burn calories, eat, repeat. Over and over again. While I am hopeful that having this opportunity to eat without restriction will help to reset my tendencies, I am also wary of developing other negative habits.

I am definitely looking forward to the absence of mirrors. Ah, the freedom of feeling of what it is like to be in a body, rather than outside of it. Each time I backpack I feel better about my physical being, in the absence of criticizing my own reflection. Just a few more weeks and this will be my every day.

As someone who has frequented patterns of restrictive and binge eating, I am currently working on a mental allowance to eat a “normal” number of calories daily. Thru-hiking culture has a tendency to normalize binge eating on town days, and sometimes hikers will intentionally pack too few calories, with weight loss as a goal. I fear both of these behaviors for their imbalanced nature.

A few things I’ve been focusing on in my pre-trail preparations include:

  • Identifying my fears, and acknowledging them. If I do it now, they will scare me less once on trail. This includes more serious life-approach fears, as mentioned above, as well as simple things  such as feeling inadequate with a pocket knife.
  • I put food in my resupplies that I know I’ll feel good about eating, to help me balance some of the resupplies I don’t feel so great about (when in a pinch). I’ve gotten amazing (nutritional) support from Rx Bar and ProBar. I’ve also demo-ed and repacked some of my own recipes for on trail that I would be happy to share with you. (i.e., chocolate protein chia, chipotle-cabbage hash with scrambled eggs, ramen flavor/nutrient boosts).
  • I’d like to think I’m going to force myself to eat nearly hourly, to avoid the bonk/binge trap frequented by hikers. I know I can’t know what works for my body until on trail, but at least I’m going in with good intentions.
  • I’m reading Pacific Crest Trials, by Zach Davis (founder of The Trek), and thru-hiker Carly Moore. I’ve spent a lot of the last few years focusing on challenging my thought process, and this book is proving to be an invaluable and amusing source of connection. There are some excellent writing exercises in this text to inspire and motivate.
  • I’m talking to you and others about my process, and asking for help.

Other things I am working toward?

I want to know more about nutritional needs for athletes. I’ve also begun practicing SSRI (a breathing technique championed by my homeopathic chiropractor) to calm and center myself when I start to spin out.

As my start date looms, I oscillate between anxious fear and excitement. I think this is normal. And I’m pretty sure some of the other things I’ve mentioned are a lot more common than the general thru-hiking community might realize. Is this conversation prompting a response from you? Please share it with me. Seriously. I’m not writing this for myself alone. I want to have a conversation, and I welcome your struggles, insight, methods of planning—anything!

I hope this gives you some support, inspires questions, and maybe even prompts you to question your own process. I’ll keep writing about mine as I slowly work through each day.

Hike your own hike.

Lead photo courtesy of Adrian Carrio.

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Comments 6

  • OnlyHadTwoBeers : Feb 3rd

    An incredibly thoughtful and insightful post.

    Girls, for generations, have been oppressed by how females are valued; principally by appearance, especially weight.

    Sadly, this preverse pressure is metastasizing to some of our brethren. I’ve noticed this food/appearance/obsession in a few young men. I grieve for them.

    It’s a soul sucking burden that distracts from peace, and the pursuit of development that lends one to economic freedom. Let’s just hope our men won’t find themselves ushered into further refinement in ‘Finishing Schools’ rather than Universities. Resist!

    For the guys who never ponder the food/weight/appearance thing, carry forth!

    Once women can also give two shitz, and the skids are applied to similarly affected males, everyone’s lives will improve.

  • Mike S : Feb 3rd

    Oh, it’s about eating disorder. What was I thinking?

  • TicTac : Feb 3rd

    I’m with Mike S. here. I was relieved to see that you were writing about an eating disorder. The headline of the story immediately made me wonder why anyone would have a problem completing a thru-hike when they suffer from erectile dysfunction… I don’t mean to make light of your struggle Leah, but in a day and age when women’s health care decisions are argued over, debated, and controlled at the highest levels of government (by MEN of course…) but ads for medications for men who can’t get an erection are common fodder on all media outlets, E.D. has a loaded meaning. Good luck on your NoBo this year.

    • Leah King : Feb 4th

      To TicTac and Mike S.– thank you for mentioning this! As someone who has cultivated a social media sphere where the common abbreviation is for “eating disorder”, I had lost sight of the more mainstream interpretation. A good note to change it.

  • Josie : Aug 4th

    Thank you for this post. I am starting the JMT NOBO in a week, and all the calorie counting for meal prep and many comments from others about how much weight I will lose on the trail and how much I get to eat, etc. has been triggering. This article helped me not feel alone in this. Again, thanks for the insightful and brave post. 🙂

  • Roxanne : Jan 2nd

    Would it be possible to contact Leah? I can’t find an email address. Thanks!


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