Part 1: The Descent
by The Trailer’s Jon Gugala
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – I knew about Stephen Wassather.
Stephen and I were coworkers at a running shop in Santa Cruz County. We worked sometimes shoulder to shoulder selling socks and shoes and inserts, and during that time Stephen almost died because of an eating disorder that we all knew about but never admitted to knowing as we watched the flesh melt off him like candle wax.
Stephen almost died, and I live with the fact that I was either a coward, or worse, that I just didn’t care enough to say something.
I first met Stephen in the winter of 2011. He was lithe, seemingly smaller than his 5’9” height, with blue eyes and short, brown hair. He’s 22 now; in June he graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz with a degree in modern lit. He still works at a running shop, a different one—not enough hours, he says. He wants to get into freelance editing.
Before I’d met him he’d been a cyclist for three years. He was on his university’s club team, he had a coach, he raced, and he lived in a house of other cyclists. “When I find something that I like I throw everything I have at it,” he says. “Otherwise there’s not much of a point.”
In April 2010, he says, “I just quit.”
There were a number of reasons, he says, but they distill down to the fact that he just didn’t think he could be competitive at the highest level.
After Stephen quit cycling—for him, it’s either all or nothing—he needed something to do to stay fit. So he signed up for a 10K. It went well, so after the race he thought he’d do a marathon. “So I was like, oh, I’ll train for Boston,” he says. “’I’ve heard of that one.’”
This was all in the spring that year. That summer, while I was moving to California and he was in his marathon training, Stephen stumbled onto a 10K trail series. Santa Cruz is surrounded on three sides by state parks (and an ocean on the fourth), and with his home 1.5 miles from a trailhead he soon left the roads behind entirely.
He won the trail series, and before the summer’s end he had signed up for his first 50-miler that fall.
Up to this point, Stephen’s mileage was around 50 miles a week, with a peak of 70. But after his 50-miler in October 2010, he started building. He won his second-ever 50K in November (the first in September as a tune-up for his 50-miler), and this win was both a milestone and a point of departure.
“After that I kept getting closer to 100 miles in a week,” he says, averaging 10-12 miles a day consistently. One hundred became a goal. He hit it by the end of December, and in January 2011, he says, he “really started throwing it down.”
His body was changing. At the time Stephen started running he was 170 pounds, with a “solid upper body.”
With the mileage he was doing, the muscle, he says, was the first thing to go.
You always remember your first.
Stephen was home for Christmas 2010. He thinks it had something to do with how strict he’d been with his diet leading up to that point. And then there were all those Christmas goodies lying around. “I think I’d avoided those for so long,” he says. He gorged himself.
He and his parents were watching a movie, and he remembers sneaking off to the bathroom. It was “surprisingly easy,” he says: There was no finger in the back of the throat; he just forced it up and out and into the toilet.
He rinsed his mouth out with water. He may have sprayed air freshener, although he doesn’t remember for sure.
What he remembers were the feelings.
Confusion: Why have I done this?
Then, frustration: “I’ve always thought that I was stronger than that,” he says.
And then he tried to forget about it.
And then he went back to the movie.
This was around the time I met Stephen. I had just been fired from my first running shop, and so I went and got a job at the only other one in town, which was where he worked.
I remember he liked to run and that he looked fast, the medium stature and lean musculature of the elite distance runners I was interviewing, and I remember at the time that I was usually preoccupied by thinking about paying rent because it is fucking expensive living in Santa Cruz on the income of a freelance-writer-slash-running-store-employee.
And I remember that I despised Stephen. I despised him because he was young and because he was more talented than me, and because he had zero structure to his training compared to my highly regimented routine, and because he was still faster.
Stephen and I did run once. I was training for the 2011 Boston Marathon, and I was doing a race-paced workout of 18 miles: three miles warm-up, 12 miles at 6:30s, and three miles cool-down.
We traded off mile after mile, averaged 6:29s, and I never did find the bottom of his fitness.
People were watching Stephen out of the corners of their eyes.
“There were so many people that were just like, ‘What are you doing? You can’t be running this much. You need to structure your training, or get some goals together,’” he says.
You know the type: It’s not healthy. I read something on the Internet. This magazine says . . .
“It was regular people, older guys who put in however many weeks of training for a marathon, and they do that once a year,” Stephen says. “And at this point, I was running two marathons a week, just training. So that’s what kept it interesting for me. That’s what kept the excitement going: I wanted to push it further.”
Stephen had just finished a run in February, and, as he was bending over to tie his shoe, his girlfriend said she could see all the ribs on his back and sides. She started crying.
“At that point, I was like, there’s nothing wrong; I’m just running a bunch. I’m just really skinny. You don’t need to worry about anything,” he says.
Stephen watched her cry. He was amused. It was his body, and she was just overreacting.
Stephen’s “issues”—the euphemism he and I use for his eating disorders (they never travel alone)—started, he estimates, around February of 2011.
“To be the best competitively, sometimes that is the driving force more than really a concern so much about weight,” says Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, and president of Eating Disorder Hope, an informational website that helps refer those looking for help. “It’s just to take off those few extra pounds to be more efficient in their sport.”
“I was building for the Way Too Cool 50K, which was March, and then in April I had the American River 50-Miler [American River 50 Mile Endurance Run], and both are pretty big ultras,” Stephen says. ”I knew I wanted to do well.”
In February he won another 50K; his weekly mileage peaked at 145.
“And that’s why I thought, oh, [purging is] not that big of a deal. I can just not do this again,” he says.
He thought this every time.
So let’s clear the air right now: I think ultrarunning is bullshit as a sport. Not enough people compete in it to truly make it competitive in the same way that track and road racing are because there’s no money in it. Few can make a living off it. (For example: Their most notorious, competitive race, the Western States Endurance Run, to this day offers zero prize money.)
Despite this, Stephen wanted to be a professional ultrarunner. He knew he was young and talented; he knew not many young runners entered into the sport. Maybe he could be part of a vanguard of a new generation that would bring about its relevancy.
And you’ve got to remember, whatever else you read, that the disease which afflicted Stephen (if you believe the scientific research), or the poor choices he made (if you believe that we have ultimate dominion over our carbon-based bodies), were all based on this desire:
To become better.
It was worst, Stephen says, the night before the races.
“I would just be unconsciously piling down all this food,” he says. It was a way to cope with the pressure of wanting to do well. And then he would have to purge, not wanting to take in all those calories.
At WTC in March he finished 14th overall, and he was 13th at the AR50 in April, winning his age group.
“At that point I’d had some good results with races, and so I just put two and two together: I’ve had good results; I’m smaller; this must be working,” he says. His race results seemed to validate his choices.
In April his weight had dropped to 118.
There was no goal, Stephen says. There was only more.
There was no magic number Stephen was trying to hit with his weight—it was the same with his weekly mileage, with his times, with his finishes in races, and with his future in the sport: just seeing how far you can push it.
“[An athlete] may be dieting chronically to try to stay as lean as possible for a sport, and yet his body may naturally have a set point a little higher—or quite a bit higher—than what he’s trying to maintain,” Ekern, of Eating Disorder Hope, says. “He is in a constant battle with his genes and his biology to stay that lean.
“So even though he may be a highly disciplined young man, he’s going to lose that grip sometimes when he’s hungry and the pizza’s delivered, and then, uh oh, what do I do with it?”
I remember this: Our boss at the running store ordered pizza one day, and Stephen, along with the rest of us, stuffed himself. Then Stephen went to the bathroom for 15 minutes. And none of us said anything. We went back to talking about music and girls, and at one point I tried to use the bathroom—we only had one—and Stephen was still in there, and I thought, what the hell.
Why didn’t I say something? That’s what I ask myself first. Then, why didn’t our boss say something? Why didn’t any one of his other coworkers say something?
I ask Stephen this. Because it’s embarrassing for me. It’s cowardly. You have owned up to your responsibility in this, I say. You have said, I was selfish; I wouldn’t have listened.
“But the thing is, most people didn’t say anything for you to reject. And that is scary as fuck.”
“I think part of it is people don’t want to overstep their boundaries,” he says, “that they just either feel like they can’t say something to you because it’s none of their business, or they just don’t know what’s going on, or I just got really good at hiding it.
“At the [running] shop I was visibly eating most of the day. I remember [the store owner] saying that he would go out and buy snacks just for me to keep in the back because I was constantly eating so much. So I think I became pretty good at hiding it, making it look like I was eating all day.
“For everyone else, I think they did try to say something, but just—“
“How?” I ask. “I don’t think that’s true. I think you want to believe that because you want to believe that people are more courageous than they are, but I don’t think they are. So prove it. Prove me wrong.”
“I guess you’re right,” he says. “It was never anything more than, ‘Wow, you’re really skinny.’
“Which I guess isn’t really saying anything.”
This is what people say to you, smiling, when you’re a runner with an eating disorder that you haven’t admitted:
- Wow, you’re skinny!
- You’re looking fit!
- Keep it up!
- Do you eat!
- You should eat more!
You can joke about it because no one died. Gallows humor, they call it.
“Yeah, tell me about your parents,” I say.
“They still don’t know,” Stephen says.
“Why is that? It’s not like you’re gay or anything.”
And we both laugh.
Stephen is in front of a computer in April. He weighs 118 pounds and is consistently making himself throw up. He googles “What makes you an anorexic.”
It’s funny to me at least.
Around Way Too Cool in March, Stephen says he started to “make decisions”: bulimia naturally led to anorexia.
And Ekern says this is how it works: despite eating disorders having their definitions there are variations and so much grey in between, and often people can vacillate from one to another.
“I was probably keeping down one meal a day,” Stephen says. ”I couldn’t go for a run without getting two or three heckles.
“To me, what I saw is, I’m fit. I can outrun you. But to them I was basically just bones. And looking back I would probably stop and stare at a person that looked like that, too.
“When I got down that low I think I knew that that’s—I mean I knew that’s way too skinny.”
The way you felt? How you looked?
“Kind of everything,” he says. “And then from there, it was just like, ‘Well, I don’t need to eat as much as I think I do, because I’m running just fine.’”
He was eating breakfast and purging the rest. He was constantly in a bad mood and avoiding contact with people. And of course he would binge, destroying a box of cereal before he knew it.
“But then you freak out, because, it was like, ‘I don’t want to take in all those calories,’” he says.
So he had to handle it.
“It got to the point where [the regret over purging] was even before I would [eat]. It’s like, OK, I know I’m about to eat this. I know what’s going to happen. But I would still make those decisions,” he says.
“At the beginning, there was hope, like I can move on from this,” he says. “But after a couple of months it was ingrained. It was just something I would do. It became very habitual. And I knew that if I didn’t do something I’d probably be plagued with it for a long time.”
At this point, Stephen’s focus was his first 100-miler in July 2011. He chose a race in Vermont because it was within driving distance from his mother’s home in Massachusetts.
During all his runs he says his legs felt “heavy” and “drained.” He would experience mood swings on 15-mile runs: periods of absolute depression, then others where he felt amazing.
“I came to think that my runs should feel like that, like I should be that tired all the time just because I’m running all the time, and that’s natural,” he says. “I thought it would make me stronger come race day because I knew what it was like to be tired all the time, so I thought, come race day, when I’m fresh, when I get tired it won’t be such a big deal.”
Stephen peaked at 156 miles before Vermont. Alcohol had become self-medicating to justify the purging by blaming it on being drunk. He’d started leaving his classes early or just skipping altogether. He just couldn’t deal with it, he says. He quit his job at the shop, and I never did hear how his 100-miler went.
He estimates he was taking in 1500 calories a day, and running 20 miles a day.
One day in June Stephen Wassather was alone in his apartment, “completely depressed,” he says. He had been purging consistently throughout the whole day. He called his girlfriend, who was out of town. He broke down as he told her that he thought he had a problem.
Read Part 2: The Ascent here.
If you suspect you, a friend, or even an enemy has an eating disorder, you can find help and education at Eating Disorder Hope, which can refer you to a specialist in your area. Most important: Tell someone.
Jon Gugala is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, Calif. His work has appeared in Runner’s World, Running Times, IAAF.org, and elsewhere.