I’ve been through something I want to write about here. Not dissimilar to a travel story, or a recipe – or one of the race reports I used to write in this space – this is a tidbit of my experience; something that contributes to who I am, who I will be and how I see the world…and specifically how I cook and think about food (And maybe, it even explains why I love cookies so much.)
For me – I don’t notice that fear bubbles up very often. Anxiety, anticipation, even nervous unknowing do. But these are very different than fear; the paralysis caused by the belief that danger is imminent, that someone or something is going to cause me pain or inflict a threat. I think this is because I’ve had quite a few experiences now where I felt fear in full force, and bravery welled up to meet it.
In the past, being brave for me meant moving to a foreign country, alone. Walking home through dark streets from the bus terminal in the middle of the city, trusting that my spirit would be enough to deter any malicious intent. Gathering the words in broken languages to ask for help and purchase vegetables from the young women at the market who stared at me with one disapproving eye as I stumbled. It meant hanging up the phone as calmly as possible when the line would go dead after shots of gunfire exploded in the background, knowing that another call could come in a few hours or a few days and that he would be alright on the other end.
It meant putting one foot in front of the other for the next 15 miles to find aid when I got altitude sickness and couldn’t see straight in the middle of a Rocky Mountain stage race. Putting my head down and swimming as hard as I could against the current when the ocean tried to suck us out to sea during a summer afternoon swim in Southern Japan.
It meant leaving a well-worn path of love behind so that I could start down a new path that I knew would serve me better.
My fear of cookies was a real thing. Maybe some of you can relate.
For a period of my life, I was absolutely afraid of them (though at the time the fear looked a lot more like obsessive control.) I was also afraid of peanut butter sandwiches that had more than two tablespoons of peanut butter on them, most any form of meat, whole fat yogurt, ice cream, french fries, hamburgers, cheese, pasta, basically anything that looked like a pastry…the list goes on.
Before I knew what real fear was, what real bravery could be, I was afraid that there were bad foods out there, and that if I wasn’t vigilant they would make me fat, or slow, or unattractive, or unhealthy.
And the more I let go of my preconceived notions of what “bad foods” were, and ate everything, healthfully and in moderation, the more easily I was able to digest my fear, to be incredibly brave, and to really feel invincible in the world. And, ultimately, to do some really incredible things with this body I was fueling so honorably.
I began swimming competitively when I was 5 years old. I stopped swimming and started rowing competitively in college, slated for an Olympic development team just a few weeks after I walked on to the varsity boat my freshman year. It’s hard to stay competitive for that long. It’s hard to be a woman wearing some form of skin-tight exercise clothing in those tender years. Like so many women and maybe many other tomboys out there, I wanted to feel confident in my own skin even though my weight fluctuated with my age, peer pressure and my parents’ divorce.
No one encouraged me to start watching what I ate like a hawk. It started my sophomore year in high school. One morning I just woke up and decided that if I didn’t do it for myself, then no one would. I declined my parent’s invitations to enjoy dessert after dinner. My father loved McDonald’s. I hated it and I let him know so. But I went further than just cutting out fast food and things in brightly colored packages. I cut out anything I perceived to be “bad for me;” fat, salt, carbohydrates, sugar. If it wasn’t a salad, I probably wasn’t eating it. I measured out portions for my lunches each day. Fortunately or unfortunately, my strategy worked; I lost a lot of weight, I looked better in my swimsuit and I was getting faster. (But I was still never the fastest.) And, I was unfocused, underslept and mentally scattered.
When I got to college and started rowing, there was a whole different expectation on our bodies and their performance. We had two-a-day practices most days of the year, even when there was ice on the river and our hands would freeze to the oars. There was no drinking – our pact as a team. And there were those skin-tight singlets to wear in the boat. We were training so much, and I was hungry all the time, so I allowed many of my strict guidelines around food to slip. But the moment I did, my body shape changed (from lifting heavy weights for crew and *perhaps* from the bags of gummy worms my roommates and would sometimes eat late at night to soothe our fears about boys and grades and late-night clothing choices) and I turned into a tin can.
And that was really when my preoccupation with food became a fear and a proper disorder. I developed what’s now known as The Athlete’s Triad – a common eating disorder where athletes attempt to limit calories to see athletic success, but they limit their caloric intake to a point where athletic gains are difficult if not impossible to make. The athletes don’t lose weight. They don’t get faster or stronger and they blame their bodies and the food they’re consuming for the lost effort.
Overindulging in things that clearly were unhealthful choices, and so instead of feeling like an outsider, I felt like I was leading the charge – setting an example for healthy eating all around me.
I didn’t really realize just how skewed my perspective was until long after college when I was living in Okinawa, Japan with my then-husband (and still best-friend). He was in the Army – a Special Forces operator – and his job was unpredictable. Dangerous. And my job was to be there for him when he came home safe.
Rewriting your will, over and over again when you’re 25-years old isn’t much fun. I’m sure that calling your wife – at home, waiting for you – as bullets whiz past the phone isn’t much fun either. Having to wear a weapon when you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night; this is something I don’t know about personally, but I know that he knows about and it took me learning to be brave through his experience, trusting that he was going to come home safe to me time and time again, that kept us both alive out there.
About this same time, I started training for Ironman on a professional level. He was uncomfortable ALL. THE. TIME. And deep down, I think I wanted to learn more about what that was like. We didn’t have typical “energy foods” out there, and so I had to start making my own from the Japanese ingredients I had on hand. My only responsibilities were to train, and keep myself alive so that when he came home I would be ready to bring him back into the “real world” and I took these responsibilities very seriously.
The only guide I had were the cravings my body felt after 3-hour training runs in the heat, 8-hour bike rides to the end of the island, salty ocean swims. The more I fed my body the things I had been avoiding for so many years, the salt, fat, carbohydrates – literally facing my fears, bellying up to the table and CONSUMING them – the stronger I became as an athlete. The better my training, the faster my racing, the more beautiful I felt in motion. I went on to race at in many of endurance sports’ most coveted races – I raced and trained in Kona for several years, went on to race for Team USA at the ITU World Championships, qualified for the Boston Marathon in Boston 5 years in a row, raced my bike at Cape Epic, finished at the top of the women’s field at TransRockies and more.
The eating disorder dissolved after culinary school; I had gone from being petrified of eating cookies to working in a Michelin-starred kitchen as a classically trained pastry chef where baking cookies and desserts was my job. (What’s that they say about keeping your enemies close?) I had learned what salt, fat, carbohydrates and sugars do in the kitchen after I knew what they do in our bodies, and used the fusion of those learnings to create meals that fueled my training, and my soul, with the things I craved. The nutrients in those cookies I had feared most were actually the ingredients that my body, brain, and little soul needed to feel whole, well-cared for and vital after the brutal training I was putting it through. Instead of being “bad for me” those little cookies helped me feel grounded in the world, more complete and empowered to make decisions as an athlete, a chef, and just a person doing the best they can.
These days, I’m often asked to teach cooking classes, to share recipes and thoughts on cooking for athletes and always I start from this place of considering bravery and fear. Before you can be a good cook, or a good athlete, or a truly good person, I think first you have to be brave. If you want to push yourself to be your best, to the ends of your abilities – whether it’s in a race, in a job, in a relationship – you’re going to need really good fuel to take you there. There’s no space for fear – unpack it all. Promise yourself that you’re going to do the best you can, with what you have, and that you’re always going to strive to find The Best Thing and never settle. Resign yourself to the idea that you’re going to listen in, move wisely, make good decisions and trust your ability to do that. Then, you’re ready.
Then – fire up the engines, the ovens. Know that it’s not a single moment in time that turns the tide, it’s a practice you keep for the rest of your days. Set your sights on your star, and prepare to enjoy every single moment of the process – the burned cookies, the droopy french fries, the roast you’re going to forget in the oven. The climbs in the mountains that make you think you’re going to die, the heartbreak that you’ve been avoiding even though you know it will make you better. The crying into your soup. See the beauty of it all. The rush as you make leap you’ve been meaning to take.
And when you’re ready to practice setting aside fear of failure, or preconceived notions that this or that is right or wrong, and you’re ready to work in the grey where ANYTHING can happen then, we start really cooking (AND eating.)
photo credit: Michael Thurk