Running Through the Darkness: My Health and Fitness Journey

I’ve shared a little bit of my love of running here on the blog, but I haven’t delved into why running, fitness and health are so important to me.  To get to the root of it, I’ll start at the beginning.

I grew up as a very active child and could always be found playing outside.  I was heavily involved in soccer, swim team and cross country, and learned that fitness was a way of life, not just a seasonal activity.  We lived in the Atlanta area, where the Peachtree Road Race is a massive 10K race through the streets of Atlanta on the 4th of July.  The first year you are able to run it is when you are 10 years old, so that’s when I started running it with my mom.  We trained up for the race throughout the early summer, and the sense of accomplishment I felt was after crossing that finish line was exhilarating.

The Peachtree Road Race is a 10K (6.2 mile) race, and I was 10 years old in this photo.

This was my second Peachtree Road Race, and my mom and I ran together again.

I was always good, but never the best at running, soccer, etc.  I had a mental block that kept me where I was, and I could never excel like I now realize I could have.  I had a friend on cross country that seemed to me like she should be the best on the team, so I never tried to beat her because I didn’t think I could.  Around this same time, I started having an unhealthy relationship with food.  I was always thin, but the after school snack of 5 double stuffed oreos shoved in a glass of milk was finally catching up to me.  I realized I had put on about 10 pounds, which sent me over the edge.  I started restricting what I ate.  I counted calories all the time and would try to consume as little as I could.  This lasted a few months, until I got so hungry that I started to binge.  After I’d binge I’d feel so guilty about it that I go make myself throw up.  I’d secretly eat as much as I could late at night when no one would see me, and then I’d purge all of it.  It was a painful and vicious cycle that I could not get out of.  I told a friend about it, and she finally told my mom.  I went to counseling for a while, which seemed to help, although my relationship with food was still on unstable ground.

I started West Point in the summer of 2005, and was at a stable place eating-wise.  That soon changed though, as boot camp (or “Beast Barracks” as we call it at West Point) completely threw me for a loop.  I lost a good bit of weight the first 3 weeks, and then the second 3 weeks I gained all that I had lost and then some.  West Point is a difficult place for women for many different reasons, but getting a grip on the relationship with food is one of the big issues for many, especially at the beginning.  The way you eat at West Point is “family style,” and as a Plebe (freshman) you have to perform many duties before the Firsties (seniors) let you eat.  You often end up gobbling down as much as you can as quickly as you can, because you don’t know when you’ll get in trouble next and be told to stop eating.  That, plus I was often the only girl at a table of 10, which inevitably led me to start eating like the guys.  My Plebe year was utterly miserable.  I hit my heaviest weight ever in 2006 (about 22 pounds heavier than I am now).  While I was still active and playing rugby, I was extremely uncomfortable in my own skin, and would often wear a tight Under Armor shirt under my uniform so that I wouldn’t feel my newly soft stomach jiggle quite so much.  I was struggling academically, unhappy physically, and had no control over my life.  I couldn’t handle all the pressure and finally turned back to bulimia so that I could feel some sort of “control.”  Luckily I got caught by an upperclassman shortly after I resumed this practice, and she had a talk with me about it and informed me that I could get kicked out of West Point for an eating disorder.

This was taken in the summer of 2006 after my Plebe year at West Point, (sporting my “Freshman 20”).  Puffy cheeks (at least for me) showed up due to all of the purging I would do.  The inflammation did not completely go away for about 3 years.

December 2006 at the Service Academy Ball in Houston with Dimitri.  Still holding onto extra weight but feeling much better than I did the year prior.

My second West Point summer I met Dimitri, the love of my life and my future husband.  Without even meaning to, he loved and supported me in a way that helped me get a grip on things.  Slowly the weight came off, and over the next three years I was almost back to where I was before I started West Point.  Upon graduating in 2009 I was fit, healthy and happy.  I still had a tendency to overeat from time to time, but for the most part I had no problems.  I worked out for my sanity and to stay healthy, and my eating habits (mostly) supported my fit lifestyle, rather than hindering it like they used to.

West Point graduation parade in May 2009. I was finally back at my pre-West Point weight.

Summer 2009.  While I am pretty fit in the picture, I thought about food constantly and struggled to find a happy medium between eating enough to be active and happy, and binging when no one was watching.

In 2011 Dimitri and I both deployed to Afghanistan from Hawaii.  I worked long hours and constantly worried about Dimitri and the platoon of infantrymen that he led.  My one outlet was the treadmill at the gym.  I had always liked to run but hated the treadmill, but in Afghanistan it became the one thing that got me through my days.  I’d run 6 to 7 miles a day, and would listen to music that reminded me of Dimitri.  I could almost pretend that we weren’t there, and for that hour things seemed like they weren’t so bad.

This is May 2011 while I was in Afghanistan.  I was running all the time (when I wasn’t working) and did not have much of an appetite due to the stress.  Looking back, I was definitely more gaunt than I should have been.

When Dimitri was killed by small arms fire less than 3 months into our year long deployment I completely lost my mind.  It was something that I knew could happen, but I prayed everyday, over and over again, that it wouldn’t happen to us.  The next few months were a blur and I don’t remember much due to the overwhelming sense of grief that I felt, but I do remember that I ran and worked out.  A lot.  It helped me feel free from pain, and the endorphins gave me a better outlook on life.  I never needed antidepressants, I never stayed in bed all day, and I never lost the hope that life could still be good.  I attribute this to the strength that Dimitri’s love gave me, and to my running.  My brother, dad and I decided to train for a marathon in honor of Dimitri, and the training gave me purpose.  It gave me something to strive for.  Something to work towards.  I’d often cry while running, but I’d often laugh too when happy memories came to my mind.  I ran to remember, and I don’t know how I would have made it through those first 6 months without my faith in God, the love of my family, and a life changing race to train for.  During this time my eating habits changed as well.  Food was no longer an enemy.  It was now fuel to get me through my 18 mile training runs and my 40 mile weeks.  It was meant to be enjoyed, but in moderation.  My mom is an extremely fit 55 year old, and her catchphrase over the years has always been “everything in moderation.”  I finally was able to embrace this after struggling to find balance for a decade.  Additionally, I had somehow managed to break through the mental block I had about my performance, and was running faster than I ever thought I could.  It’s amazing what can change in your mind and heart once you’re thrown down to the ground with nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up. 

In Ala Moana Beach Park “Running to Remember.”

After a 30K with my friend Kady.

After the X Terra 21K trail race in Hawaii with my brother.

It has been over 3 years since Dimitri died, and while I’ve have lots of downs and many ups during this time, my relationship with food and fitness is finally nice and steady.  I don’t fret if my weight fluctuates a bit, as long as I stay within the 5 pound range that I feel my happiest and healthiest.  I’m at the point in my life now where I’m getting remarried in about 2 weeks, and am looking forward to having children.  I want to be as fit as possible before I get pregnant, so that I can have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.  And then I want to be like my mother was (and is), and show that being a mom and having a fit and healthy body are not mutually exclusive.  While I haven’t had to figure out that particular life balance yet, I do hope that the struggles I’ve faced up to this point in my life have prepared me for what is yet to come.  My fiancé is a big runner too, and some of our best times together have been spent exploring a city by foot.  I can’t imagine living a life where fitness isn’t a part of it, and I’m so happy I get to share this passion with the man I love.

At a St. Patrick’s Day 5K in Atlanta where Tom and I both won our age groups.

I don’t work out to be rail thin, or diet to see my hip bones.  I embrace a healthy lifestyle so that I can rearrange heavy furniture without getting winded, so that I bounce back when life throws a massive and unexpected curve ball, and so that one day I can run after my children and actually enjoy it! 

If you’d like to read more about how running got me through the darkest point in my life then please check out this article that I’ve had published a few times (although unfortunately Runner’s World wasn’t interested).  

Katie Vail
Katie Vail

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Leave a comment

  1. October 8, 2014 / 3:17 pm

    Great post Katie. Thanks for sharing such an important and personal topic! Xo

  2. October 8, 2014 / 3:42 pm

    Hey Katie, you're not the only one who had trouble figuring out staying healthy at West Point… I am now much heavier than at USMA, but only about 10 pounds more than my post-graduation discovered "happy" place. Finding that equilibrium that made me feel beautiful, feminine, and overall just GOOD was challenging, because as a runner I wasn't always surrounded by healthy eating behaviors; it's one of the reasons I quit running after Yearling year.

    Now I run just for the sense of accomplishment. For ME, and not to win accolades or get skinny. It's nice to finally realize at this age that there's more to it than numbers on a scale, emotions, and more.

  3. October 8, 2014 / 3:54 pm

    Katie, what an inspiring post sharing such a personal and brave look into your story. Here's to remembering where you've come from and looking ahead to an exciting next chapter with your fiance!

  4. Anonymous
    October 8, 2014 / 4:45 pm

    I ran in high school and college and eating disorders among runners is far too common. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope this finds its way in front of young running girls struggling with the same issues.

  5. October 8, 2014 / 7:21 pm

    Yes! Lifestyle over dieting!

  6. October 8, 2014 / 9:05 pm

    Thank you for sharing! I'm glad you're back to being healthy and loving your body and all the amazing things it can do like run REALLY far and sometime in the future, create life! I ran my first marathon in memory of Daren (oddly enough exactly 1 month before yours), and I know what you mean about those long runs helping to sort through all the emotions and bring some balance and purpose. Before the marathon I had run one 5K, because I thought that's all my body could handle…little did I know! Now I can't imagine life without running. Good luck on your next race!

  7. Anonymous
    October 9, 2014 / 12:32 am

    I feel like I failed you as a teammate and friend because I didn't know you were struggling like this when we were at WP. That I wasn't there for you like I wish I could have been.

    This post is incredibly brave. I know it will help others.

  8. Anonymous
    October 9, 2014 / 9:43 am

    Hi Katie, thank you so much for being so brave and sharing! You are a huge inspiration xx

  9. October 9, 2014 / 3:28 pm

    One of the many things I love about you is your ability to relate to others so well. We all have our struggles. Much like you I've been death a hard hand with weight and food. Over the years I've been plagued with "you're so tiny, you have nothing to worry about!!" What many people fail to realize is that struggle is an internal battle, something deeper than what might seem so superficial to others. You rounded this post out beautifully with drawing back to the point that everyone is unique and everyone struggles with their own demons. I couldn't be more proud to hear how much you've overcome. The road ahead is truly beautiful; much like you fitness is my rock through it all. Much love KP! Cannot wait to see some snapshots from the wedding. You are going to make a sophisticated bride!

  10. Anonymous
    October 9, 2014 / 9:05 pm

    Katie, thank you so much for sharing something so personal in such a graceful and humble way! So many women have a poor body image. When I was younger, I always had a struggle with my weight because I was the "biggest" girl in a family of 5 thin women, and even though I was very active, my self-esteem suffered. I discovered hiking in my twenties and kayaking in my thirties and ever since then my main goal is to feel strong and adventurous. Now in my fifties, I care more about adventure than getting "old." It is so important for women to realize that the way they feel about themselves is so much more important than how they look. Kudos to you! You are a wonderful real-life role model! Can't wait for the wedding!!!

  11. Anonymous
    October 10, 2014 / 4:07 pm


    I always found it hard to explain how, as a health-conscious, athletic young woman, I could periodically gain 20 pounds and look unhealthy and miserable while at what is largely regarded as one of the nation's most physically demanding universities; and alternately be trim and fit. I always knew there were other female cadets out there with similar issues, but the problems were hard to put into words, and even harder to admit to. Thanks for doing so in such an eloquent way. I can remember (during one of my more fit time periods there) winning one of the trail races at Buckner, and later binge eating, as if my potential and accomplishments were just an additional source of pressure, and something to hide, rather than be proud of or even worthy of allowing myself a few moments of celebration.

    I think with time, and perspective, some of these issues can be resolved, and I agree with you that health and fitness are important in their own right, not necessarily just for how they make women look. But it always breaks my heart to think of the years filled with needless pain and preoccupation – especially when sometimes life goes on to deal you a hand that makes time in the past seem even more precious. It seems like you have learned these lessons, and are an inspiration for letting others learn from you as well.


  12. October 13, 2014 / 10:55 pm

    Absolutely, and thanks for sharing Aubrey! It was such a struggle at USMA, and I'm thankful to be on this side of the struggle now too. It's so much better to be at a "happy" place, isn't it?

  13. October 13, 2014 / 10:57 pm

    Absolutely! Dieting is no fun at all. A healthy lifestyle is so much easier and enjoyable!

  14. October 13, 2014 / 11:01 pm

    Thank you so much for your support, and please don't feel bad. I tried to keep it as private as I could because I thought I was weak for not being able to get a grip on things. I struggled in silence and thankfully it was one of our teammates who was also a company mate that addressed the issue. Thank you for reading and for caring!

  15. October 13, 2014 / 11:08 pm

    Thanks so much for reading. I decided to finally put this all out there to show young girls and anyone else struggling that they are not alone.

  16. October 13, 2014 / 11:11 pm

    I can't imagine life without running either! So glad it helped you mourn the loss of Daren. I think about him all the time when I run too. Good luck with your next race too!

  17. May 29, 2016 / 9:48 am

    Hi Katie!
    I am really enjoying reading your blog! My brother is an '05 West Point grad and his friends that are women that graduated from West Point as well are some of the most determined, fearless and awesome women I know!! So I want to say I admire your strength!

    I can totally relate to you about running and why you run. My best friend passed away in 2011 when I was living in FL and I found running as a way to connect with her. I too often find myself so emotional when I am running because the memories and love and joy I have with and for my best friend not only motivate me when I'm tired out there but they fill me with such happiness I can't help but to cry! I am taking on my first marathon this year after many half marathons and can't wait for all the training, and the finish! Do you have any advice for a first time marathoner such as myself??

    Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend!!


  18. May 29, 2016 / 1:06 pm

    Hi Jen! Thank you so much for your note and I'm really glad you're enjoying my blog! I feel exactly the same way about running and cry happy tears and sad tears while I'm doing it. It truly is the best medicine. Good luck with your first marathon! I love training for them and actually wrote a post a while ago with some race tips. Not specifically for marathons but it should hopefully help. I'm most likely going to run a marathon this fall so I'll probably blog about running every so often, so I hope you continue following along!

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