At the 2015 Berlin Marathon, 27-year-old sub-elite runner Tom Fairbrother nailed a personal best: 2:34.11 with a negative split, slashing his previous PB by almost five minutes. It’s an achievement that eludes even the most dedicated of runners, but Tom’s journey to that point makes it even more incredible.
After discovering his natural talent for running back in 2011 when he took third place in a local 10K, Tom joined a nearby running club the next day. Formerly a keen footballer, Tom’s love for sports and the outdoors saw his performance flourish, and a matter of months later he travelled to Iten, Kenya for a three-month high altitude training camp.
“I was 24 and was ranked just outside the top 200 in the UK. When I arrived I was recovering from a plantaris muscle injury and unable to train, which was very demoralising as I was surrounded by world-class Olympic athletes. Another runner in the camp asked me how much I weighed, and said if I could lose a few kilos, I could greatly improve my personal bests.” The comment stuck with Tom and, missing his friends, family and home comforts, his weight plummeted as he spiralled into bulimia.
“I would starve myself for long periods before eventually binge-eating to the point where I was either so full, or felt so incredibly guilty, that I would self-induce vomiting. All of this was whilst I was training intensely.”
“Even though I am six feet tall and was relatively slim to start with, my weight dropped rapidly. Due to a lack of energy, I was constantly exhausted and this affected my mood. I also became very dishonest to hide my illness, which impacted upon my confidence and in turn my social life and relationships with friends.”
Overtrained and underfuelled with crippling mental demons, Tom was left lethargic and dangerously weak. “I very rarely took rest days. Due to this and the fact I had lost a lot of muscle mass, I was physically very frail and this made me susceptible to injury (of which I suffered plenty). It would also take me a long time to recover from races, hard workouts and long runs.”
“In terms of my marathon racing, because I had not carb-loaded during my taper, I would tire in the latter miles which inhibited my performance greatly. I ran two marathons during this time, which in hindsight was very dangerous given my physical condition and my energy levels.”
It took a dentist visit in December 2014 for Tom’s secret to be uncovered. “After my appointment, my dentist asked if I was making myself sick. He said it seemed like the only logical explanation because my teeth were badly eroded and I was very thin by this stage. It was the first time I had ever been asked directly, and I had no choice but to confess to him. That was when I realised I had to stop.”
After restoring his weight and having corrective dental work, Tom took the brave step of opening up to his family. “I felt like I needed to tell people about my illness to explain my behaviour and appearance during the two years I was bulimic. They were obviously shocked as they had attributed my weight loss to my running, as most people had, and they were also saddened that I had had to go through the experience and subsequent recovery on my own.”
“Two months later I then decided to make my story public to my friends and set up a Justgiving page in order to raise money for Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, and also talk about speak about my experience in the media to try and raise awareness and encourage others to seek help.” Since going public with his experience, Tom has experienced a huge outpouring of support. “It has felt like a huge weight has lifted from my shoulders. I have re-connected with a number of my old friends I lost touch with, and the relationships with my closest friends and family have never been stronger. I’ve also been inundated with messages of support from total strangers, who have been affected by my story, as well as other sufferers who have seen that they are not alone.”
Eating disorders are notoriously difficult to battle – so does Tom feel like he’s completely recovered? “It’s difficult to ever say you are fully recovered from addictive illnesses involving disordered behaviour, but it’s now been over a year since I suffered with my bulimia. Physically, I am back to my original body weight. I have a much improved relationship with food and as a result, I am a far happier, more open and confident person.“
And, with a remarkable PB under his belt, the impact on Tom’s running has been immense. Tom puts his Berlin Marathon performance down to his stronger, healthier body. “My body is now more durable, meaning I’m more efficient and less prone to injury. Nutritionally, because I’m now fuelling my body correctly and carb-loading before marathons, I have much more energy allowing me to get stronger in races, rather than fading badly as used to be the case.”
Following his experiences, Tom has some vital words for the running community. “Unfortunately the body image of a runner is still someone who is very thin, which needs to change. Running for long periods of time requires a great deal of physical strength and energy, so denying your body the fuel and nutritional requirements it needs will only inhibit performance. Eating disorders are illnesses like any other and they are nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about, so please speak to a friend or your GP. The perception that skinny = fast is totally false."
READ: Running, eating disorders and energy deficiency
READ: How to talk to a runner about eating disorders
Tom is running ten marathons to raise money for Beat. You can follow his progress on his blog and on Twitter.
To seek help and advice for eating disorders, visit your GP or head to the Beat website.