Human Race: Hope springs

As a bright young woman and a published author, and with a 3:26 marathon under her belt, it’s hard to imagine 26-year-old Hope Virgo as she was nine years ago: living on a psychiatric ward battling the eating disorder that had ravaged her mind and body to the point where her heart almost stopped.

At the age of 13, struggling to deal with an often tumultuous family life and a traumatic relationship, Hope began limiting her food intake and skipping meals. ‘I stopped eating as a way to cope with how I was feeling,’ she says. This soon developed into anorexia.

A keen young athlete, Hope’s free time had always been filled with extracurricular sports – she enjoyed cross-country, hockey and netball after school – but as her illness got worse, exercise began to take on a sinister role in her life, becoming a method of self-control. ‘I ended up missing a lot of school because I couldn’t be bothered; I wanted to exercise instead. Pretty much every Friday afternoon I’d miss school and go to the gym.’

Hope’s obsession with controlling her diet and over-exercising blocked out the painful emotions she was experiencing. However, her struggles didn’t go unnoticed by her family, who became increasingly concerned about her eating habits and behaviour. ‘Most family mealtimes would end up with a massive argument,’ she recalls. ‘It had a big impact on my younger brother, as my mum would ask him to make sure I’d eaten breakfast. He’d often get annoyed with me and then we’d argue about that.’

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‘It was a very unhappy time. Not eating made me feel better and I enjoyed the feeling as the weight dropped off, but it was always short-lived, as it never felt like enough. Anorexia made me feel like I wasn’t good enough and I got trapped in a cycle that lasted through my teenage years.’

Finally, Hope’s school and family convinced her to attend outpatient treatment with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. But she found ways to trick them into thinking she had gained weight while she continued to lose it. One week, they caught her out. ‘My mum got really strict with monitoring me after that, so I resorted to making myself sick after the meals she was making me eat.’

In November 2007, matters were taken out of her hands. After collapsing on several occasions, the 17-year-old was given an electrocardiogram (ECG), which confirmed that her heart was severely damaged. The next day, she was admitted to an adolescent psychiatric ward, where she spent the next year. With the ward’s strict rules around eating, Hope gained weight quickly. However, her mental recovery took much longer. ‘My weight went up really quickly but the mental stuff doesn’t change that fast. For the first few weeks I felt rubbish all the time but I realised that I had to do something to change it. I had to learn to talk about how I was feeling.'

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Eight months into her stay, there were signs of improvement and Hope was allowed to run again. ‘I’d go out for a 20-minute run twice a week with one of the nurses. They taught me about the dangers of overexercise and encouraged me to exercise with a more balanced approach.’

It worked – and since she was discharged, Hope has continued to reconnect with the joy of running. ‘I don’t do it to burn calories anymore, I do it because I enjoy it,’ she says. ‘Part of it is about being on my own and just switching off from everything.’

Hope ran the London Marathon in 2011; she finished in four hours and raised more than £1,000 for mental health charity Mind. But it wasn’t until 2015, when she ran the Brighton Marathon, that everything clicked into place. ‘I trained really well for it and was eating properly. I was aiming for 3:45, but finished in 3:26. As I neared the finish I tried to say to my boyfriend, who was watching, “Oh my god, I’m going to do under 3:30,” and he shouted, “Just run!”’

Hope now feels able to use a watch to measure pace and distance – something she couldn’t trust herself to do a few years ago without getting obsessed, pushing herself too hard. She has written a book – Stand Tall, Little Girl – about her experiences with anorexia. ‘I got frustrated because people talk about mental health in such a negative way,’ she says. ‘They get trapped in the idea that you can’t recover – you’re always going to be living with it. I still have bad days, but I manage it now and I know what to do stay well. I want to share my story to show others that you can get better.’