‘Recovery is worth it…’: Wildcat runner Kassidy Johnson opens up about struggle with eating disorder

Then-sophomore Kassidy Johnson placed 11th in the women's 4K at the J.K. Gold Classic in Augusta, Kansas on Sept. 1, 2018. (Archive photo by Alex Todd | Collegian Media Group)

When Kansas State runner Kassidy Johnson told her mother she was trying out for her seventh-grade track and field team, the response was far from gold-medal expectations.

“My mom was like, ‘I’m not getting you track spikes: you can use someone’s hand-me-downs. This is just a phase, and it’s not going to last. You’re going to run for a week and then quit,”‘ Johnson said.

Johnson was already involved in three other sports that year, and her parents weren’t sold on the idea of toting her around to another one. Now an All-American runner, Johnson said that’s a story she jokes with her mom about quite often.

Johnson placed fifth in the 800-meter run at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships just under a month ago. Not only that, but Johnson broke the K-State school record in the race, recording a time of 2:03.93.

“Crossing the line in fifth was just insane,” Johnson said. “To think about how a few weeks ago where I was not even qualified for the national meet and then to be there and finishing fifth was surreal is all that I can say.”

When Johnson started running in seventh grade, she said she didn’t necessarily love it. However, she did enjoy the success that came with it. Because of that success, she learned to love the sport and her place in the running community.

During her sophomore year of high school, she suffered an injury during the basketball season, sidelining her for most of the track season. After sitting out for several practices and meets, she made her return in a meet that changed her life forever.

Johnson struggled in her return and could not produce the competitive times she was used to.

“I was in such a vulnerable place at that time because running was my identity and having success in that meant so much to me,” Johnson said. “So, to have one race where it wasn’t perfect and I lost to girls I hadn’t lost to before, it kind of felt like the world was ending and everything was spiraling.”

In that moment, Johnson decided she needed to do everything in her control to get back to where she was the previous year. That meant doubling down on nutrition, moving as much as possible and avoiding social situations that could “derail” her from her goals.

At the time, it all sounded like a great idea. However, Johnson said those plans quickly took a spiral.

“I took it way too far. It made me miserable,” Johnson said. “The pursuit of perfection that we know doesn’t exist — that can take the fun out of everything. I was basically living to run instead of running to live.”

At the time, Johnson didn’t recognize this and started pursuing a thinner body because that’s what diet culture told her would help increase her speed. It wasn’t until she suffered a string of injuries related to undernourishment that she knew something needed to change.

“What I thought I was doing in order to improve my running was actually keeping me from even being able to run,” Johnson said.

Johnson was suffering from an eating disorder.

Despite wanting to avoid that title, Johnson said she knew she had to be honest with herself and those around her if she wanted to make a change. She began adjusting her lifestyle and researching how to properly fuel her body.

After becoming more stable in her recovery, Johnson felt the pull to help others who were struggling. She took to social media and a blog to share her story.

“I kept hearing similar stories happening to other people, and it just made me sick,” Johnson said. “I wanted to share to hopefully just help one person. It was terrifying — one of the scariest things I’ve done.”

After opening up, Johnson said she was shocked by the number of people who reached out and related to her experiences. She said she thinks it has made people uncomfortable but has also helped people, and at the end of the day, she said that’s all that matters.

As for Johnson, she said each day gets a little easier, but there are still hard days. She works on using the tools she has learned in therapy, along with doing her own research. On tough days, she continues to remind herself of her long-term goals.

“Engaging in eating disorder behaviors does not align with my long-term values,” Johnson said. “I say that like it is really simple. It’s not, but continuously challenging that is important.”

From Johnson’s point of view, runners do not have to have a dangerously restrictive diet. Balance rather than restriction is the key to success.

“Our bodies are smart, and if we can just listen to our body, it knows what to do with food,” Johnson said. “It’s going to break down an apple the same way it breaks down a slice of cake.”

Johnson continues learning about the way our bodies work in her study of dietetics at K-State. She said understanding the science has also helped her in recovery.

“There is an importance of fueling your body. You need all the macronutrients, micronutrients and you need enough energy, but it doesn’t have to look like this one thing,” Johnson said. “That can include cake or whatever it is, what people say is ‘unhealthy’ or ‘junk’ — finding that balance of what feels good for my body and my mind. It’s going to look different for everyone, but getting to that point is really worth it.”

Johnson said she thinks ensuring your body and mind feel good and are happy is what makes a good runner. She said happiness is more important than anything you do performance-wise anyways.

For her, that happiness comes from feeling strong enough and energized enough to get out and have a good workout every day, but even better, enjoying that workout and post-workout with friends.

“It is the most beautiful thing ever,” Johnson said. “It’s singlehandedly the best part of recovery … having that freedom to not only join in with other people and get to enjoy food and culture and social environments, but to be present in it too. Even if you are there, when you are in that mindset, you aren’t present in conversations. All you can think about is what you’re eating or what you’ve just eaten or what you’re going to eat or what you can’t eat, and you’re not truly there. To be able to get to a point where you can not only enjoy the food with zero guilt or shame, but you can be present and create relationships with other people — it’s the most freeing and beautiful thing.”

In pursuit of perfection on the track, Johnson found herself fighting an eating disorder and quickly moving further away from her goals. It wasn’t until she realized that, that she actually began using running as a motivating factor for recovery.

“My emotions with track are always all over the place,” Johnson said. “It’s a tough sport mentally and physically, but I think it’s been really cool to prove to myself that I can gain weight and I can run faster because anyone in this sport will typically tell you the opposite is the case.”

Heading into her final year with K-State, Johnson said she just wanted to use the year to have fun and not take anything for granted. As she steams into her final outdoor season, Johnson shares her main goals.

“Really, just have fun and take it all in, but also go for some big goals. I think now that I’ve made Nationals indoors, that puts outdoor Nationals on the radar,” Johnson said. “I would love to make it to Eugene as well, but I’m not going to put that pressure and expectation on myself. If it happens, it happens, and I will enjoy it. If not, bottom line — just enjoy all the experiences and give it my all, but not going to lose myself in the pursuit of that.”

In June, Johnson’s mom won’t have to worry about buying any more spikes as Kassidy hangs them up one final time. Johnson will continue her education at Rutgers University, pursuing a career as a registered dietitian.

“I think my whole purpose was to show that recovery is worth it — no matter what,” Johnson said.