Running on courage

Healdsburg's Sarah Sumpter is a state champion. But what matters more to her these days is telling others that they are not alone

May 04, 2008
  Christopher Chung / Press Democrat


Silence or denial. Sarah Sumpter knows that's how most afflicted runners deal with it. She can't and won't. Not anymore.

I am anorexic, said Sumpter, a senior at Healdsburg High School and California's Division 4 cross-country champion in 2007.

It's been a year and half, she said, that she has been fighting the disease, or not fighting it. And now she wants to tell her story for two reasons.

To let everyone know I didn't die, said the 5-foot-1 Sumpter. That's the first reason.

Now 112½ pounds, she once weighed 94 pounds, maybe even 92, she said. Sumpter was the state cross-country champion last fall but, because she was under a doctor's care, she wasn't allowed to run track for her school until last week. Her seven-week absence from the track season was conspicuous.

Her second reason is far more altruistic and is the primary impetus for her going public.

If there are other girls out there who are in my situation, Sumpter said , and don't know what to do about it like I didn't know what to do about it, there's people you can talk to. If I could help someone, well, I don't want anyone to go through what I went through.

Don't beat yourself up if you don't keep improving your times from week to week. Cut yourself some slack. Don't forget to enjoy life. Is it worth it (not eating)? Is it worth the risk of you literally threatening your own life?

The answer, of course, is obvious, but anorexia is not. It is a creeping plague of sorts, subtle in the beginning, not so subtle at the end. Alex DeVinny, a former Wisconsin state cross-country champion, weighed 70 pounds in 2006 when she died at age 20 from complications due to anorexia, according to a New York Times story.

Sumpter never was close to approaching DeVinny's depleted state, but her lowest moments were low enough that she remembered them as if they were a dark forest she never wants to enter again.

Sometimes I didn't feel like I wanted to see anyone, just to be left alone, just to be by myself, said Sumpter, 18.

I told Sarah I could see the bones in the back of her shoulders, said her mom, Shawn, an engineer's aide for the city of Healdsburg.

That was in December.

She couldn't see her back, Shawn said.

The wolf that is anorexia certainly came dressed in sheep's clothing for Sumpter. On Nov.23 of last year, when she won her state championship in Fresno, she weighed 99 pounds and felt fit. She ran a strong race. UC Davis was pursuing her for a scholarship. Life was never better.

A month later, Sumpter had lost 5 pounds, was lethargic and totally confused. She had been eating the same amount of calories - 1,700 daily - and yet she was losing weight, sluggish and depressed. And the weight, it was only 5 pounds.

People talk about losing 5 pounds all the time, Shawn said.

Jan. 23 was the tipping point, wh en she started to climb out of the hole.
< BR>I was so sick of beating myself up, Sumpter said.

So she went out with some girlfriends and splurged, ate, gobbled, inhaled, call it what you like, anything not nailed down to a restaurant table. Actually, it was just a lot of ice cream - but it felt close to the truth to Sumpter, who had been pouring breakfast cereal into a measuring cup so as not to eat too much.

I had this extreme fear of gaining weight, Sumpter said. If you gain weight, it can't be good for running.

Sumpter couldn't help but see the role models for women distance runners.

Look at Paula Radcliffe, Sumpter said. She certainly doesn't have any fat on her body.

Radcliffe, a Brit who owns the world record for the marathon, looks like she could jump through a Cheerio.

So when Sumpter gorged herself on Jan. 23, a seminal moment had been achieved, one that spun quickly to another.

Confronting anorexia
A day later, Sumpter bumped into a school guidance counselor, one she had confided in many times.

You don't look well, the counselor said.

Sumpter said she was depressed all the time. Obsessive-compulsive about her eating while continuing her 100-mile a week running regime, Sump-ter ended her self-description by saying, I have a fear of gaining weight and weight hindering my running.

You know, said the counselor, you just described yourself as anorexic.

Sumpter nodded sheepishly, but her subdued reaction masked all the bells and whistles that went off inside her. The next Monday, Jan. 28, she made a campus visit to UC Davis. She brought up her eating problem to the man who would become her cross-country coach, Chris Puppione, who taught and coached at Cardinal Newman and Ursuline.

Puppione knew about eating disorders from personal experience. At Castro Valley High School in the East Bay, Puppione ran track and swam in the same season dur ing his senior year. His weight dipped from 125 to 1 12. Puppione was stunned. Men account for only 10 percent of eating disorders or disordered eating.

I wasn't taking in enough fuel, Puppione said. When weight loss happens with guys, it's usually out of sheer laziness.

Puppione told Sumpter that UC Davis wanted her, but the Aggies wanted her healthy.

Chris told her, You get healthy, I'll get you fast,' Shawn said.

On Jan. 30, Sumpter had her first doctor's appointment. A week later, she made her first psychologist appointment. Since then, she meets with both doctors weekly. In between those first doctor visits, Sumpter met with Healdsburg track coaches Carlos Quiroga and Jeanine Bingham and told them of her problem. Since she was under a doctor's care, they told her she couldn't run track for the Hounds until she received medical clearance. Her physician cleared her last week. But back then ...

I was pretty mad, Sumpter said. I was in shock.

Driven by perfection

In her min d she already was dealing with the issue. Being healthy, however, was quite another thing.

It tore my heart out to tell her, Quiroga said. To do it to anybody is difficult but especially to someone like Sarah, who loves to run, it was just that much more difficult. She was crushed but she came to the conclusion she needed help. I told her this track season wasn't going to make or break her. She already has made her mark here. Now it's time to prepare for college.

It was that same day Shawn looked across the dinner table at her husband and said, Sarah is anorexic.

It hit me cold, said Brian Sumpter, the sports editor of the Lake County Record-Bee. Sarah's always been on the thin side. What do I know about anorexia? I'm fat. All I cared about then was getting Sarah healthy. I didn't care if she ever ran again for Healdsburg. I didn't even care about UC Davis at that point.

Some analysis was qu ick and forthcoming. Her physician ordered her food in take increased by 1,000 calories to 2,700 calories daily. Sumpter was feeling lethargic and running slower because she wasn't eating enough. No fat was left to burn. She was in the process of dissolving muscle. Sumpter didn't know it at the time but, she said, My body was basically eating itself. I was losing muscle mass.

Sometimes, the night before a big meet, Sumpter would eat pizza or pasta. That would give her a calorie and energy boost. That would work for a short time, said her mother, but it wouldn't last over the long haul.

I could have been damaging my bones, said Sumpter, describing osteoporosis, one of the deleterious effects of an eating disorder.

The need to be in control and the need to be perfect are the mental elements often connected with an eating disorder. Sumpter had those all right, in spades.

I was obsessed with eating, sleeping, doing homework and running, Sumpter sai d. That's it.

The most important was running, and the expectations both she and the running community had. Sumpter was, is, a special runner. As she gained more and more success in quicksilver fashion - she has become serious about running only in the past three years - she's felt the heat of the spotlight.

A naturally shy, introverted person, the attention hasn't been all that comfortable for her.

After awhile, she said, it kinda traps you, what everyone is expecting you to do.

Driven by expectations, body image and perfection, Sumpter kept pushing. She's born to do it or, at least, she appears no less driven than the other Redwood Empire runners of her own rarefied peer group: Julia Stamps, Amber Trotter and Sara Bei.

I'm now getting close to graduating, Sumpter said, and I think of all the parties I could have gone to but didn't. Or all the dances. There are so many things I like to do but didn't. Like drawing. Writing. Reading a good book. Or just go for a walk, not to exercise, just to w alk. But no, I had to stick to my schedule.

The sky's the limit

Sumpter The Perfectionist is getting ready to beat herself up again.

Back off, came the suggestion. You did this not eating right. What could happen if you did?

Kinda scary, isn't it, when you think about it, Puppione said of Sumpter's potential.

When Sumpter ran the 3,200 meters in her first race in five months, she clocked the second-fastest time in the Redwood Empire this season.

UC Davis has a support system to try to prevent anyone from slipping through the cracks. University nutritionists, psychologists, counselors and coaches have dealt extensively with eating issues and high-performance and highly driven runners.

Losing bone and muscle, breaking bones, losing one's period and, if left unchecked, dying, it's all too familiar a scene in women's running. Davis will take care of her but, ultimately, she knows she has to take care of herself.

You can run aw ay from everyone else, Sumpter said, but you can't run away from yourself. You have to take it one day at a time.

That's the recovering alcoholic mantra.

I don't see it (anorexia) to be that much different from alcoholism, Sumpter said. The substance and object are different, of course, but the mentality is the same.

How does she deal with it one day at a time? By bringing it into the light of day. She is available, willing and, most

important, honest on the subject.

She wrote an essay for her English class on anorexia and broke down in tears when it was over, but she doesn't regret it.

It's pretty gutsy what she is doing, said Deanne Vochatzer, the women's head track and cross-country coach for UC Davis and the U.S. women's track coach at the 1996 Summer Olympics. It's very impressive.

Control problem

Impressive because Sumpter is not only dealing with a disor der, she is dealing with a perception.

There is s uch a stigma to anorexia, she said. People think we are trying to starve ourselves to death. Or that we are a bunch of Barbie dolls. Believe me, no one would ever choose this for themselves. That's why they call it a disorder.

I am so proud of Sarah for her telling her story, Shawn said. She is putting herself out there. She is making herself very vulnerable. She thinks people might make remarks about her, but she still wants to do it anyway. She knows someone's going to say, See, this is what happens when you run 100 miles a week.' That's not what the problem is. This is what happens when you run 100 miles a week and don't eat enough.

When you don't eat enough, things cascade into obsession, depression, paranoia, catatonia. It's not just muscle that's being eaten away but self-worth.

This (going public) is uncommon, Puppione said, but Sarah is an uncommon girl. It would be out of character fo r her if she went quiet about it. She is quite remarkable.

Tiny in size, large in intent, that's her real body image, that's how she is beginning to see herself now.

Don't ever become obsessed with how you look, Sumpter said. Or what you think perfection is. It's not worth it. I thought this would never happen to me because I had control of the situation, and it was that control that was one of the problems. It's not worth beating yourself up because in the end you could lose everything.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, she said, for runners with eating issues.

What about keeping others from even entering the tunnel?

If that would happen, she said, even if it was only one person, if I could help someone, my, this would be so worth it.

You can reach staff columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5490 or at