Most of the books born of the running boom have been upbeat—even smug—accounts of fulfillment through exercise. Emphatically, that is not the case with Dark Marathon: The Mary Wazeter Story (Zondervan Books, $8.95), by Wazeter with the help of free-lance writer Gregg Lewis. Dark Marathon is a frightening account of Wazeter's battle with anorexia nervosa and bulimia. It details her descent from running stardom to depression, institutionalization and, finally, multiple suicide attempts, one of which—though not the most recent—put her in the wheelchair in which she will almost certainly spend the rest of her life.
In 1981, Wazeter was one of the top high school distance runners in the country. As a senior at Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., she not only won state championships in cross-country and at 3,000 meters but also finished eighth, two seconds behind 1984 Olympic marathon winner Joan Benoit, in the L'eggs Mini Marathon. That fall Wazeter went to Georgetown University on a full athletic scholarship. Then, that winter, while back at home, she walked to a railroad bridge over the Susquehanna River and jumped. She landed on an ice floe, and "my body simply collapsed around my bones like an empty burlap sack." Wazeter, who was 18 at the time, has been confined to a wheelchair for the past eight years.
Dark Marathon ought to be read by all female athletes, their families and their coaches; the demons that drove Wazeter were not hers alone. A recent (1985) Gallup survey found that 9% of teenage girls suffer from symptoms of anorexia. But preliminary results of a more recent study of female and male athletes at 22 midwest colleges and universities indicate that one out of five athletes suffers from some sort of eating disorder—with female victims outnumbering males by a ratio well in excess of two to one.
From the start, there were signs that Wazeter was headed for a crash. In her first race, at the age of 12, she saw another runner cross the finish line and collapse in exhaustion. From that she drew an ominous conclusion: "Cross-country competition needed to be an all-or-nothing proposition." Wazeter began to count the miles she ran and soon was also counting calories. When the 5'4" Wazeter limited herself to 1,000 calories a day, her weight went from 105 pounds to 89. She was constantly tired, and she could not drive from her mind images of whatever she had just eaten. "Even the sound of people chewing made me think about food," she writes. "Food had become an enemy, waiting to devour me."
December 18, 1989
Dark Marathon also reveals the way in which the people in one's life can become accomplices to the eating disorders. Some, like Wazeter's brother David, did so unwittingly. "You better be careful what you eat, Mar," he advised. "If you don't watch it, you'll put on weight and it'll slow you down." Others, however, seemed manipulative. "You girls have to be careful now as you're maturing," said a coach at a running camp. "If you don't keep your weight down now, it'll only get worse when you graduate high school and start college." Wazeter tells her story in simple, lucid prose, which gives it a stark impact. But though Wazeter is admirably frank about her symptoms, she refuses to speculate on their causes. "My problems dated back to patterns and personality traits developed in childhood," she says. Were the causes cultural, a product of our society's emphasis on physical beauty? "I wanted legs like the girls I saw in the fashion and running magazines," says Wazeter, who also mentions her humiliation at being mistaken for a boy. Or were they personal—grim shadows in what appeared to be a normal childhood as the youngest member of a loving, middle-class family?
Wazeter concludes, "I wish I could tell you that I checked out of that hospital, turned my life around, and am now living successfully on my own. But I can't say that." Indeed, the hope that Dark Marathon inspires is, admittedly, largely for others who might be headed toward a similar fate.