Editor's note: This piece might be triggering for eating disorder survivors.
Amelia Boone, 36, is an ambitious achiever used to coming out on top. In addition to being an accomplished corporate attorney, Boone is a competitive athlete who has won the World's Toughest Mudder competition three times.
Not familiar with Tough Mudder? Here's the lowdown: competitors are faced with a miles-long circuit (from 3.1 miles to 10 miles, depending on the type of event) with up to 25 obstacles to clear, like crawling under wire fences or climbing up walls. This is a sport that works every part of the body: arms, abs, legs, muscles you didn't even know you had... and it's Boone's idea of fun. In addition to winning World's Toughest Mudder three times, she's won over 30 other obstacle course racing events.
But Boone says that experience pales in comparison to her most challenging obstacle yet—overcoming a 20-year battle with anorexia.
"Food became this little game I would play with myself"
Boone has always been an athlete; she played soccer, softball, and basketball throughout high school. But she says she has also long struggled with a difficult relationship with food.
"I'm trying to think back to the first time I had a fear of food and believe it was when I was a sophomore in high school," Boone says. She was at a sleepover, part of which involved staying up late and snacking on a big bowl of popcorn. "I woke up the next morning and just felt really bad about eating all of that popcorn," Boone says. "After that, food became this little game I would play with myself, [like] 'how little could I get away with eating?'"
Thus began her experience with anorexia—an eating disorder defined by severe restriction of food, extreme weight loss, and a deep fear of gaining weight. By the time she was 16, her soccer coach noticed she was losing too much weight, and talked to Boone's parents about it. "They took me to the doctor, who did some blood work and checked my vitals. The doctor said I needed to be admitted immediately, so I was—and didn't leave the hospital for six weeks." She says her friends knew she was in the hospital but likely didn't know exactly why. "When I got back to school, everyone was supportive of me, and I started playing sports again," she says. "I thought [my eating disorder] was over and done with."
"I realized my eating disorder was side-lining me. I needed to learn how to eat properly to fuel myself." —Amelia Boone
Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. "I was really open about my experience and put myself out there as this beacon of recovery, but between my freshman and sophomore year [of college] I relapsed hard—and this time I knew what I was doing," she says.
At first, she continued to push herself to work out, despite severely restricting how much she ate. "Something that's often misunderstood about eating disorders is that your body is incredible and can compensate, doing anything it can to survive," she says—up to a point. Boone recalls having no problem going on a long run, but at times, she would find herself weak and dizzy after walking up a short flight of stairs. Eventually, Boone says, she had to completely stop exercising in college as her health deteriorated.
After she graduated college, she went into treatment for anorexia for six weeks. (Boone adds that she should have stayed longer, but her insurance ran out.) After that, she went to law school, and then went on to become an attorney.
Navigating recovery as an athlete
Boone felt strong enough in her recovery to try working out again once she was an attorney. "One of my colleagues came by my desk telling me about this super cool obstacle course where people were running over wires and it looked like just the outlet I needed from my job," she says. After her first obstacle course race in 2011, she was hooked. "In many ways, training helped pull me out of my eating disorder because I knew I had to properly fuel my body and take care of it to compete," Boone says. "I really do credit it with helping my recovery."
Still, Maria Rago, PhD, a psychologist and board president of The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, says being an athlete in recovery for an eating disorder has its own unique set of challenges. "It's important for athletes in recovery to not start working out again alone so they have someone to hold them accountable and make sure their drive doesn't go too far," she says.
"What's tricky about being an athlete is that it's all about competition, and disordered eating behavior works the same way." —Camille Williams, LCPC
"It's easy for people in recovery to become obsessed with numbers, like how many minutes they're working out, how many calories they're burning, or how many miles they're running," adds Camille Williams, MA, LCPC, the eating disorder program coordinator at treatment center Timberline Knolls. "The intention [behind working out] should be more on feeling good and not about the numbers on an exercise machine."
Dr. Rago says athletes in recovery also run the risk of becoming overly fixated on their macronutrient intake. While it's important to for everyone to make sure they're getting enough of things like fiber and protein (and more so for athletes who are fueling grueling workouts), Dr. Rago says being rigid about food intake is a slippery slope. Often people require the help of a registered dietitian to make sure they're finding a healthy balance.
"What's tricky about being an athlete is that it's all about competition and disordered eating behavior works the same way," Williams says. "It's important to be aware of perfectionism creeping up when in training; participating in sports should be about feeling good even if you don't win, and not equating winning with self-worth."
The win that didn't make headlines
All this insight was on Boone's mind as she started participating in Tough Mudder races and other competitions. "I was very aware that it could go from being a healthy outlet to becoming another obsession," she says. But the more she started winning (she won the World's Toughest Mudder title in 2012, 2014, and 2015), the more publicity she gained. "Suddenly, there I was in magazines and advertisements; [there were] these photos of me where I was wearing very little clothing, and I became a lot more aware of what I looked like," Boone says.
The pressure triggered her anorexia, which in turn took a toll on her body. She experienced repeated stress fractures between 2016 and early 2019 as a result of her relapse. "I wasn't taking care of my body, and it was just like, 'nope,'" she says. Recognizing that she should seek intensive treatment, she took time off of work and training to go to a recovery facility for a few months in 2019. "I realized my eating disorder was side-lining me. I needed to learn how to eat properly to fuel myself," she says.
This time, Boone started working with a registered dietitian as well as a therapist to help her stay on track in her recovery—the accountability partners Dr. Rago and Williams emphasize are so important. She actively works to maintain a positive relationship with food, in part through daily mantras like: "The more you eat, the more adventures you get to have."
Boone didn't win the World's Toughest Mudder this past year. But she says just competing after a long hiatus was an act of celebration. "I'm just excited to be doing something I love, surrounded by people I love," she says. Letting go of securing first place and focusing on the mere enjoyment of the sport is her main priority now. Her experience is proof that the biggest wins in sport—and in life—can happen off of the field.
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