When I began running in the late winter of 1995, I had no idea that I was launching a war -- on myself and my body. At first I couldn't even run a mile. I was never one of the fast ones when we took those fitness tests in high school -- the 50-yard dash, sit-ups, the mile. The first time I went outside, in the raw, late-March wintery mix of rain and sleet and snow, I could barely move my heavy, untoned body for more than 10 minutes. The cold air burned my lungs and made me cough. I'd never run long distances before, but something inside me made me get on the road.
At first a mile took me 20 minutes, then 15, and then 12. I ran every day with determination, and when it hurt, I knew it was working. Eventually one mile became two, then five, then eight, and then 10. When I noticed that my suit pants for work were becoming looser around my waist, I made the connection that it was the result of running and controlling what I was eating. It's working!
The inner dialogue began in my head. I wondered how many miles I could run without stopping. "How little can I eat," I asked myself, "without running out of energy on a run?" I wondered how few fat grams I could consume and still run six miles. Half-hours extended to 50 minutes. Fifty minutes grew to an hour. An hour became 75 minutes. I'd run in the rain, during thunderstorms, at 5 in the morning, and at 11 at night, oftentimes both. It didn't matter; nothing could stop me. I never missed a day.
As it got warmer with the changing seasons, whenever I could, I ran in the middle of the day. I needed to burn as much fat as possible, and I knew the best time to do that was in the noonday heat, especially in the summer. Stride after stride, I made my way through the winding roads of my hometown of Andover, pounding the pavement with my feet, fighting the fat from forming in my belly.
Push-ups became part of the routine too. The asphalt on High Plain Road was too hot to touch, so I did them on the lawns along the way. In the middle of July, the midday sun was scorching and the humidity so high that perspiration bubbled from my forehead even when standing still. On my long runs the heat radiated from the pavement into my sneakers and up my legs, which eventually were mere muscle upon bone. I could even feel the rubber soles of my Nikes melting. I got sunburned, and the sweat made it sting. I welcomed that discomfort, though, because, masochistically, it inspired me to go farther.
My nylon shorts were as wet as they would've been from jumping into a pool. My tank top stuck to my body as if the sun had turned it to wax, and the beads of sweat were the wax dripping off me. I developed a pilonidal cyst on my tailbone from running too many miles day after day, and I could feel it growing. But the pain on my tailbone was evidence that my punishment was working, so I kept going. My chafed nipples, which had scabbed over just the day before, were bleeding again, staining my shirt with red lines from the middle of my chest down to my waist.
My ankles were swollen from the banging. The greater the impact of my feet landing on the blacktop, the harder I knew I was working to eliminate the possibility of the fat multiplying. Staring at the double yellow lines on the road, determined to never look up, I was hell-bent on burning off the fat I'd grown so afraid of. Never mind that by the end of the summer, that fat was virtually nonexistent. Still, I imagined it was there, and that it got bigger with every tiny bit of food that I allowed myself to eat. It was impossible to put on weight by eating just the nonfat yogurt or the fat-free hard pretzel I had the day before, but I wasn't thinking straight.
The inner dialogue about fat grams and running became more obsessive and possessive. I wanted only to be with my runs. I wanted only to be without food. There was something freeing yet shackling about it all. Once I began a run and set a goal of 10 miles, I felt free; no one could stop me or tell me no. Simultaneously I felt like I had to finish or else I was a failure. In essence I was a slave to the road, to the sun burning my back like a whip. By reducing my fat intake to zero and running for an hour at a time, I knew that I'd destroy every fat cell that existed in my body. I had commenced an all-out attack on the demon inside me that made me feel that way: my homosexuality. With the strategy that combined running and starving, I was sure to waste away and starve the gay within.
It was incredible to witness my body evaporating. My work suits hung on me, and having achieved that made me feel powerful. I felt as if I was in charge of my own future -- even if that future was death. For the first time since I was a child, my pectorals were flat. The fat rolls that had once layered upon my torso were now absent. It used to be that when I sat down at my desk to write, my belly fat hung over my shorts or my underwear. Now a small, thin line around my stomach was all I had left to burn; I was determined to make it perish. So much of my body had already wasted away, and with such little effort. Getting rid of what few fat cells remained would no doubt be easy. Run by run, broccoli spear by broccoli spear, I was winning the war I'd launched a few months earlier against my body. Slowly but surely I was disappearing.
On the road I could also achieve asexuality. I didn't have to describe my feelings of despair to anyone there. I didn't have to think about being different. "I am a sinner, and this is my penance," I told myself. "Keep running, you faggot!" I just kept running, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes endlessly, away from what was going on inside me. If I missed a day, I felt incomplete. I felt as if I were doomed and God was going to punish me even more. All the while, as I obsessed about the running, I became more intent on eating nothing more than just soup for lunch.
I became very strict about sticking to my new way of eating. I didn't want to find myself in situations where it would be difficult to adhere to it, and I also didn't want people to notice and remark on it. Eventually I scheduled my long runs at times that would ensure that I could avoid all social occasions and interactions. By the end of the summer, I was running at least two times a day. On the rare occasions that I saw friends -- rarely, if ever, in situations that involved meals -- they would issue statements of concern. "Jon, you're losing too much weight!" they'd say. "Are you eating enough?" I'd attribute my weight loss to simply eating healthy foods and suggest that they should too.
An insatiable demonic persistence took over my mind. It was never enough to lose another inch or two. I set more goals than I could keep track of -- about my waist size, the amount of squeezable fat in my belly or in my ass, the degree to which my cheeks sunk. None of the goals were attainable, because nothing was ever enough. I just had to keep going. I no longer recalled why I had launched the war in the first place, nor for which cause I was raging. There were too many battles going on at once and too many voices in my head launching new attacks -- against my father, against my body, against my sexuality. It was a full-time assault that required 100 percent of my mind, body, and soul to execute. I would retire each night around 7 or 8, long before the sun set, praying to fall asleep. At least during sleep the demands and the orders quieted, until the morning.
This piece is an adapted excerpt from My Thinning Years: Starving the Gay Within, which will be released Tuesday, Sept. 9, by Hazelden Publishing.