Always in my Heart

This is not a race recap or even really a running story – although it does describe why and how I started running. It’s mostly an important piece of the story that made me who I am today, and is in large part a dedication to Sparkle and how she saved me from who I was.

I’ve mentioned many a time the fact she literally saved me. This is the how. It’s long and it’s raw and when I read it back it hurts but it also heals. 

I need to acknowledge that this is my story based on my memories of how I’ve experienced the world around me. Memories can be faulty and I’m sure perceptions influence our stories more so than the actual events. I’m also fully aware that as a middle-class, young, white, thin female, I’ve lived an extremely privileged life – and while that fact is not meant to belittle the suffering and emotional trauma I’ve experienced, I also don’t want it blown out of proportion – I am very grateful for all the good that has also been a part of my story.

Lastly, I chose to finally tell this story now, at this time, and at all, because I feel as though I’ve finally, successfully risen above the emotional distress I’ve slowly been working my way through over the years. That’s not to say I don’t still have a bad day here and there, but overall I’ve built a level of resilience that allows me to confidently say I’ve moved beyond the issues I struggled with for so long. I am no longer afraid of life. I am no longer afraid of pain. I am no longer afraid of being rejected. I am no longer afraid of just being me. Today, I choose love over fear. I am enough, just as I am. 

I started running to ‘get in shape’. At 22 years old, I found myself smoking half pack a day, binge drinking myself into brownouts and blackouts every weekend, and falling asleep in front of the TV after coming home from a job that was good but ultimately not meant for me. Boyfriends came and went… I was both clingy and simultaneously had little patience for any of them.

In short, I was a hot mess.

Well, not in an epic disastrous way. I mean, I’d just returned to University as a mature student. I was finally going to make something of my life. Now only a few months later I’d decided I needed get in shape. Having realized I needed to be more attractive and probably healthier too, getting fit might help me both look better and be better.

I could never have known what was waiting for me on this path.

I guess you could say I’d realized that I wasn’t good enough as is. You see, on top of other signs that came before, the hot guy I’d lusted after the year before had only ever let me come over to his place under the dark cover of night. I thought he didn’t want to be seen in public with me because I wasn’t beautiful enough for him. Later I realized he’d just wanted a during-the-week-fuck-buddy (yes I know that’s crude but the reality is that doesn’t even accurately describe how awful the situation was). He had a ‘real’ weekend girlfriend (the one everyone but me knew about) waiting for him at his other home a few hours east.

Okay, maybe my life was a bit disastrous.

At that time in my life, I willingly let myself be used by anyone and everyone if it meant earning a bit of what I thought was love and respect (but in hindsight was anything but). I’d done it my whole life for as long as I could remember. Tried to earn appreciation and acceptance with things and acts.

I was the one who brought gum to class to share with everyone and anyone. Where’s Sarah, she always has gum… They needed me around. Needing me for my gum was better than not needing me at all.

I picked up smoking at the age of 16 in order to be accepted by a group of kids that seemed to actually like me. They wanted me to hang out with them. It was better than spending lunches watching through the window while the cool kids played games outside, and it was infinitely better than being chased down the hallway by bullies calling me the devil.

It was me who got a fake I.D. and sold cigarettes to all the smokers in high school so they’d need me. My services were valuable to them. (I also got caught and expelled and then blamed a few friends and then endured their hate – shocker I know, not sure what else I thought blaming someone else was going to get me.)

And it was me that offered up my body to boy after boy after boy in hopes this one would be able to give me the affirmation of worthiness and affection I craved so desperately. I did that. To myself. I let myself be taken advantage of again and again, each time hoping this would be true love. Of course, it never was.

My self-loathing grew by the day.

So clearly, I was in need of an intervention.

Which came in the form of running. I put on a pair of dark blue cotton shorts and a white cotton t-shirt and a pair of purple Nike running shoes 2 sizes too small (the ones that fit properly made my feet look too big, so yes I got a size 6 instead). I ran not even 400 metres before I stopped, bent over clutching my knees with my hands and thought I was going to die. I coughed and wheezed, my poor smokers lungs wondering why I was imposing this unnecessary torture on them.

But I went back out the next day. Then I bought some fitness magazines and copied the exercises they described complete with pictures of the girl I wanted to look like doing them – lunges and tricep dips and overhead presses. I did them in front of my full length mirror, carefully copying the images of the pretty girl with long blond hair impeccably pulled back into a swooshing ponytail and who was impossibly thin yet perfectly toned.

Then I actually got up the nerve to join a gym. I went to a group fitness class there called BodyPump taught by the most gorgeous girl I’d ever seen in real life – she was lean and toned with bouncy blond hair, an infectious smile, and abs and shoulders to die for. She possessed a keen zest for life, energy radiating off of her so much that it literally visibly lifted up those around her. Obviously this running and fitness stuff must be worth keeping around. Clearly it was working for her. So I persisted.

One day she asked the class if anyone wanted to run with her and I was the only participate to raise my hand. A few days later, there we were, getting on the treadmills side by side and running together before BodyPump. She was beautiful and strong and brave, and I made her my hero. I wanted to be just like her.

I decided to quit smoking. I’d been contemplating it for a while – partly because I was feeling sorry for my cat who lived with smoke hanging in the air every day (I’d actually already started mostly smoking outside for her sake) – but also because it was making running really hard. Plus now my newfound hero didn’t smoke. So I just set the pack aside one day in early October. I didn’t throw them out (until months later) – I just put them on my shelf.

I never smoked another cigarette again (to this day, nearly 17 years later).

At the end of October I met my husband-to-be. He was not a smoker or a runner. Which was great on the smoking end of things seeing as I’d just quit a few weeks earlier. And on the running side of things, well, a few months into our relationship I bought him his very first dri-fit running t-shirt (I’d figured out at that point that dri-fit was the way to go, along with proper fitting shoes). It took about 6 months, but he’s been running alongside me ever since (well, slightly ahead of me I suppose you could say, speedy guy that he is).

It was my BodyPump instructors idea to run our first marathon (aka the Santa Shuffle 5k). We trained for it on the treadmill and with a few pool runs. And by pool runs, I mean we ran in the shallow end, our feet pushing off the bottom of the pool. You can tell by now what experienced runners we were, yes? I know, so good. We even lined up on race day right at the very front of the entire pack of racers. Right beside Santa Clause.

After dying my way through that first 5 km race, stopping to walk multiple times, I went on to run many more races – 10k’s, half marathons and then marathons (real actual 42.2 km marathons ha). Four years later, I was teaching BodyPump myself, newly married to my one true love, graduated from university and working on Parliament Hill.

Life was good. Or was it? Many parts truly were. But I still just didn’t have the body I thought I so desperately needed. Despite being happily married, I carried on my pursuit of the perfect body. The year of 2006 saw the fitness industry make a killing off of me as I shelled out for personal training, a Fitness Competitor coach, bikini camp workshops, photo shoots, ridiculously expensive rhinestone covered bikinis and suits, and countless other expenses such as hair extensions, regular blond hi-lites to match the extensions, a gel French manicure every 3 weeks, and copious amounts of make-up and cute tiny clothes to fit my tiny (yet not good enough) body.

I’d been starving myself for quite some time at that point, but had gotten even more hard core a few months earlier after hiring my Fitnesses Competitor coach. I still remember the afternoon snack listed on my meal plan – 1 scoop of protein powder mixed with water and half an apple. I’d carefully eat half my apple and toss the other half in the garbage.

Then began the binging and purging. On my walk home from work I’d stop at bakeries and coffee shops, buying up bagfuls of cookies and dessert bars – my favourite was a pecan pie type of bar – all to be consumed at home the minute I walked in the door. Followed by absolute disgust with myself and running to the bathroom to throw it all back up. I knew it was wrong, it felt wrong, but I couldn’t stop.

I took to leaving my credit card at home and only bring $5 cash with me in an effort to stop myself from going too crazy on the treats aka binging. It was on one of those days I only had a few dollars cash on me that I wondered into a gift shop trying to keep myself out of the coffee shop or bakery. And it was there I found a little keychain – a small stuffed dog with 2 pink bows on her head, one atop each ear. The little tag sticking out of her had a name on it. Her name was Sparkle.

I bought that little stuffed dog and brought her home with me.

I didn’t binge/purge that day.

My swim coach saw through my stories, got worried about me and tried to stage an intervention. He set me up with a lovely woman who’d once also suffered from bulimia. I did meet with her. It kind of helped a bit but not really.

My husband found out and walked out. But then he came back and it was that, right there – knowing I could lose him over my being bulimic – that shocked me out of it all. I stopped right then and there. I quit bulimia cold turkey just as I had smoking 4 years ago. I never once revisited that either (to this day, 13 years later).

I began eating again. Eating and eating and eating and eating. There was so much lost time to make up for, so much time spent starving to balance out. I gained weight. A lot.

At the same time all this was going down, I’d also became depressed. I was filled with so much hopelessness that it scared me right through the doors of my local walk-in clinic. The doctor there told me I was clinically depressed and put me on medication for people with depression. She also directed me to a psychologist. I went for a few sessions but then I stopped because I didn’t feel like he understand me.

In the middle of my rock bottoming out, I took to searching the internet for a real life Sparkle. I don’t know why – I’d always been a cat person. I’d never wanted a dog. But the little stuffed Sparkle on the end of my new keychain seemed to want me to find the real live one. So I looked and looked and looked…

And then I found her. She came in the form of a tiny Yorkshire Terrier – the runt of the litter, more money than we could afford and a good 5 hour drive from us. Somehow we made it all work. I picked up my most beautiful little angel on December 28th, 2006. Right from that very first moment, she was so perfect – just as angels are. As I drew her close to me, all wrapped up in the soft pink blanket she came to me with, I knew everything was going to be okay.

Sparkle literally helped my life sparkle again. She gave me a total and complete sense of unconditional love, unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Being that she was totally and completely dependent on me, my former hyper-intensive self-focus was now diverted into caring for this tiny little being. My world underwent a quantum shift and it was good.

A few months later my husband and I welcomed Sunshine to our family also – a Bernese Mountain dog – for my husband. He’d always wanted a dog. So we had a happy little family now, me and him, Sparkle and Sunshine, and our cats Pumpkin and Puddy. In spring of 2007 I quit my meds cold turkey (against my doctors advice – please don’t do as I did) and continued to gain weight. But for once I was happy.

We bought a house in the suburbs and that winter we didn’t run once (the snow was ridiculous and plows seemed never to come by). It was a good little life, but we were on the search for more. The next year was a big one – we sold our house and moved across the country. I began a new job, we found a little condo, half the size of our house for twice the price, and then my husband found a job. We were home.

But life rarely gets all better in a single swoop. Probably never. I was doing better but on many levels I was still struggling a lot. I lost some weight. Then some more. I dealt with many a health concern. I put some weight back on. I wasn’t having an easy time with running – I loved training year round on the West Coast and we’d joined a great run group – but I struggled with getting out of bed most mornings. Injuries and chronic infections and rashes and IBS and fatigue plagued me.

Sparkle was with me through it all. She was rarely not by my side. I carried her with me in her black leather bag, which was a dog bag but easily passed as a gym bag. She came everywhere with me – work, restaurants, grocery stores – everywhere. My issues weighed me down but Sparkle helped me keep my head above water.

Once I took her to a magic show in Las Vegas and we got stopped going through security. The big tough security guy asked me to open my black leather bag and show him the contents. Words escaped me so I just unzipped Sparkles bag as I looked up at the security guy. Sparkle’s little head popped up and her big brown eyes stared up at him.

What he did next I’ll always remember. He closed off the lane we were in, pulled me aside and asked if she was my therapy dog. To which I answered yes of course she was. It dawned on me then – obviously she was. She’d always been my saving grace and to her last breath she would be. That amazing security guy gave us the necessary directions and sent us into the magic show.

Life got better while I completed nutrition school. I figured some stuff out and mostly healed up so many of those awful debilitating health concerns that had been dragging me down for all too long. I know now the side effects of my severe dieting and bulimia had a lot to do with those conditions, but at the time I was clueless.

I also found success in running. I ran my 10th marathon so fast I qualified for the Boston Marathon – something I’d previously thought impossible. I started this blog. Then I found success as an entrepreneur (nutritionist). I was strong, fast, healthy and life was amazing. I started teaching sports nutrition and giving workshops and many, many talks. I ran so many more marathons, and I got faster.

But as the years went by, Sparkle’s health began to decline. We almost lost her in November 2015 to a seizure disorder. But she fought valiantly and came back home with me. She came to school with me to teach. She came with me to meet clients. She came to many of my talks. She was always there.

I ran my first 100-miler. My second. I broke my foot. I healed and ran my fastest 100-miler. Sparkle brought me through it all, her big brown eyes reading deep into my soul. She and I were literally attached at the hip – I wouldn’t leave her home alone for fear she’d have a seizure without my husband or I there to administer her potentially life-saving emergency diazepam. But if I’m being honest I must say I wanted it that way – I wanted to always have her with me, bringing her everywhere I went.

Because truth be told, I needed her by my side. The love that flowed through her and into me for the past 12 years had radically changed my life for the better. I just needed her with me. I never really thought about it.

Her seizures become less frequent. And then more frequent. In April of 2018 we were told her kidney function was less than a third there. Many days went by without her eating as she slowly lost her appetite. She lost the ability to nourish herself with life-giving food. I knew I was going to lose her, but honestly I couldn’t imagine life without her. Life without my angel seemed incomprehensible.

On the day she died, January 30th 2019 at 10:30am, my heart broke. I gently placed her tiny emaciated body in her soft cream cashmere sweater with the little pearls and soft velvet pale pink bows down the back. I clipped her hair back with her matching pale pink bow and wrapped her up in her pink blanket, placing her in her black leather bag. The very same pink blanket she’d been handed to me in so many years ago. The very bag she’d so excitedly jump into when she saw me getting ready to leave the house. In that blanket and bag, I buried my angel in the cold dark ground under mounds of dirt.

Sparkle left me exactly 6 months ago today. My heart still hurts so much. But I’ve refused to let losing her undo all the amazing good she brought into my life. It was incredibly hard at first (and in many ways is still really hard) – I really struggled and for a time I did completely forget how to practice self-care.

I used to say everything happens for a reason. I now know that is bullshit. There is never a good reason for death. Never. But death is a part of life. I accept that. There is no love without loss. There is no joy without grief. There is no triumph without struggle. There is no growth without pain.

I’ve spent my entire life being afraid. Afraid of what others will think of me. A deep-seated fear of never being good enough. Not pretty enough or strong enough or fast enough or smart enough or thin enough (read: lean, toned, 6-pack abs, ripped, muscular yet feminine) or healthy enough. Not having the perfect body. Not having enough skill to truly help others. Not having the speed or endurance required to succeed as an athlete, specifically, as a runner.

Sparkle helped attenuate that fear. Seeing as the antidote to fear is love, it makes perfect sense. Then last year I began to work through my fears once and for all. Sparkle sat beside me as I read and read and read.

As I picked up meditation. As I affirmed my worthiness. As I chose love over fear. As I embraced self-care and self-compassion over another kick-my-ass-into-gear training and diet plan.

As I learned to love myself instead of going to war with myself.

She was there as I slowly moved away from longstanding feelings of shame and unworthiness and instead embraced courage and vulnerability. She was there.

And then she wasn’t.

Now she isn’t.

But I am still here. I’m meant to still be here. And she was meant to move on.

I knew I leaned on her for strength. I always knew she was my therapy dog, even before the kind security guard put it into words. I knew she’d saved me from my bulimia and depression and carried me through life with the simple power of deep and unconditional love. I just never realized how strongly I’d been leaning on her. I’d never really allowed myself to acknowledge it, probably mostly for fear it wasn’t socially acceptable.

Without her here physically, I try to find her in my heart. I know that she was my angel and as such she is still with me – but it’s really hard to feel this be true sometimes. So each day I simply try to feel her presence in my heart.

I try to remember each day to maintain my practice of choosing love over fear. To continue practicing self-compassion. I remind myself over and over again of how the love she gave me was to help me become who I am today so I could then pass that love on to others who need it.

For the first time in my life I’ve moved on and away from needing to ‘fix’ myself. I am enough, perfectly imperfect as is. I’ve parted ways with food rules and restrictions and am finding my way using intuitive eating. It’s a tough and sometimes emotionally draining but deeply satisfying journey. And I know through it all that Sparkle’s spirit lives on in me, because I’m sparkling brighter than ever before.

Yet although I no longer need to change who I am, I still run. I will always run. But instead of running for weight loss or external validation, I now run for how joyful and free it makes me feel. And when it hurts I no longer suffer because I choose to embrace the pain. It’s an interesting and unexpected but welcome detail that has come with age – I eventually realized I have a choice. There will always be pain, but suffering is optional.

I am grateful for everything I’ve gone through in life because it brought me here, to where I am today. It brought me to running. And I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

I am still getting ready to run my first 200-miler this fall. Yes Sparkle was supposed to be with me for this epic journey to and through Tahoe 200. But instead I will now learn to carry her heart – her spirit and her love for me – with me in my heart.

She will always be in my heart.




6 thoughts on “Always in my Heart

  1. Thank you for sharing this Sarah. I think I’ve stopped crying long enough to type this :). You are not alone in this fight for self-acceptance. I never understood why I self-sabotage my efforts, but I keep going forward as I don’t know what else to do.

    I don’t know if you have read Running on Empty by Dr. Jonice Webb. This book opened up a lot of space for me to move forward. Somehow knowing I am not alone in this makes it a little better. The book title isn’t about running, but in some ways, it is: are we running away from or towards something?

    Sparkle lives within us.

    • Thanks very much Janice, and thank you for sharing a bit of your struggle also.

      I appreciate the book recommendation, which no, I’d not yet come across (but looks like something I do want to read).

      And what a great question – one I have really been looking at the past few months, with the reality being that I was definitely running away from something (fear, anxiety, hopelessness)… But today I choose to run towards something (joy, freedom, love).

  2. love this blog you’re an amazing runner. hope we can become friends and keep in touch because you seem really nice and your blog is amazing. Hope you know I’m a huge fan of your blog

  3. Hey Sara, Just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story and GREAT JOB BEING AWESOME AND FINISHING TAHOE 200!!!!!
    You and your hubby are a cute couple
    always be you!!!!

    Charles ( Carl )

  4. Pingback: My Body Fat Story - Eat 2 Run

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