ALLEGANY – It was the summer following her freshman year at St. Bonaventure. Kerry Caher was home in Clifton Park, working and training in the offseason like most college student-athletes. She was out for a run while her mother, Kathleen, followed along on a bicycle.
That’s when Caher broke down crying.
A summer dedicated to running had spiraled into an eating disorder. She told her mom about her severe calorie restriction, her regimented eating and her fear that consuming too much or the wrong kind of food would make her fat and slow.
Three years later, she’s poised to graduate from Bona, owns every women’s cross country record in program history and has opened up about her battle with anorexia.
“It’s the right thing to do to talk about it because it’s there,” Caher said. “I don’t think there’s a point in trying to hide it. It happened. It was a huge part of my life and it probably still is going to affect me for the rest of my life but hopefully in more positive ways now.”
Caher speaks openly about her anorexia. The illness, along with other eating disorders is recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health as “real, treatable medical illnesses.” According to the NIMH website, “anorexia is associated with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.”
Caher knows this now. But four years ago, she just wanted to run faster.
Her battle with anorexia was, oddly enough, an outgrowth of success her freshman year. She quickly learned she could be competitive with the top runner on the team and took off from there, twice setting the school’s 6K record and capping it off with a time of 22 minutes, 25 seconds at the Northeast Regional.
She loved the success. She loved running. So, she figured, to improve for her sophomore season, she needed to go all-in during the summer. Her life started to revolve around her workouts and, by extension, her food. At first, she started eating healthy food. No more sweets. No more junk. Caher wanted to fuel her body the best way possible.
As she lost some weight, she dropped time in summer road races. Suddenly losing weight equaled performance success. So she started restricting her food even more. She avoided socializing, because what would happen if she was at a friend’s house and it was time for her half a peanut butter sandwich? Being around people and food stressed her out.
Her mom started to notice the behavior change and after Caher broke down about her disordered eating, her family got her help.
She worked for a few months with sports nutritionist Nancy Clark and returned to school for her sophomore season having convinced herself and her family that her eating was back to normal.
But it wasn’t.
“My sophomore year, my weight was still very low. I was still feeling tired,” Caher said. “I ran my first race and it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I wasn’t the No. 1 runner. I was the No. 2 runner but my times weren’t what they should have been. Then after a couple of races my heart rate dropped so low they told me I couldn’t compete for a little while. I was devastated. I ended up going home for a couple of weeks and trying to get things under control. I came back and had a great end of the season.”
It seemed like Caher was on the road to recovery, but she hadn’t hit bottom yet. That would come second semester when she participated in a study abroad program in Italy.
“I started restricting even more than I had before,” Caher said. “And I wasn’t doing it on purpose but my mind was in such a difficult place and I was so controlled by the disorder that all I wanted to do was exercise and lose weight. I was barely eating anything. I missed out on a lot of Italian food.”
She can joke about missing the pasta now, but when she returned home, the 5-foot-9 runner weighed only 88 pounds.
“My mom was very scared. Everyone was scared for me,” Caher said. “I didn’t look good. I didn’t feel good.”
Her mom took over the kitchen in the summer, cooking for Caher while she dealt with the irrational voice in her head telling her to eat less.
“My mom would hand me a plate of food and I would just cry,” Caher said. “It was really difficult because I knew I had to eat it. I knew it was the right thing to do but I had an irrational voice in my head and that was the one that was the strongest. It was telling me: ‘No. If you want to be a better runner you want to be thinner. You don’t want to eat what’s on your plate.’
“It took me a long time to be able to eat normally but my mom was really great. She was with me every step of the way. She understood it.”
Caher returned to St. Bonaventure for her junior year. She gained some weight back and her running performance soared. That year she set the school record in the 5K (17:34.3 at Roberts Wesleyan) and again in the 6K (21:13 at the Bronx).
That became the pivotal point in her journey – seeing how a healthy amount of food, as opposed to severe restriction, made her a stronger runner.
“I was doing a lot of research and talking to different people so I learned different foods that are great for runners and great for athletes and people in general,” Caher said. “I could get myself to eat more as long as I was eating those foods.
“I still have a hard time treating myself. I don’t reward myself with pizza or ice cream because that’s more of a stress for me. It causes anxiety still. That’s still what I’m trying to get over but I am able to put enough of the right foods into my body that I was able to put on weight and I feel good.”
Her recovery continues. Caher’s senior season of cross country ended after the first meet, where she finished second overall at the Little Three Championships while suffering a stress fracture at the event. But that just fueled the rest of her final year at Bona.
She will be the featured student speaker at the school’s annual Scholarship Luncheon on Friday. In May, the education major will receiver her undergraduate degree. Next year she’s off to Penn State for another two years of work on her second bachelor’s degree – this one in dietetics so she can become a nutritionist and use her personal experience to help others.
And running, well that will always be part of her life.
“Running is my favorite part of the day,” Caher said. “I call it play time because it’s the time when I get to free my mind of everything and just relax and have fun.
“For such a long time it wasn’t that. It just became a chore and I felt I had to go do it because I ate this and that. But now, honestly, it’s something to ease my mind, to have fun, let loose. I see myself running forever.”