Belles is running in the Olympic marathon trials on Saturday in Atlanta. In high school, he struggled with an eating disorder that nearly took over his life as a wrestler. Things changed when he found running. He told his story to Men’s Health:
MH: What did your life look like when you were a wrestler and struggling with an eating disorder?
DB: Each day revolved around a 1000 to 1500 calorie goal that I created with a large emphasis on keeping fat intake under 5g a day, and increasing my fiber to 500% of daily recommendations.
Most days began at 5am with hunger pains, and one to two 100-calorie packs of plain grits. At school, I’d immediately weigh myself in the wrestling offices. Lunch consisted of a ziplock bag of carrots and two pieces of extra-fiber wheat bread. If I was feeling good about myself that day, I’d allow myself one or two slices of deli meat.
After school we had wrestling practice, and I’d weigh myself before and after. By the end of most days, I was exhausted, mostly due to the calorie deficit.
Dinner was a microwavable bag of frozen peas and any vegetable my parents made with their own dinners. Immediately after dinner, I would begin a P90x video workout. I recall doing P90x for almost nearly a year straight without missing a day. Before bed I would revisit the scale numerous times before typically falling asleep around 8pm. I had no energy, and my body certainly couldn’t keep up with the amount of work I was doing without a tremendous amount of sleep overnight.
MH: What do you suppose was at the root of the disordered eating?
DB: I ask myself that a lot. I think some of it was a genetic predisposition to mental illness, but I think much of it was environmental as well. I was an athletic competitor, but I never was the top of my team or sport. Above average at best. Losing weight initially gave me a sharp increase in performance and certainly in the attention I received. It became an addiction to feel the praise. What people didn’t understand was that the praise was also killing me inside, given the damage I was doing internally.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses, and it was clear I was in a severe depression induced by my eating disorder (or maybe vice versa) and my health was quickly waning. I had numerous doctor visits and even spent time in a pediatric oncology center being tested for what they thought was leukemia. I knew this wasn’t this case, I knew that I was simply killing myself from restriction. I knew I had a problem, I was just afraid to admit it.
MH: What made you start running?
DB: My friend and wrestling teammate thought it would be a good idea to take it up as a means of getting fit for wrestling season. I wasn’t a great runner to begin with, but I loved the feeling of getting lost in the run. Wrestling was such a high intensity, high anxiety sport—it was very difficult for me to cope with the stresses of the matches. Running was the opposite; I was no longer competing against other people.
When you’re running, you have a lot of time to be more inward, and I had not taken the time to really listen to what I consider to be my true self before I took it up. Running acts as a form of meditation, it provides a headspace to cycle through your problems and within this, allow you to see with greater clarity the items that must be addressed.
Running brought my issues to the forefront and allowed to me to begin to develop a greater sense of action. Running also taught me the tools of patience, consistency, development, and always asking yourself “can I be better?” I’ve found the answer to this is always yes, and it transfers to all walks of life.
I’m now completely recovered from my eating disorder. In the thick of it, you can’t see through it. But with the proper focus, discipline, and practice, you can change your patterns of thought.
MH: What do you eat now?
DB: Food used to drive my entire life, but now I view my diet as a necessary means of living and fueling my needs as an athlete. I don’t put any energy into the calories of food, but rather, I try to eat as healthy as possible 90 percent of the time so that my body can recover fast, but more importantly, so that my brain and mental clarity are prepared for the day as well. I don’t skimp on my indulgences. And I have a rule: If I get invited to go Pizzicletta, a wood-fired pizza place here in Flagstaff, I have to say YES.
In general, before my run, I usually eat two waffles or an energy bar, and when I come back, I have a bagel or toast with an avocado and two or three eggs. Lunch is often a PB&J and a half-pound of trail mix. Dinner, is vegetables, an avocado, eggs, or lentils or chick peas. I snack on fruit and energy bars or homemade Fig Newtons, and at night I have popcorn. I do eat meat—after every hard workout, I try to fit in some form of grass-fed, high-quality meat at dinner.
MH: How did you go from non-runner to qualifying for the trials?
DB: I was certainly not a good high school runner, and I wasn’t a great collegiate runner, but I enjoyed the process and the work that it involved. I’ve always been an “all-in” type of person. I had a dream to get into the Olympic trials, so after graduating in 2016, I moved to Flagstaff to train and pursue this dream. I got sponsored by Brooks Running, which afforded me the opportunity to have the necessary gear to do my training and racing year round. Along with the other Brooks athletes, I’ve worked hard training in the past four years. I had some ups and downs, but in late 2018, I executed a great race and qualified for the trials. Since then, I’ve dropped an extra 75 seconds in the marathon.
The eating disorder took me to terrible places of darkness in my life. But I always tell people that it was a key turning point. It was a tough time mentally and physically, but it has been my life’s best teacher, although in a very harsh sense. I want people to know I’ve been there and that I’ve come out the other side. It’s possible to make a difference, but that begins with creating a plan and doing the hard-earned personal work to create greater possibilities in your mental and physical health.
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