Coping With RED'S And Disordered Eating: Bobby Clay

I just thought it would never happen to me. I was showing all the signs - I didn’t have periods, I was very, very lean, I was doing a lot of training - but I still didn’t think it would happen to me. And I think that’s the mindset that needs to change.

Bobby Clay was a truly outstanding junior distance runner, winning the European junior title over 1500m in 2015 to crown years of domestic success. Sadly, she’s not yet been able to toe the line as a senior due to a succession of injuries. Her situation warrants particular attention as she suffers the ill effects of RED-S with unusual eloquence and good humour.

RED-S or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport is a syndrome wherein athletes don’t cover the energy demands of their training and competition over an extended period and thus become prone to a variety of health problems. RED-S can overlap with eating disorders or other traumatic scenarios, but Bobby Clay’s background is notable for its stability and happiness. To all appearances a well balanced and thoughtful young athlete, various contradictory pressures and influences conspired to derail her career.

I was on the Alter-G treadmill, and I got up to quite a lot on that and was going to transition to grass. And I managed to get a stress fracture in my shin, which was unbelievable. I then managed to get a stress fracture, which we assume was from the bike, so I’m not even on the bike. My shins are just awful.

We’re pretty sure my body just got to this point where it just couldn’t cope and it was breaking down and my shins are just very weak.

A runner from the age of 7, Clay initially trained exclusively on grass. She fell in love with the sport during those early years. On her first coach, James Roberts, she says “Oh, absolute hero. Brilliant. Anyone who wants to get into grassroots running, who wants their children to love running: I have never met anyone with as much of a passion for running as James.” Coach and athlete worked well together and understood each other.

As the stakes were raised and she began to meet with success in her teens, Clay’s approach to the sport began to change.

It must have been the run up to English Schools across at under 15. I got told if I came in the top eight I’d get an England vest, and that’s something I’d never considered. … Once that was said to me, I suddenly thought to myself, “You can do that”. And that’s probably when I really started to work hard.

Convincing herself that training on the track was necessary to take the next steps forward - feeling naive and behind as splits were discussed by her competitors - she threw herself fully into track work.

I then went too much the other way and did every single session on the track with the track group and that’s where I feel there was a turning point, where my body started to get abused by me.

Without being so reckless as to cause immediate problems, Clay would often do what she thought was right rather than what she was advised, and edged up her training volume and intensity away from the track.

I think I was a difficult athlete. Not, I hope, personality wise, but when I was training.

The results of this excessive commitment to training were good for a number of years, but in retrospect the seeds of her future problems were starting to be sown.

I very much got fuelling after training wrong. For a long period of time I was doing triathlon so I had to swim, I had morning swim sessions. I used to get a lift from the pool from a friend [and] I wouldn’t eat much at all after a swim and then I’d have a day at school.

But I didn’t not eat because I was thinking “I’ve got to be thinner” or “I’ve got to be lighter” or “I shouldn’t eat”. I’d just eat whatever I’d remembered to pack that day.

I was trying to live as a professional athlete, but not preparing each day for the training of a professional athlete.

Despite not having an eating disorder - “I never, ever had any hang ups with food” - she nevertheless realises she was influenced by people around her and thus her whole “perception of what was eating a lot, and fuelling a lot” was warped.

She reached the end of her school career still flying high, but university proved a reality check. New coach Rob Denmark immediately recognised potentially destructive traits, while her teammates proved positive role models: “I was around these girls who were my idols, and I was just thinking, what am I doing?”

A radically altered approach worked for a time: “I suddenly had a life .. I wasn’t doing junk miles, I was making things count, and I was training really hard but I was so much stronger.” Unfortunately her body simply wasn’t able to maintain this seemingly sensible training.

I had a great summer but it was just all too late.

While Bobby deals with her long absence from the sport she loves with good humour - “I’m currently trying to make a transition into being a mermaid” - her message to healthy runners is loud and clear. Don’t be complacent. You are not indestructible.

It does happen to you. And if it doesn’t happen to you now, it’s going to catch up with you later.