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A Sacred Body

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On October 31, 2016, four women donned white wedding dresses adorned with tulle and lace. Veils and white roses decorated their hair and on their feet were running shoes. They were dressed as “runaway brides,” but it was more than a Halloween costume. This was the start of a women’s running club. As they dashed around the streets of downtown Toronto, they passed out business cards to invite others to run with them and talk about women’s issues. 

So began Project Love Run, a running group that is a safe space for self-identifying women to come together and share stories about life stresses related to heartache, romance, body insecurities, and other issues too scary to discuss openly.

Filsan Abdiaman, 32, the founder of Project Love Run, is an advocate for mental health who started the group to create a community that she wished her younger self could have had. She has beautifully striking features, with high cheekbones, big brown eyes, and a halo of golden curls that bounce as she runs, but she hasn’t always been confident with her body. She has suffered through a roller coaster of anxiety and depression that evolved into bulimia, and because she felt scared to talk about it, it took her a long time to realize she was not alone. Ultimately, trail running became part of the cure to overcome her eating disorder.

She has suffered through a roller coaster of anxiety and depression that evolved into bulimia, and because she felt scared to talk about it, it took her a long time to realize she was not alone. Ultimately, trail running became part of the cure to overcome her eating disorder.

Abdiaman identifies as a Canadian-Somali-Kenyan-Muslim woman. She was born in Somalia, grew up in Kenya, and now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she moved to more easily participate in ultra races in the West. She’s been running since 2013, and did her first ultra, the Ragnar relay, in 2016. Soon after, she finished her first 50K, the Niagara Ultra, and set her sights on running a 100K. Finishing those races made her appreciate what her body was capable of. 

“Trail running, and ultrarunning in particular, has been a lesson in loving myself,” she says.

Feeling Alone

After Abdiaman graduated from University of Toronto in 2008, she felt lost. Subsequently, she went through a breakup, which threw her into waves of depression and anxiety attacks, so she returned to Kenya to be with her family.

“Emotionally, I was struggling to express myself and be confident in who I was, so I thought by moving to Kenya, I would find more insight,” she says. “But I was just running away.” 

She found it impossible to tell her family about her emotional unrest. In her family’s culture, there is a stigma that mental health is a Western problem. Keeping her internal turmoil a secret turned into a secret restriction of food. But eating disorders were also taboo, so she would binge eat to quell uncomfortable emotions and then feel guilty about it.  

As a Muslim girl, she was taught to cover up her body so as not to entice the male gaze. She was also slightly heavier-set than her siblings, which her family commented on. These subtle forms of body shaming only made the problem worse. Her family welcomed expressions of happiness and joy, but other emotions were discouraged.  

As a Muslim girl, she was taught to cover up her body so as not to entice the male gaze. She was also slightly heavier-set than her siblings, which her family commented on. These subtle forms of body shaming only made the problem worse. Her family welcomed expressions of happiness and joy, but other emotions were discouraged.

“If I was having a sad day, or I was angry or frustrated, my parents would question me and tell me, ‘You can’t be upset, you have everything,’” she says. 

Abdiaman moved back to Toronto in 2012, to be with her sister, who she was able to share her challenges with. There, she became a women’s personal trainer and hired a personal trainer herself, who encouraged her to start running as a supplement to other exercises. Initially, running was just a way to discipline her body and make up for when she binged. She internalized messages in the fitness world that related success with losing weight, and that also influenced her decisions about food. 

“Everytime I would see her going through something tough, she would resort to binge-eating,” her sister, Fayruz, says. “I would always be the one to try to talk her out of it.”

Abdiaman tried diet after diet, in attempts to adhere to different forms of “clean eating.” She steered clear of anything she deemed high in calories, fats or sugar, and between 2014 and 2015 she didn’t allow herself a single sweet or dessert, foods she thought made her miserable. 

“I love chocolate, and I never allowed myself to have any,” she recalls. “So I would buy chocolate bars and eat five to six in one go, or a whole box of chocolate cookies, and purge afterward.”

While she was cycling through various diets and bouts of bulimia, Abdiaman signed up for a 5k road race in 2013, and became hooked. She built up to running a half-marathon, a marathon, and finally some ultras. Ultimately, she developed amenorrhea in 2017, losing her period for an entire year, but she thought that was normal for female athletes. 

“All the while, I still didn’t really think I had any mental health issues to deal with,” she says. “I suppressed it all and felt like what would help me was just to get fit, and stay active, and do what society idolizes.”

It didn’t help that she never saw someone who looked like her in resources about eating disorders. When she searched for information, all she found were stories about white, female athletes struggling with eating disorders. Not seeing herself made it easier for her to ignore the problem since the resources didn’t seem to apply to her. 

“I was in denial for a while because of not seeing another person I could relate to,” she says.

 Studies cited by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) found that people of color are significantly less likely to receive help for their eating issues. Only 17 percent of clinicians identified Black woman’s eating behavior as problematic, as compared to 44 percent of white women’s behavior. 

Lately, Abdiaman has been more publicly vocal about her eating disorder. “I feel like it’s important for me to set this precedent because then other women in the BIPOC community that see me will be able to speak openly and seek out the help that they need,” she says.

From Perfectionism to Acceptance

When Abdiaman started long-distance running, she wasn’t fueling enough. During her first ultra, the Ragnar Relay in Ontario, in which individuals complete a total of 50k, she began binge eating high-sugar foods. Her restriction and starvation pattern was no longer possible if she wanted her body to perform at longer distances. 

“My body started to tell me, ‘yea, you’re starving yourself,’” she says. “That’s when I realized I needed help.”

She sought out a therapist to address the underlying issues of anxiety and depression while running on trails more frequently, which she says helped her heal. 

“The natural beauty found on trails is what helped calm my mind and put things in perspective,” she says. 

Around the same time, she started Project Love Run as a way to build a community where talking about eating disorders and depression was not shunned. The project helped her develop a more positive body image by appreciating what her body could do, surrounding herself with positive people, and doing something to help others. It was her way to “run towards self love.”

Around the same time, she started Project Love Run as a way to build a community where talking about eating disorders and depression was not shunned. The project helped her develop a more positive body image by appreciating what her body could do, surrounding herself with positive people, and doing something to help others. It was her way to “run towards self love.”

The club started in Toronto, and when Abdiaman moved to Vancouver, the network grew to include meetups there, as well as in Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal. Once a month, groups of five to 20 women meet to run, share brunch and have discussions about topics ranging from self-care rituals, periods, and women’s equality.

“The idea was to create a safe place for a younger version of myself, where she would have felt love and belonging,” Abdiaman says.

Meanwhile, her therapist in Vancouver suggested she write “love notes” to herself to practice self-compassion. So she set a goal to run a 100K after writing 100 love notes to herself. Through that training process, running changed from being a means to attain a specific ideal of what healthy looked like, to something that helped her heal. 

“I ran deeper in love with myself,” she says.

One Hundred Reasons

That 100K was the 2018 Diez Vista in British Columbia, which covers 12,000 feet of elevation gain throughout the course. Abdiaman DNFed, but she wasn’t upset. Even though she didn’t make the cutoff time of 18 hours, she still completed 80 kilometers. 

“Every kilometer I did, I was celebrating myself,” she says. “I feel like my whole life I’ve been searching for love externally, and doing this race I found love within.”

At the race, she also met her current partner, Lyv Shtyn, who was also running his first 100K. He says it was hard not to notice her, since she has a lot of charisma. They ran at similar paces and gave one another support to push up a long uphill section.

Neither of them finished, so they signed up and trained together for Utah’s Zion 100k in April 2019. About halfway through that race, Abdiaman started having gastrointestinal issues. She couldn’t keep fluids in on either end. She just put one foot in front of the other and told her body–her thighs, her calves, her stomach– “You can do this.”

“I think a lot of people think that you have to be some sort of superhuman to be an ultrarunner,” Shtyn says about how she inspires other people through Project Love Run. “Filsan shows that if you commit to something, dedicate yourself to something, you can do it.”

In the ultrarunning community, Abdiaman found solace in her vulnerability. Each distance she ran was another reason to be proud of her body. She learned to eat regular, appropriate meals, and she realized she couldn’t restrict herself if she was going to adequately fuel for races. Now instead of stressing her body to seek “perfection,” running has transformed into a way for her to listen to what her body needs. 

In the ultrarunning community, Abdiaman found solace in her vulnerability. Each distance she ran was another reason to be proud of her body. She learned to eat regular, appropriate meals, and she realized she couldn’t restrict herself if she was going to adequately fuel for races. Now instead of stressing her body to seek “perfection,” running has transformed into a way for her to listen to what her body needs.

“Ultrarunning allowed me to be myself and love myself, and to feel like a normal human being,” she says. 

Abdiaman finally told her family about her eating disorder in December 2019. They were surprisingly supportive, which encouraged her to keep talking about it. She vows to raise more awareness about eating disorders, and has partnered with two other women to create a podcast called “She Said What She Said,” where they host weekly discussions to talk about BIPOC narratives in the outdoors. 

Her next goal: Run 100 miles, while continuing to speak out about self-love and the warped sense of healthy in sports.

 

A love note from Filsan:

“Sometimes in life

you cannot

do it all …

And I love you

for this simple truth.

You are enough

where you are at,

exactly how you are

At every moment.”

www.projectloverun.com