'There's a difference between going out running because you enjoy it and because you are trying to burn calories to make yourself lighter'
Back on track at long last, athlete Katie Kirk, from Holywood, opens up to Cathal Dennehy about her battle with anorexia and explains why there needs to be more help for people with eating disorders
Fourteen seconds had passed before she came out with it, a casual conversation with an exhausted, elated athlete taking a turn you never saw coming. "I'm not afraid to say it," Katie Kirk said. "I had an eating disorder."
The question that triggered the response was one many were asking at the Irish national athletics championships last Sunday, where the 25-year-old finished like an express train to take silver in the women's 800m.
Katie Kirk? The name rang a bell for most. A brilliant junior. The girl from Northern Ireland who lit the Olympic flame in London in 2012. Where had she been?
This is where: battling anorexia throughout her early 20s, a quiet, desperate war that few had known about.
Before she gets to the how, it's best to start with the why: the reason Kirk is doing this interview has nothing to do with her. It's for others like her, suffering out there in silence.
"It was a really horrible experience," she says. "But we need to give people with eating disorders more hope that they can recover. They can feel disheartened and hopeless."
It's the great, untouched taboo of elite sport, rampant yet reclusive, seen and not spoken about. But the figures are alarming: an Australian study found 15% of elite female athletes met the criteria for anorexia and bulimia, with an additional 16% showing signs of an eating disorder.
A Norwegian study found 24% of female endurance athletes had symptoms of an eating disorder, while a study of women in US college sports found one in four had disordered eating.
In 2016 Kirk was diagnosed with anorexia athletica, characterised by excessive, compulsive exercising and energy restriction. "To be honest, I had seen symptoms for three years," she says.
Growing up in Holywood, Co Down, she had long seemed destined for athletic success. Her father, Mark, was a former international for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, while brother Conall ran for Ireland at this summer's European Games.
As a 17-year-old, Katie finished fifth in the European U20 400m final and the following year, athletics legend Lady Mary Peters selected her as one of eight teenage athletes who, together, would light the 2012 Olympic flame.
Kirk traces the root of her issues to 2013, the early embers of a fire that would eventually spiral out of control.
"The first thing was doing a little bit too much training, running a little too fast, eating a little bit less, then it completely manifested into these huge issues," she says. "I literally wasn't really eating anything, I was training all the time and I was in a really bad place. I wasn't clinically depressed but I felt very down all the time and all I was focused on was excessive training.
"I was that athlete who always wants to do more."
The illness made her feel incapable of asking for help, but in 2015 her parents staged an intervention and only then did she concede. Her first stop was a sports doctor and she was soon referred to a sports dietician, but neither addressed the underlying issue. "That was probably the worst thing. I was in denial and we never mentioned the words 'eating disorder'. I clearly did have a problem and it got a lot worse from there," she says.
The issue was inextricably linked to her sport. "Because I'm a perfectionist I restricted what I was eating because I thought I needed to maintain race weight the whole year. I felt I would improve my performances."
A key question she soon had to confront: why did she run? Over the years the answer had changed.
"There's a difference between going out because you enjoy it and because you're trying to burn calories to make yourself lighter. Lots of my therapy was about: do I actually enjoy running? Or do I do it because I'm obsessed," she explains.
Frustrated by a lack of resources at home, Kirk travelled to Leeds in May 2016 to work with Allie Outram, a psychotherapist specialising in eating disorders, and only then did the tide truly turn. She had a year of intense counselling, much of it done remotely on Skype, that addressed her underlying issues. She did cognitive behavioural therapy for eating habits, exercise and her perfectionism. She followed a specific eating plan. All her meals were monitored.
She turned a corner psychologically, but the physical damage lingered. Kirk developed so many stress reactions in her bones - the pre-cursor to fractures - that she didn't bother with MRI scans after a while; she knew one when she felt it.
Most professionals told her she should never return to athletics. But the sport meant everything to Kirk. Still does.
"Because I was quite a bad case they're like, 'initially you don't do any exercise at all', but that was not an option because I would freak out. I caused my family so much difficulty and I had to do something. I would have gone mental," she says.
She admits her approach is not one others should follow. For many running again is never a possibility, but in that period it helped her cope. "It also helped me eat," she says. "So I would still exercise and I would eat and that helped the recovery."
She began to enjoy the activity again - until she picked up another stress reaction last year. "I was like: 'f*** it, I'm just going to take time off,'" she says. The injury was the impetus she needed to take a proper break: Kirk didn't run for five months and "literally hardly even walked".
"That [extended time off] needs to happen at some stage but it's about at what point it's appropriate. Those five months were the biggest improvement I made."
She started back with a walk-jog routine last September.
"It wasn't because I wanted to burn calories, I wanted to run. That was the difference," she says. "I'd always been told, 'you can't, it's impossible', but I didn't start back to compete, I started for my sanity. It's heart-breaking to say but I never believed I'd come back racing."
But she has found a way, even though she concedes it's a risk. In January, Kirk ran her first race since 2016. "A car crash," she says, but her first season back was never about the times. It was about enjoying it again.
Over the summer, without forcing things, her fitness progressed and she lined up at Irish nationals with an outside medal shot. As the field dawdled through 200m her competitive fires re-emerged, Kirk laughing now as she recalls telling her rivals: "Jesus Christ, girls, hurry up!"
Ciara Mageean took gold as expected, but Kirk unleashed a ferocious kick to take silver. Waiting near the finish was her fiance, Johnny, and Kirk cried as they embraced. When things were at their worst, it was her fiance and family who were always there. "That's the other thing [about eating disorders], you have no social life whatsoever. My family are definitely my biggest supporters and Johnny has been just unreal," she admits.
A day later, Kirk was announced on the Irish team for this week's European Team Championships in Norway, which left her stunned. As a junior she had run for GB but the plan had long been to run for Ireland as a senior. After switching allegiance in 2014, she remembers a comment on Twitter saying she'd never make an Irish team anyway.
"Well, I have proved you wrong, my friend," she laughs.
In the Belfast International last Thursday, she clocked 2:04.43 for 800m, her quickest time for five years. The smile barely left her face all evening as she mingled with her rivals, her friends. "I love athletics," she says. "I absolutely love it, but I don't stress myself any more.
"If I'm sick, I'm sick, if I have work I don't train - it's a healthy attitude."
It's not that her issues are gone, but she's now in control of what she calls the "eating disorder voice". "It's basically the wee devil on your shoulder. I don't get that much any more, but even once in the last week I got this [thought]: 'you should skip this meal'. But in therapy you learn how to deal with those and I'm very good at warding it off."
Kirk knows she was lucky - she has friends and relatives who have yet to recover from eating disorders - but having come out the other side she can see some of their key triggers.
"Social media played a large part and I hate to admit that, but I made some connection that I had to be a right weight to perform well and it wasn't true. But eating disorders are mental illnesses and I was irrational. No one could talk to me."
Her dad has always been her coach, and Kirk is keen to note he was only ever cautious and supportive - she knows other athletes can so easily be triggered by those around them.
"We need a complete culture change in athletics where we don't size up people's bodies, where commentators don't comment on the way athletes look and we don't talk about people's shape."
These days, she looks to the future knowing this disorder won't define her. Just last week Kirk picked out a dress for her wedding and before she flies off to Norway this week, she's cramming for her Masters in sports nutrition at Ulster University.
Above all, she has got back what was once lost: control, hope. It's why she wants others to read this. When Kirk was at her worst and scoured online to find stories of recovery, she started to think eating disorders were a dark tunnel with no light. She knows now that's not true.
"If there's even one person out there who can identify with these things, who thinks, 'maybe I need to do something and I'll go seek help', that would be a result," she says. "If I can help make one person change, that would mean the world."