Former PSJA runner sets sights on qualifying for Olympic marathon

Running to win the life race

Starla Garcia, who has put doubts and eating disorders behind her in her quest for the Olympics, on Feb. 8 in Houston. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

Starla Garcia ran in circles during a part of her life.

It could have killed her.

After battling with herself as well as anorexia and osteopenia, a weakening of the bones, she’s back. Now, she runs when she wants instead of when she thinks she has to. And she wants to run, especially Saturday, Feb. 29, when she will be one of more than 500 runners competing at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta.

She qualified by coming in under the 2-hour, 45-minute mark at the Houston Marathon, where she now lives. Garcia has no false beliefs that she will be among the top three runners to qualify for the games; she still has goals.

“A lot of people are like ‘you can make it to the Olympics,’ that’s so nice and supportive,” she said. “But imagine the talent. I already had a ticket to go and watch it in real time and was so pumped up. My goal is to be as close as to what I did in Houston.

“I knew I was on pace, sitting behind the pacer. Maybe two or three of us went for it near the end and I was one of those girls. When you stress your body, your mind just shuts off and you stop telling yourself that you’re tired and you start trusting your body to do what it’s supposed to do.”

The former PSJA North and University of Houston cross country runner fell into a pattern in high school that female runners can fall prey to. She would run, have a little better race time, lose a half pound of pound of body weight and run with the results being even a little faster.

“I would be told great job with my time and friends and others would tell me I was looking good and it was just a pattern I couldn’t stop,” Garcia said. “I started restricting foods and it wasn’t a good time.”

A self-described “Type A, overachieving kid,” Garcia said her junior year in high school she had several AP classes and had put a lot of pressure on herself, all while still trying to run at a high level, a level that brought her a regional championship in cross country her senior year and a state appearance in the 3,200.

It was what she described as the “golden days of PSJA North Cross Country. It was so fun to be there,” she said.

But then the stress led to he losing weight, in a very unintentional way, she said.

“I was getting a lot of positive feedback and just wanted to run faster,” she said. “I started cutting out foods. I lost my menstrual cycle. I had no idea what was happening and nobody explained that could happen to me.”

Garcia said it’s all part being in high school athletics. Nobody did anything negative to her. In fact, all of it started with positive feedback and faster times.

“Wow I was running fast and I lost a lot of weight — from 115 down to 102,” Garcia said. “In running cultures, thin bodies are praised, my body was praised so you start thinking maybe if I’m thin or lose a couple pounds, I’ll be faster.”

She signed her National Letter of Intent to run for the University of Houston. The problems followed her there and intensified.

There are not a lot of Latinas at a higher level of running. I compared my body to other girls. I felt I had so much pressure to do well,” Garcia said. “How do I stand my ground in my own body and gain the courage to run well against those who are thinner or are faster.”

She finally reached her rock bottom. She said she became irritable and not a very nice person. “When you’re hangry (hungry and angry) all the time because you are restricting, I became not a nice person,” she said. “I was isolated, very sad and having fights a lot with my family, my friends and my teammates. I lost a lot of my support system; it took over my entire life and got between me and my relationships.

“I didn’t look physically well, my grades I had to work twice as far and my brain didn’t have enough energy. “My performance in college wasn’t where it was expected to be.”

Still, the University kept her on scholarship and her support system — especially teammates and family — were there as well.

“Things turned around but it was a full process that included my collegiate career, therapy and a dietician.” she said. “My coaches were so understanding and let me stay on the team, not a lot teams let you do that, and I got into recovery. I’m indebted to them. They remembered who I was when they first met me and I’m glad they fought for me still.”

Starla Garcia, who hopes to qualify for the Olympic marathon, runs Feb. 8 in Houston. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

Her teammates were proactive in Garcia’s recovery. They would take her to her counseling and dietician appoints and to the grocery story. Garcia just wanted everything to get back to normal. Her overachieving personality aided her in the quest.

“I will be the bigger person,” she said she remembers thinking to herself. “I will not let it define my life.

“I knew if I allowed it to win, I would die. I had two options: live in life in isolation and die, or get better. My only option was to get better. The morbid thing about eating disorders is that you need food every day to live and thrive. If you don’t eat, you eventually die.”

Garcia remained in therapy, which was difficult for her. She continued to build on her support system. Eventually she even stopped running. Now, however, she’s back to running — she’s hungry, to run and eat — and has a completely new positive outlook on life.

“I don’t really put restrictions or rules on my eating anymore. I eat what I want when I want. Today so far I had a pancake and a couple eggs. I let go of the rules and the diet structure and trust my body,” she said. “I haven’t stepped on a scale in year. I accept my body and I feel happy about it.”

Now, among other things, Garcia said her mission in life is to show people and dismantle the beliefs around the running culture especially women runners, letting them know that being thin doesn’t equate to being faster.

“When I was younger needed to hear that positive feedback,” Garcia said. “But it’s about knowing who you are; knowing that will give you an advantage. You trust yourself and that’s what matters.

“Where you came from doesn’t matter. If you lived in a shack, it doesn’t matter. What matters is your hard work and persistence.

“I used to run because I thought I had to. Now I run because I love to.”