LARGO — Caillin Heron was sullen and sad, with no idea how or why she got there.
An eating disorder had stripped her 5-foot-3 frame to 76 pounds, and her parents were distraught. Her picture on Facebook — the drawn face, sunken eyes and bony arms — made her grandfather in Ohio cry.
A month ago, it was very dark in her world.
But Thursday morning Caillin, a Northside Christian cross country athlete, ran, faster than she ever had, twice around the lake at John S. Taylor Park, cutting through the stickiness of an overcast day until she couldn’t run any more.
In July, Caillin was your average teenager at camp.
Within a month, she was carefully measuring less than a cup of Kashi GoLean cereal, eating all 90 calories of it dry for breakfast.
For lunch, she would put 20 calories of fat-free cheese into an 80-calorie tortilla, then wash down a 90-calorie sugar-free bran muffin top with water.
For dinner, she’d wait until no one was left in the kitchen at home and have another muffin top with some Powerade Zero.
Caillin was living on about 400 calories a day. While training and running, she should have had about four times that amount.
“I convinced myself hunger was a good thing,” said Caillin, 13, “or I would tell myself it was a lie and I wasn’t really hungry.”
Caillin says she had self-image issues. Her mother, Sue, thinks the seed may have been planted in the spring, when sister Courtney, 18, had to lose weight to be able to use a certain pole for vaulting. Courtney was praised at school for her weight loss, complimented frequently.
Whatever the cause of Caillin’s disorder, the effect was striking and sudden.
“She just stopped eating; it’s hard to put it any other way,” Sue said.
Caillin slipped into depression. She couldn’t sleep. She was seeing doctors three to four days a week, including a psychiatrist and even an art therapist. She endured a battery of tests and weighed herself multiple times a day until her mother hid the scale. Sue and husband Sean were told to consider sending Caillin away to a clinic.
“One more pound,” Sue said. “That’s what they told me. The thought of sending her away …I just …I just get choked up thinking about it.”
So Sue did some research, reading a study done by the University of Chicago and agreeing that counseling, support and lots of love and parental monitoring would work just as well.
• • •
Katelyn Greenleaf is one of Tampa Bay’s finest cross country runners, and Sue Heron and others will tell you she is also one of the area’s finest human beings.
Toward the end of the summer, the Northside junior noticed Caillin’s deterioration. Encouraged in a discipleship at school to find and mentor other students, Greenleaf approached Caillin.
“I’m not perfect, and I don’t have the perfect advice,” Greenleaf said. “I just encouraged her to be strong, to tell her she can beat this, to put her faith in God. I’m just trying to be a friend. “
Every Thursday, Greenleaf and Caillin meet at 7:20 a.m. just to talk — about life, running, whatever Caillin feels like discussing.
She was a life preserver for a young girl being thrashed about.
“How many high school juniors would take a little eighth-grader under their wing like that,” Sue said. “That was huge. It was bigger than we can actually quantify.”
At home, the Herons exercised patience. They were told not to push food on Caillin, or they would push her away.
They watched a happy, witty, funny kid who loved to be surrounded by friends retreat into solitude.
Caillin was grumpy and hated cross country, but didn’t want to quit, even after blacking out during one race and falling in two others before being ordered to take a break.
Last month, she says she lost strength in the right side of her body. She could barely put weight on her foot. Her knee was giving out. She started losing her hair, and her nails started flaking.
When she looked at her family, she saw sadness. Sue was weepy and distraught, despite trying to keep up a positive front.
“We were all at rock bottom,” Sue said. “I was barely hanging on by my fingertips. It was very dark, very dreary for what seemed like an eternity.”
Then, Caillin started to come back. She’s not sure what triggered her recovery, but thinks it might have been a little bit of everything, from the professional help to Greenleaf’s support to her family. Mostly, she thinks it was the realization she was destroying herself and in the process bringing her parents with her.
• • •
Last week, Caillin ran in a junior varsity race at the conference meet and won — her first victory ever. She asked coach Jeff Goodwin if she could rejoin the varsity team.
Most people afflicted with an eating disorder are lucky to add a pound a week, Caillin had gained all 23 pounds back in roughly one month. According to Sue, the doctors said it was just short of miraculous, though Caillin will continue to undergo counseling.
“A crazy turn of events. We’re elated,” said Sue, who bounced around the course Thursday snapping photos as the Mustang girls raced to a district championship.
Thursday morning, Caillin Heron ran, faster than she ever had. Her time was 22 minutes, six seconds, good for 30th place.
“We couldn’t have won without her,” Goodwin said.
Photo courtesy of the Heron family: From left, Caillin Heron, sister Courtney and Katelyn Greenleaf from the first race of the season.