By the time he was 17, Benny Soran had stopped hanging out with friends who ate fried foods and sugary snacks. He was training to run his second Chicago Marathon, giving it his all as he had done with every project, class and cross-country track competition at Riverwood High School in Sandy Springs.
The straight-A student had lost 25 pounds between his sophomore and junior years of high school, but his doctor said his slowed heart rate was normal for an athlete. No one worried about his weight loss, and he continued to wake up at 3:30 a.m. for miles-long runs before class.
The now-19-year-old Wesleyan University freshman wants people to know anorexia isn’t just for girls with body issues. His eating disorder was also a symptom of his obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, which made him desire control over his environment and success.
Soran’s biggest fear was anything that would derail his progress, such as food.
The night before the 2016 Chicago Marathon, Soran broke down, unable to feed himself a bowl of what he considered “bad food.”
He was 6 feet tall and 128 pounds; his resting heart was in the upper 30s when it should have been between 60 and 90.
“I was bawling my eyes out the day before the marathon because I could not eat the pasta,” Soran said.
Soran has since worked to change the way he thinks, through intensive cognitive behavioral and family therapies — a process of recovery that changed his family, too. His mother, Marci Soran, became executive director of the Eating Disorders Information Network, a nonprofit exclusively dedicated to the prevention and awareness of eating disorders. It’s the same place where Soran sought treatment at 18. Before that, Marci Soran said, she owned a marketing company for 26 years that helped corporations and nonprofits with marketing tactics.
Soran said something inside him snapped over the 2014 Christmas break that his family spent in Miami. He was a sophomore and his brother, Ari, was a senior at Riverwood High School in Sandy Springs. The teens were bored and decided to leave the Marriott and run along the beach. After almost 5 miles, they returned to the hotel. “We thought, ‘We could do a 10K or a half marathon — or a whole marathon,’” Soran recalled.
He went “all in” and searched the internet for “marathon training programs for beginners,” committing to the first search result. Back home, Soran posted the manual to his wall and thought, “Let’s see how long this joke will last.”
And then it became an obsession.
Despite his brother’s quitting after one 5 a.m. run, Soran kept going. Three months later, in March 2015, Soran ran his first marathon in 4 hours and 26 minutes. In October, he ran his first Chicago Marathon in record time for him: 3 hours, 34 minutes. (The average time for beginners is about 4.5 hours.)
The following year, he shaved time off the run, finishing in 3 hours, 18 minutes.
“I have no idea, looking back, how I could run 10 miles, let alone a marathon,” Soran said. “I never thought boys could have an eating disorder.”
Now, about a year after intensive treatment, Soran knows his anorexia did affect him and it will consume him if he slips. And he’s not alone.
Linda Buchanan founded the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders, where Benny and his family turned for help in 2016. In February, she sold the center to Walden Behavioral Care and took a job as director of clinical services. She said more than 250,000 people in metro Atlanta are struggling — and about 10 percent of those with eating disorders are even dying. One study of 6,000 people over 30 years showed those with anorexia nervosa were six times more likely than the general population to die of starvation, substance use disorders or suicide. Walden recently opened a residential treatment facility for eating disorders in Dunwoody.
Moving forward, Soran is focused on others as a way to keep himself in check. He is double majoring in government and psychology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, with a career in law focused on mental health policy and legislation in mind. He says his job now is to speak out against the stigma and act as an advocate for others, which he did in mid-November, when he returned to Atlanta for Merrick’s Walk at Chastain Park. The annual event is named for Merrick Ryan, who died of anorexia-related complications in 2000. She was 19.
“That could have been me if I didn’t get the help that I did,” Soran thought as he walked the 2.7 miles. “Her mom told me she was happy I looked so great.”
Ryan’s mother told Soran her daughter would have been delighted to know it was possible to heal and be happy, but Soran knows healing is a process.
On his reflective walk, Soran told himself he had taken back the power to just walk or run when he wanted without punishing himself. A year ago, he tied his identity to his regimen, and now he forgives himself often and encourages others struggling with eating disorders to do the same.