What it Means to be an Athlete

By Alta Clark

Upholding Legacy

The discourse surrounding the pursuit of being "fast and light" in climbing has been deeply entrenched in the sport's culture since its inception. From its earliest days, climbers have been fed the idea that striving for superhuman physical attributes is essential for progression in the sport. While this notion was never explicitly articulated, it permeated through subliminal messages, encouraging climbers to pursue a lean physique and prioritize weight reduction as a means to excel.

This mindset becomes even more complex when examining its impact on female athletes. Not only does the pressure to maintain a low weight pose challenges from a performance standpoint, but it also intersects with societal norms regarding femininity and body image. The media often portrays the ideal female climber as thin and feminine, further reinforcing the notion that deviating from this standard is undesirable.

Decades of such messaging have created an unattainable standard for female climbers, who are expected to perform at an elite level while conforming to traditional standards of beauty. Breaking free from these expectations is an ongoing struggle, as female climbers navigate the delicate balance between athletic performance and societal pressures.

Alta on "Arapilesian Dog" at Fun Rocks in Mazama, WA. PC: Erik Aagaard.

Stolen Girlhood

This narrative started appearing in my life in my late teens. I was engulfed in a toxic relationship with a person that served as my mentor in many aspects, but especially in climbing. They held these traditional views on food, that then quickly passed on to me. The choice to restrict foods, decide not to eat at all, or purge, was motivated by poor body image and self esteem that was perpetrated by this individual as well as the belief that this mindset was still considered the norm in climbing. This marked the beginning of a battle that I fought for the rest of my adolescence and early adulthood.

Having negative judgments of food has been my MO for as long as I can remember. I would spend my entire day subconsciously planning meals, adding up calories and macros in my head, and expending enormous amounts of energy crafting what I believed to be the perfect “nutritional palette.” I limited myself to only eating what was marketed to me to “aid my performance.” Every food was labeled either “good,” or “bad,” and if for some reason I chose to consume “bad” foods or exceed my calorie intake limit, I would guilt myself for days and, on occasion, try to purge.

One of my very vivid memories from college is of being in the weight room in the morning before class, and getting so frustrated that I couldn’t workout because I felt like I would pass out if I tried to exert myself. I called my uncle, who is an internal medicine doctor, and explained to him my symptoms. He suggested that it could be an issue with my blood pressure and that I should try eating some more salt. What I did not tell him in this phone call (the complete picture) is that I was trying to complete 2-3 workouts/day (often fasted) on a 1200-1500 calorie diet, and had absolutely no recognition of the fact that as my energy output increased, the input also needed to increase. My body was starving, and begging for me to slow down.

The goal wasn’t to fuel my body. It was to diet. I was trying to get as lean as humanly possible thinking this was the way toward success, love and acceptance. Not only did I struggle with volume of food, I full-heartedly believed that a protein bar or protein shake (something that was made in a lab full of synthetic ingredients) was “better” for me than a piece of homemade bread with some quality meat and cheese.  

Alta on "Puma" in Indian Creek. PC: Justin Willis.

What this evolved into, as an athlete, and especially as an insecure young woman, was simply just not eating enough for a very long time. Which meant I wasn’t able to gain muscle, was tired, nauseous, dizzy all the time, injury prone, irritable, and most importantly, hated food and my body. When I started trail running I would push myself through huge days in the mountains while still eating the same amount of food recommended for sedentary office workers. When I started developing injuries and an insatiable thirst, I phoned another friend who this time asked if I have ever heard of RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome), and said that it was common in young female athletes like me. This was the first time I had an inkling that maybe my approach wasn’t sustainable.

It has been an extremely long road since that phone call. In the years since I have grown to accept that if I wanted to grow as an athlete I needed to eat more. But don’t get me wrong, the process has not been linear. I hit another turning point while on a climbing trip with a different mentor figure. We were all working together on making dinner one night at our apartment outside of Rodellar, and I don’t remember the context but they commented that “forcing yourself to eat, even when you don’t want to, is what it means to be an athlete.” Though I didn’t start taking action on it until another few years down the road, this sentiment has been the biggest motivator in my new approach to viewing food as fuel and how much responsibility I have to take care of my body. 

Left Photo: A berry danish enjoyed on the bank of the Methow River.
Right Photo: Experimenting with a new dinner recipe.

Food as Fuel

Not only have I had to change my perspective on training and fueling, but I’ve also had to do a lot of work on my body image and self-esteem. I’ve had to let go of my superficial ideals of what a female athlete is supposed to look like, and focus more on what it feels like. I’ve had to shift my focus towards what it feels like to be strong, powerful, and energized, and to focus on what feels good and brings me joy.

At the beginning of 2023 I made myself a promise. Mostly out of curiosity to see what this hypothetical world would look like where I allowed myself to eat whatever I want. I made a pact with myself that I would focus my energy on joy, on play, and on grace. I made myself this promise because up until this point I hadn’t dared to step outside my sphere of control which was showing up in this way as disordered eating.

As a result, I have eaten more carbs, gluten, and cheese in the last month than I have allowed myself to eat in the last 6-8 years. I also haven’t consumed a single protein shake or protein bar. I let go of my anxiety around food, as soon as I let myself eat whatever I want whenever I want so long as it’s real food that doesn’t come out of a package, as soon as I allowed myself to eat when I’m hungry - not when I feel I deserve it, not when I’m worried about being light. What I’ve noticed? I gained some much needed weight, I have tons more energy, no dizziness, and I’m not getting injured. My climbing has stopped plateauing, I have climbed my hardest grades, and I have the energy to sustain long days in the mountains and long aerobic outputs.

This is the first year of my adult life without dieting. This is the first time in my life that I haven’t practiced restrictive eating while training. Yesterday I ate half a baguette and almost an entire tube of honey goat cheese for lunch and honestly could not believe how easily I allowed myself to do it. I intend to have many more baguette and cheese lunches in my future.

I’m coming back to this story now 15 months after I made that promise, and I can’t even tell you how much my life has changed since. Since I promised myself that I would let go of perfectionism and strive to enjoy life, my mental health, my body positivity, and my athletic performance have all benefited. I'm grateful that the media has started to challenge traditional narratives, promote body positivity, and encourage the conversation around disordered eating and, but there is still much work to be done.

Alta Clark


Alta was raised in the backyard of Yellowstone Park, and has sought the need to "feel the air on her skin" since she was able to form sentences. Raised a skier, and a dancer, she also fell in love with rock climbing in her early adolescence. Movement is her main form of self expression, but she also enjoys cooking, clothes, and becoming acquainted with unfamiliar places.

If you bump into her outside and she seems lost in thought, don't take it personally. She's most likely contemplating how to subvert gender norms and enliven feminine power within society.

Header photo: Burrito after a trail run in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana.


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