GREENVILLE — As he prepares to graduate this week, Riverheads senior Tyler Wilmer has a lot to reflect upon when he thinks about his four years of high school. Some of those memories are very painful; others fill him with pride.
Wilmer is among the top distance runners in the state. Next year, he has committed to running cross country, the 800 and the mile for Roanoke College.
Taking his chosen sport to the next level is exciting and a little scary, the Gladiator runner noted. But the hard work and dedication that it takes to become a college athlete is nothing compared to the battle that Wilmer has already won.
To get to where he is today, he first had to win a mental and physical fight to stay alive.
Running a risk
On a warm spring afternoon recently, Wilmer and his parents sit quietly in the shade as he confidently tells the story of his journey. He speaks in thoughtful, measured tones. Each word, each thought that comes out, has obviously been carefully chosen, rolled around in his head for a split second to test the meaning that it conveys.
Certainly, Wilmer’s sophomore year stands out as being tough, but the story really begins in his freshman year or even before that when he was in middle school.
“I never really had an interest in running even though I did well in some of the fun runs the schools had. Throughout middle school mom and dad asked if I wanted to run, but I wasn’t really interested,” said Wilmer.
Once at Riverheads he decided to give cross country a try, mainly because of coach Doris Scott, who had been his mom’s tennis coach. Scott asked him to try out, and he did.
“I just fell in love with the group and with the sport,” Wilmer said. “I met a couple of juniors and seniors that year, and I bonded with them. They took me under their wings, and I am still honored to be called their friends.”
Wilmer recalled Scott telling him in the beginning that he was behind everyone else, but by the end of the season was “running with the big dogs.”
When indoor track season rolled around, a lot of those same friends participated, so he did as well. The same holds true for outdoor track where he ran the 800 and 1600.
Not only did Wilmer love running, he was good at it. And he liked the way running made him look and feel. He said when he first started running, he weighed in the 160s and currently is in the 130-pound range.
“I have always been self-conscious about myself, and I thought I was too chubby,” he said. “Then I found something that I excelled in. Running was making me happy, and I could see the pounds coming off. It planted a seed in my mind that if I lost weight, I could perform better and be accepted by others.”
Soon that seed sprouted into full-blown obsession.
Wilmer began putting in hours of exercise above and beyond school practices and began restricting his eating.
Things began to unravel his sophomore year and hit rock bottom the day before the state cross country meet in the fall of his sophomore year.
His worried parents, Jesse and Andy Wilmer, couldn’t understand why their son was losing so much weight. Doctors were baffled, too. Bloodwork that came back the day before the state meet showed that his electrolytes were all out of whack.
His parents took him over to a specialist in Charlottesville who immediately recognized the problem as anorexia. The now 104-pound Wilmer was immediately hospitalized.
A feeding line was snaked through his nose and directly to his stomach to get him nutrition, he was hooked up to a heart monitor because his heart rate was so slow, and for two weeks in the hospital he was not allowed to walk or exercise.
“It was a very, very horrible place,” he said, mostly because of where he was mentally in his journey. “I saw the doctors as wanting to hurt me and make me fat again. They would pour Ensure into a bag, and I would watch the liquid slowly run down the tube and when it got to my nose I would gasp.
“I told the doctors that they were not going to be satisfied until I was 300 pounds. They replied that they just wanted me to be a restored and healthy weight. It was really a very emotional two weeks. I felt like I was going insane.”
Those first 11 days were the start of what would be a journey that lasted the entire school year.
There would other hospitalizations and finally treatment in a residential facility in the spring. For most of that time, Wilmer was resentful and resistant to what others were trying to do to help him.
Mentally, he was in a bad place even though he was seeing a sports psychologist every week. Physically, his parents were still waking him up in the middle of the night, fearful that he would die in his sleep because of his perilously low heart rate.
But, slowly, the tide turned.
A running battle
“I credit the doctors, my parents, my family, my coach, and my teammates for bonding together and saving my life. (Riverheads guidance counselor) Andrew Sly was a beam of light. I love him. I am grateful that they all saved my life,” Wilmer said.
But he was not out of the woods yet.
In March of his sophomore year, he was hospitalized again, this time at a place in Washington, D.C., that specialized in eating disorders. The regime there was strict, and Wilmer described the layout of the tiny room in great detail including where the “sitter” stayed 24/7.
The “sitter” was a person stationed there day and night to watch Wilmer and make sure he didn’t break the rules and sneak in exercise or try and purge food. That person, who changed every few hours, didn’t interact with Wilmer, just observed him.
“I hated the hospital experience, but it did make me bond with my parents more than ever. I understand now what a true, loving family that I have. My health problems didn’t just affect me, it affected them as well,” he said.
Wilmer spent two weeks in the hospital, but the deal was that he could not be discharged until he found a residential facility to continue his treatment. After some searching, the Wilmers found a place in northern Virginia that was designed for intense, total immersion to facilitate recovery. It would be his home for the next five weeks.
“When my parents took me to the residential facility to drop me off, I screamed for an hour and said, ‘Don’t leave me.’ Finally, they left, and I went to the window and watched them go and stared out the window after they were gone. I knew deep down in my heart that I needed to be there, but it was hard,” he remembered.
For the first three-and-a-half weeks he was the only male among the six people there receiving treatment. After three and a half weeks, another boy arrived and he finally got a roommate, which was good for two reasons — it kept him from getting up in the middle of the night to exercise obsessively and gave him a friend.
Wilmer and the others were allowed only the clothes on their backs – no phones, no iPads, no contact with the outside world. The only movies they could watch were G-rated. Everything was focused on recovery, learning how to plan meals and calculate nutritional needs.
“I knew in my heart that it was good for me, but I hated it,” Wilmer said.
Wilmer’s parents, who were on the outside undergoing their own simultaneous counseling, were at first only allowed to see their son for a few hours at a time. That gradually increased, and Wilmer was allowed to go home after five weeks.
Wilmer returned to school in his junior year as a healthy, thoughtful, young man who was also a talented runner.
In the long run
Once he was back into running, he continued “to run with the big dogs,” placing among the elite runners in cross country races and returning to state competition.
“I like running. It’s the fact that I can do it. I feel the wind on my face, my heartbeat in my legs, I am sweating…I get in this clouded, fuzzy bubble and it makes me feel very happy,” he said. “I don’t necessarily love pushing up a tall hill, but once I am at the top I feel an amazing sense of pride that I have the ability to accomplish a task like long distance running.”
In track, he took his talents to the next level. He won the 800 and took second in the 1600 in the regionals and then his time to shine came at the state meet. At that meet, his 4x800 relay team took eighth and he took eighth in the 1600. He also earned a third-place medal for his 800 heat.
Wilmer was looking forward to this year’s spring track season where he had planned on breaking his track coach Ian Wallace’s 1992 school record in the 800 of 1:59.94. But fate, in the form of a COVID-19, had other plans. With the loss of school and spring sports, Wilmer’s thoughts turned toward the future.
Wilmer wanted a smaller school where he could get an education and continue to run.
“I wanted a place where I could bond with students, professors and teammates. Once I toured Roanoke, I knew exactly where I wanted to be,” he said of his collegiate choice.
Roanoke College is part of the NCAA Division III Old Dominion Athletic Conference with 14 other Virginia colleges and universities, and one in North Carolina.
Running at the next level will be a challenge. Cross country, for instance, changes from a 5K (3.1 mile) course to an 8K (5 mile) course. In track, Wilmer will continue to concentrate specifically on the mile and the 800.
Wilmer also plans to pursue a major in exercise science and nutrition.
“Throughout my entire treatment, I was in absolute denial against those things, and I didn’t want to follow recommendations. Now, it’s the career that I want to pursue,” Wilmer said.
Looking back at his sophomore year and battle with anorexia, Wilmer said he wishes it hadn’t happened but vows to use it as a learning experience.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t think about it. What happened is always going to be there to guide me and keep me straight, but I wouldn’t put that burden on my worst enemy,” he said of his sophomore battle with anorexia.
“If I can help someone else avoid that, then that is what I want to do. I will never know until I meet God why he put such a burdensome task on me, but I believe in my heart that it was to learn and to be a guiding light for others to keep them from being hurt like I was hurt,” Wilmer added. “That’s my only goal. If I can ever help someone else so much as an inch and keep them away from the path I took, my mission will be complete.”