McFarling: Virginia Tech Medical School Runner Distances From Pain | Local


She was one of the privileged few on the planet who had never heard of COVID-19.

Social distancing? This phrase intrigued her when she pulled out her phone and started catching up with the world at large. She thought it had to be some kind of new Instagram trend or something.

It was April 2020. Alyssa Vassallo had just spent the past four months in a residential anorexia treatment center in North Carolina. It was a place without television, telephone, computer, newspapers. She wasn’t even allowed to utter the word “calories,” let alone go out and burn it.

Her time in treatment coincided with the origins of a pandemic, but she had no idea. When she returned to real life she said “it was like a movie”, a Rip Van Winkle experience.

But at a time when we all felt trapped, Vassallo had never felt so free.

Alyssa Vassallo is a third year medical student at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. She’s also an elite long-distance runner who can launch a half-marathon in the shade in 80 minutes.

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The fact that she insists on doing both at the same time comes as a surprise to anyone who knows her. The 27-year-old New Jersey native earned two undergraduate degrees in chemistry and exercise and athletic science in North Carolina in just two and a half years. She played cross country in high school and for the UNC club team. She had always been athletic, intelligent and driven.

She was also struggling.

Vassallo’s anorexia first sent her to the hospital at the age of 12. Her organs were shutting down from lack of nutrition.

“There are a lot of underlying pathologies and psychology behind eating disorders,” says Vassallo. “It’s a lot about control. For me personally, especially when I was younger, the only thing I could control was food. I didn’t feel like I had control over other aspects of my life.

As Vassallo got older, the problem persisted. She never had her period. The lack of estrogen in her body meant that she continued to injure herself when she ran.

Vassallo figured it was just overtraining, but she knew better. It was a denial. And even though she finished in the nation’s top five twice as a UNC club cross-country runner, her anorexia was holding her back.

“She had a hard time with that when I first met her,” says Andie Cozzarelli, who has known Vassallo from his college days and has recently started coaching him. “She was still a good runner back then, but it wasn’t going to be long enough for you to train to a good level when you have an eating disorder. I always thought then that she had a lot more to give, and once she was healthy she would definitely see it.

Vassallo endured numerous breaks before reaching his breaking point. She broke the femoral neck of her hip five times. She broke her pelvis and shin.

From 2015 to 2019, she suffered 13 stress fractures.

“To say it’s unhealthy is an understatement,” Vassallo said. “The femurs are big, thick bones. Your hip bone isn’t a little finger bone or something. Break them five times – and my pelvis. The thickest part of my shin, I crossed it right through. There has been a huge impact on health from so many years of anorexia.

In November 2019, she had finally had enough. Vassallo arranged for the boarding of his two dogs – one stayed with his parents, the other with Angels of Assisi – and moved from his home in Roanoke to Durham. She thought she would stay there four or five weeks.

It turned into four months – the most difficult of her life.

Every day was the same for Vassallo. Breakfast, group consultation, snack, group consultation, lunch, group consultation, snack, group consultation, dinner, group consultation. Another snack, and then it was time to go to bed.

All meals were prepared for her. Nutrition labels have been blackened. Vassallo knew the calorie count in each food from his years of obsession, but it was no use to him.

She was given about 10 times the amount she would normally eat – and was expected to eat it. If she didn’t finish, she had to drink supplements.

“There were a lot of words and red topics in the treatment,” Vassallo said. “I couldn’t talk about running. I couldn’t talk about exercise. You can’t talk about calories. You can’t talk about trauma or anything. Since then, I’ve stayed away from anything calorie-related, anything tracking. These things really trigger me.

She had to stay until she had reached an acceptable level of nutrition and demonstrated that she could eat healthy amounts consistently.

Finally, in this month of April 2020, she entered a strange but promising new world.

Vassallo emphasizes that she is not “cured”. Just as an alcoholic might, she describes herself as recovering.

“It’s still an active process, and it’s not something of the past and passive,” she says. “You literally have to work at it every day and you have to make the decision to fight these eating disorder thoughts every day.

“I really like to present him as being in recovery instead of being recovered. As for where I am on the recovery spectrum, the thoughts will still be there. It’s realizing whether you listen to them and still think they are rational or irrational.

As her health and vitality improved, Vassallo decided to resume running in late summer 2021. In September, she entered the Virginia 10 Miler in Lynchburg – her first competitive race in Sept. year.

Vassallo ran it in 1:02:47 – a pace per mile of 6:17. She finished 12th out of 406 women and first out of 77 women in her 25-29 age group.

It made him want even more. Last month, she entered the Philadelphia Half Marathon, covering that 13.1 mile distance for the first time in her life.

“It was my big debut,” she says. “I have been waiting for so many years. So much. The last time I was healthy was in college, which was only 6K. I literally started training and injured myself. So even being able to reach the starting line was surreal.

It was even more surreal when she crossed the finish line in 1:20:31 – a pace of 6:08.

“Smoke fast,” says Cozzarelli, his trainer. “When you talk about a 1:20 halftime, you’re talking about getting into the elite level.

“For some people their first run a specific distance can be the fastest and sometimes it’s just a starting point. For her, I think that’s just a starting point. … I am truly convinced that she has a lot more to give.

Vassallo thinks so too. She was offered an elite spot in the Houston Half Marathon next month and trained daily with the help of Cozzarelli in hopes of beating 1:20 in Texas.

Of course, Vassallo knows what social distancing and COVID-19 are now. She understands that she is still recovering.

But she also knows this: She runs about 80 miles a week in Roanoke, and she hasn’t been injured once.

Contact sports columnist Aaron McFarling at 540-981-3423 or

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