When people take on challenges, they often are reminded the struggle is a marathon, not a sprint.

That bit of conventional wisdom goes double for Ashley Schneider this month as she prepares to run her first marathon while raising money for the fight against eating disorders — a difficult road she has traveled for the past year and a half. 

Ashley, 21, a 2016 graduate of North High School, began her recovery journey in August 2017. She calls it the dance of recovery — "two steps forward, one step back, repeat."

Her next big steps — tens of thousands of them to cover 26.2 miles — will come June 22 when she completes Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minn. She is running to raise money for the National Eating Disorders Association. The nonprofit organization estimates that 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. 

It's hard for Ashley to pinpoint exactly when her eating disorder started, but she knows she has been self-conscious about her appearance for as long as she can remember.

She specifically recalls an incident as a little girl on an elementary school playground when a peer told her, "You're just really fat and ugly, and no guy will ever like you." Sadly, the bullying comment stuck with her.

The only positive side effect of such an experience is that Ashley, an elementary and special education major at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, takes bullying seriously when she works with children. "I can't not intervene when I see bullying," she said. "I'll definitely be that teacher who makes people say nice things to each other and pushes them to make other people feel good about themselves."  

Ashley tried her first fad diet in fourth grade. In high school, she lost weight as a member of the swim team and noticed how it changed the way people treated her. 

After enrolling at UM-D, her growing obsession with body image spiraled out of control.

She deprived herself of food and even water, overexercised, abused laxatives and at times would weigh herself up to 30 times a day. Her bones began to protrude from her skin as her weight plummeted to an unhealthy level, and she suffered from occasional blackouts. She became moody and increasingly isolated herself from others.

"I learned to accept all of that because I was skinny," Ashley said. "Nothing else mattered. That was the thing controlling my life."

When family and friends suggested she was getting too skinny, Ashley brushed off their comments and said she was fine.

"When I'd look at myself in the mirror, I still didn't think I was skinny," Ashley said. "People would say your bones are sticking out, and I still saw myself as overweight." 

Finally, Ashley's parents, Mary and Todd Schneider of Eau Claire, had seen enough. 

In the guise of a routine doctor's checkup, Mary scheduled an intervention appointment to discuss eating disorders and get help for Ashley. The doctor warned Ashley that her eating disorder could be fatal and they started discussing recovery steps, including meetings with dietitians and counselors.

"If not for me taking her to the doctor, we don't think we'd have our daughter today," Mary said. "It's the best thing I ever did."

Ashley was diagnosed with bulimia nervosa, which the National Institute of Mental Health defines as an eating disorder characterized by binge eating followed by behavior that compensates for the binge such as purging (vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics), fasting and/or excessive exercise.

Ashley admitted the road to recovery was particularly bumpy at first, as she returned to college and some of her old habits.

Late that fall, her parents issued an ultimatum, telling her she had to be fully invested in recovery or they would keep her at home and monitor her every move. Then one of her best college friends joined the chorus, telling Ashley she wasn't the same fun-loving person any more.

"Hearing your friends say you are not who you were, that really made it hit home for me," Ashley said. "I think I fully accepted it at that point." 

It hasn't been easy, but Ashley expressed confidence last week that she remains on the right track.

"I would say I'm very healthy now," she said. "I don't even know what that number on the scale is. I threw away my scale in April and haven't seen or heard that number since then. That was a huge step in my recovery."

Ashley may be training for a marathon, but she allows herself rest days and follows a written exercise plan.

Most importantly, Ashley said she's happy — a claim she couldn't make in the depths of her struggle with body image — and finally believes she is, in her words, "enough."

Now she is committed to helping others who are struggling with eating disorders — illnesses that National Eating Disorders Association spokeswoman Kylee Tsuru says have the second highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders, surpassed only by opioid addiction, which is widely considered a national crisis.

"I feel lucky to even be here," Ashley said. "So many people are suffering from eating disorders and don't know how to deal with it. I've been through it and feel like I can help others get to that happy point by telling my story."

To that end, in addition to running the fundraising campaign, she agreed to share her saga with the Leader-Telegram, she writes an online recovery blog and, someday, she plans to write a book about her experience.

Seeing her progress has been a huge relief for Ashley's parents.

"She's come a long way," Todd said.

"It was a struggle, but she's doing phenomenally now," Mary added. "We're so proud of her."

At Grandma's Marathon, those proud parents, along with Ashley's brother Michael and his fiancee Michaela, expect to be on the sidelines, just as they have been all along, cheering Ashley every step of the way.

For her part, Ashley plans to just keep moving forward.

One step at a time.