A couple weekends ago, I decided to go for bike ride. A number of people had recommended the nearby Ernst Trail. It was a warm, crisp late summer afternoon, so I pulled my cherished Peugeot out of the garage.

I realized it had been years since I’d ridden my bike (time away in Alaska and Afghanistan.) I bought the Peugeot when I was a student in Poitiers, France—when the exchange rate was 10 francs to the dollar (long before the euro). I rode the bike up the steep hills to the university from my tiny flat in centre ville.

That bike is older than most of the soldiers I walked with on patrol in Afghanistan; older than my niece and nephew; older than my current students, and my former students, for that matter. As I threw my leg over the saddle and began to pedal, I couldn’t help remembering the young, fit woman I’d once been.

When I was a student at Oregon State University, I would walk out my front door on the weekends and go for a 12-mile run without a moment’s pause or warm-up. I rode my bike everywhere, including along the long stretch of Highway 99 between Corvallis and Eugene and among the hills that hug Corvallis.

I rowed on the crew team and won a Pac-10 Championship in the Women’s Lightweight-8. We happily took the shirts from the Stanford women’s backs.

I swam two hours every night in the wake of a guy with the most beautiful, strongest stroke I’d ever seen. My sole objective was to get him to notice me. It took two years though he did eventually notice my stroke—and me.

In the caliper tests for body fat, the trainers couldn’t pinch any fat on my biceps, legs or stomach. I tested at nine percent. When I’d see pudgy women shuffling along in sweatpants I’d wonder how they let themselves get that way.

Now I’m one of those pudgy women.

I know how I got this way. I pursued photojournalism with the same passion, quiet persistence and competitiveness with which I pursued that Pac-10 gold and that hot swimmer in whose wake I swam. Years of stress and sleep deprivation, extended periods of insufficient food and wicked vicious diseases put me out of balance.

Most recently, the disease that hijacked me in Afghanistan gave me a fever that scorched me. The disease compromised my lungs and left me weak. The medications the doctors used to combat it—and save my life—took a toll on my body.

Two things I know: (1) I’m 30 percent heavier than I was when I rode my bike in college; and, (2) I’m still an athlete, even if she’s buried under more than nine percent body fat now.

As I’ve learned many times in my life—in work, in relationships, in health—the only way back is through. I got back on my bike and started riding.