Running On Empty
By Issy G.
I follow just about every running outlet on the Internet, so I had always believed that I was pretty in-the-know about all things running. Sure, I might have known every stat about the top runners in the nation. But I wasn’t aware of one of the most pressing issues in the running community. I didn’t understand why some of the girls around me looked so unhealthy, or why rising stars in high school fizzled out and faced injury after injury.
I hadn’t heard of the term “female athlete triad” until my junior year of high school. The triad consists of three components: low energy availability with or without an eating disorder, menstrual dysfunction, and low bone density. These three components wreak havoc on the female body, and can lead to long-term or permanent damage such as broken bones or infertility. I think that it’s pretty revealing that I was clueless to a phenomenon that affects so many women and girls. In fact, around 78% of high school athletes experience one or more of the three components of the triad (Hoch). Why didn’t I know that the triad was especially prevalent among female endurance athletes like myself? It had taken me ten years of running to even hear the term, let alone understand its consequences and effects on girls in the running community.
At that point I had gone through what, in my opinion, was the most impressionable part of my life as an athlete: my body had changed as I hit puberty, and I had adapted. My perspective of myself and others in the sport was changing as well; I was much more conscious of the other body types I saw on the line. Although I made it through this time healthily, many female athletes are not so lucky. I’ve definitely dealt with my share of health issues, but they’ve always been manageable and relatively minor. I never developed an eating disorder or lost my period as a result of running. I’ve never had a stress fracture due to a lack of estrogen or nutrition. Not every female runner can say the same.
One of the most high profile cases of the female athlete triad is that of Mary Cain. In her New York Times Op Ed, she recounts how “an all-male Nike staff became convinced that in order for [Cain] to get better, [she] had to become thinner. And thinner. And thinner.” I had grown up hearing about Mary Cain’s incredible performances, and like so many others, I had simply accepted that she was ‘burnt out,’ and that her career was over. I never questioned who or what was responsible for the breakdown of her body, and thought that this was just what happened to high school phenoms. After watching her OpEd in the New York Times, I felt as though there was finally some light being shed on an issue I’d been witnessing for a while, an issue that had really shaken my faith in the running community. I hoped that people would begin to care about the long term well-being of female runners, and not just sit in awe of stars who burned really bright when they were still just girls. I hoped that young girls would be able to pursue their goals in a sustainable way, without putting their bodies on the line.
One of Cain’s allegations in particular stuck with me. When describing her time with the Nike Oregon Project, Cain says, “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.” It’s not just one program or one coach that caused Cain’s downfall. Rather, the lack of regard for and miseducation about female bodies in this sport is what causes girls’ bodies to break down. Alberto and his all-male team did not adapt Cain’s training to be feasible or sustainable on the female body. Cain points to the lack of female coaches as one of the factors that made her feel so unheard and hopeless at the Nike Oregon Project. Again, this rings true across the running community, not just for the Oregon Project. According to a 2018 study, just ten women held head track and field coaching positions at NCAA Division 1 schools, compared to 83 men; for cross-country, 17 women and 86 men (Strout). I think that disparity is significant, and that with more female coaches, female athletes will be more seen and heard.
I don’t want to come off as offering a be-all-end-all solution to such a complex problem. I know that it’s not as simple as hiring more female coaches, or requiring coaches to learn about the triad and prevention techniques. But I do think that female athletes deserve to be heard and voice their grievances with a system that exploits their successes and then discards them when their bodies begin to break down. Cain’s story resonated with so many women in the running community, including myself. She helped to expose the flaws in the system, and has demonstrated how the stories that we tell can help to enact tangible, positive change in the running community. As I enter a more intense phase in my running career, I do so with hope. I believe in this sport and the running community to continue the narrative that Cain started. I believe that we can teach sustainability and health. And I believe that we can get really fast, on our own terms.
Hoch, Anne Z et al. "Prevalence of the female athlete triad in high school
athletes and sedentary students." Clinical journal of sport medicine :
official journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine vol. 19,5
(2009): 421-8. doi:10.1097/JSM.0b013e3181b8c136
Cain, Mary. "I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike." The New
York Times, 7 Nov. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/opinion/
nike-running-mary-cain.html. Accessed 2 June 2020.
Strout, Erin. "American Running Needs More Female Coaches." Outside, 14 Sept.
Accessed 2 June 2020.
By Issy G.
When it was first announced that Indoor Nationals had been cancelled, the first emotion I felt was relief. Of course, other thoughts entered my mind; I was incredibly disappointed to hear that I wouldn’t have the chance to race against some of the best two-milers in the nation, or to see my friends and teammates run, jump, and throw their hardest. But with this cancellation, I realized that I would have to take pride in my fitness without proving it to others, which was a huge change to my training and my mindset as a runner.
I’ve been lucky enough to compete in many exciting, high stakes meets over the course of my high school career. The competition that I’ve raced against and the results that I’ve ran to are some of the best memories of my life. But I don’t think that we hear a lot about the other side of those meets, when things don’t go quite according to plan: the anxiety in the hours, days, even weeks leading up to a race, or the disappointment of a poor performance on a big stage. I’ve struggled with these anxieties and defeats especially in my senior year. Looking back, I realize that I should have been savoring every moment I had to run in a high school race and be with my coaches and teammates.
I felt the pre-race-pressure especially before Footlocker Regionals in New York. I had expressed to my coach the week before that I didn’t even know if I wanted to run in Regionals. I emphasized that I wasn't sure about where my physical health was at, but in reality, I just didn’t know if I could take another race, mentally. I vented about my frustrations with how the end of my season had gone, and how I felt as though I had to get so psyched up for almost every race I competed in that last month. It was exhausting, I told him, to have my mind constantly thinking about my next race and the competition that I would face. I was especially anxious about the competition at Footlocker, and I felt as though I didn’t really belong there because of my last couple of performances at meets. That’s when my coach told me that he knew that I could qualify for Footlocker Nationals; in fact, he expected it of me. I was shocked. I had never really imagined what it would feel like to be among those ten girls who made it to San Diego, not really. I had fantasized during my summer training about crossing the line and qualifying, but I hadn’t ever really believed that I could do it.
My coach’s confidence in my abilities gave me the extra push I needed to make it to the line that day. However, I still didn’t really believe in myself. I felt like a fraud carrying around my Outdoor Nationals bag with its All-American patch. I told myself that my performance at Nationals was months ago, and that I hadn’t proved myself in cross country yet in the way that I needed to. I didn’t let myself feel pride in the fact that I had finally broken 18 minutes in the 5k, or that I’d won in meets against some of the fastest girls in the state. By not appreciating how far I’d come that season and believing my performance that day would define me as a cross country runner, I’d already lost my ticket to San Diego.
I finished the race in 12th. Two spots and ten seconds off qualifying, to be exact. I later learned that the 11th place finisher had been invited when another girl had to drop out. I had been one place away from making it to Nationals, and I was devastated. I couldn’t think about the huge improvements I’d made from last year in cross country without also thinking about how I had given up on myself before the race had begun.
The results of Footlocker Regionals stayed with me longer than I’d care to admit. I was frustrated and embarrassed that I just couldn’t seem to get the hang of cross country during my high school career (which, on reflection, couldn’t be further from the truth). I lost so much confidence after that race, and as a result, I had a pretty terrible start to the indoor season. I didn’t believe in my abilities as a runner. I let poor results snowball. I was tired of running in little circles, and I was a bit tired of running in general.
After what seemed like a particularly disappointing race at the Millrose Games, I sat down with my coach. Tears were shed over lots of things: my latest performance, my lack of confidence in my racing, and my uncertainty about the future. We made changes to my training, but also to how I approached my training mentally. Instead of fixating on how hard a workout was, I began keeping a journal where I would write down what challenged me and how I got through it in the end. It became my “confidence journal” (shoutout Kara Goucher!), and it was almost as important as my sneakers by the end of the winter season.
I was excited for Indoor Nationals. Really! I love the energy of the Armory in New York, and I was in great shape physically as well as mentally. But as I said before, I was relieved to hear that the meet had been cancelled. Although I had made so much progress with my mindset since the beginning of the season, I realized that I still needed time to get back to who I used to be as a runner. I have loved running ever since I stepped on a track at seven years old, and I really do mean that. But over those last couple of months, that statement seemed less and less true. Medals didn’t seem to gleam anymore, and every mile I ran, I wondered why I was still doing this.
I didn’t come here to write about how these cancellations are a ‘blessing in disguise,’ or something like that. They’re not. Of course, I understand why events needed to be cancelled, but that doesn’t make going on another solo run without my team any easier. This situation is frustrating and unfair, and I am beyond disappointed that it had to happen during my senior year, or even happen at all. With that being said, I’ll have the chance to run for almost seven months without racing, if cross country in the fall goes as planned. That means seven months of runs and workouts in my journal that I can look back on and take pride in. I’ll have seven months of Sunday long runs with my sister, who will also be (is also? Time is weird right now) my teammate at Harvard next year. Seven months to run just because I want to.
I am extremely grateful that I have at least a vague idea of what comes next with regards to my running career. I have a coach who is challenging me to use this time to adjust to new training and conditions to prepare me for my next season at college. I also have a pretty awesome sister: she is not only my training partner, but someone who I can lean on when I need advice or support. I’m so thankful that running has been one of the constants in my life right now to keep me (mostly) sane. And I’m not alone! It seems like everyone wants to run during a pandemic. I think it’s telling that the way so many people are getting through this uncertain time is by going out for a run. I can understand that. I’ve gotten through some of my most difficult days in the same way: by lacing up my sneakers and putting one foot in front of the other.
About the Author
My name is Issy Goldstein and I’m a senior at Germantown Academy. I’ll be attending Harvard University next year, where I’ll be running cross country and track. Along with running, I also love writing, and I hope to combine my interests in this blog!
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