I started running back in the 80's. Thin was IN, and this motto wasn't restricted to the fashion world. The Twiggy mindset with its extreme petiteness was still firmly in place in the modeling industry, and agencies continued to push the envelope in terms of shock.That said, being underweight was just as prevalent among runners, and if you were an athlete, the title of "runner" was as good an excuse as any to remain skinny. The unhealthy idea that pain leads to all kinds of gain was promoted, and if you over trained, you were probably respected. Despite all the leaps forward that women took that decade, steps that included the first woman in space and the first woman on the supreme court, women had and still have a long way to go. Before I get off track and go on a rant about women's rights, though, let me get back to the reason why I'm pissed off lately; things haven't changed all that much.
|Stephanie Herbst in the 80's|
Something came up while I was doing the interview with Sarah Kuta for the Colorado Daily. Every time questions about my high school coach came up, I got uncomfortable. I was torn between not wanting to rock the boat by saying anything overly offensive and wanting to spill the beans about the pressure I was under back when I was running. Those beans are carefully laid out on the floor in my book, but I cushioned the landing. I don't want to suggest that I'm trying to blame or protect anyone here. I went into running already struggling with anorexia. Much of the pressure I experienced was internal. On the other hand, there were some key moments with coaches, not just my high school coach, that were pretty messed up in my running career. I was lucky to have a great coach my first year in college and again many years later when I started on my path of recovery. Those two gave me perspective. Looking back, I'm hurt and angry that I allowed myself to be treated badly at times. I was too sick to make sense of it all when I was young, so I internalized it.
We see it over and over again, women and girls who appear to be far too thin to sustain any kind of health running outstanding times. This happens, because there's a grace period. Decreased weight leads to an increased VO2 Max and usually better running, until the body breaks down past the point of no return. In the end, it doesn't matter what your aerobic capacity is if your body is breaking down. I believe that this false reward is partly why coaches don't step in sooner. Why should they if their athlete is running well? Even when a girl looks emaciated, a coach usually won't pull her out of competition if she's number one on the team. When my parents BEGGED my coach to step in and say something about my weight my first year in high school, he told them that I must be doing something right because I was winning races. In case it wasn't clear, that's a really nice way of saying, "fuck you." These people went to him worried that their daughter was killing herself, and that was his response. What's strange to me is that even now, knowing the end result, he claims that he wouldn't have done anything differently if given the chance. People like that shouldn't be coaches. There, I said it. In the article and in my book, you will notice all the mixed message I received: if I didn't get my act together, I was off the team; at well under 100 pounds, I was doing something right; and the one pound I gained was bound to slow me down in the state meet. How does a young girl make sense of that?
Unlike my coach, I would do a lot differently if I could go back. At the time, I was too influenced by others, too insecure to find my voice. I wish I would have had the guts to drop a few "fuck you" responses, implied or direct, of my own. Looking at the talent that went through the program at my high school, it makes a person wonder why none of us ended up in any successful long-term running careers. In a recent blog post, I go into detail about how important it is to consider longevity in a sport, something few coaches do. As a society, we are so very outcome oriented. Few consider the well-being of an athlete over the performance, and it's nearly impossible to get a coach to contemplate sacrificing some short-term achievements for a potentially longer and better career for his athlete.
When I read about Jordyn Colter, 5'1" and 79 or 80 pounds, passing out and not finishing a major high school race, I have to wonder what the fuck her coach is doing. True, I don't know the back story, but I can take a pretty good guess at what's going on there. My question is why any coach would allow an athlete who appears to be extremely underweight to compete at all. Here it is again, though, that fucked up mentality that as long as she's running well, everything is fine. It's not. Allowing someone to compete who is clearly not well is discounting the very real consequences of starvation in exchange for a few months or maybe, if extremely lucky, a few years of success. How sad that a coach won't put his foot down. Nobody in such a weak state should be allowed to race. Hell, even some fashion designers are refusing to let unhealthy models walk in shows. Maybe things are changing, but not quickly enough. As tough as it was, I was glad that I had someone sensible in my life who eventually did watch out for me in college. My coach wouldn't allow me to participate in workouts if was under a certain weight. That was extremely rare in those days, but I wouldn't have run well that year and even the following year had those rules been broken.
The bottom line is that you absolutely can not be a good athlete long term if you are not physically, emotionally and mentally healthy first. Yes, there is a short grace period as extreme weight loss progresses in which running can improve, but it is short lived and not at all worth the long-term consequences of starving the body.
|2012 high school cross-country race|