Thursday, November 14, 2019

While I'm at It

As more and more women in the athletic community come forward with stories of harassment and abuse at the hands of coaches and trainers, there are some comments about weight and female runners that show not everyone understands the issues. One gentleman on Twitter suggested the East African runners must be laughing at us, but I doubt that. I had a former coach, one I admire and trust, who let me in on a little secret that eating disorders and coaching abuses are more widespread than people think. Look at the scandal that took place in Uganda when female athletes accused male coaches of sexual abuse years ago. It's ridiculous to think that women from other countries would be immune to the same pressures and negative comments, just like they're not immune to the pressures of doping, as we have seen.

In many instances, the conversation keeps turning to looks or weight, specifically the appropriate racing weight of female athletes, but this movement is about uncovering abuses of power. Besides, there are healthy ways to discuss weight that don’t include calling someone fat, obsessing about a number on the scale, or judging a body on appearance.

Seeing other people come forward and share their stories after Mary Cain opened up about her experiences running with Alberto Salazar and then leaving the program has naturally stirred up some memories of my own.

Something Mary said really resonated with me when she talked about the times she considered going back to her coach. She Tweeted, "I wanted closure, wanted an apology for never helping me when I was cutting, and in my own, sad, never-fully healed heart, wanted Alberto to still take me back. I still loved him. Because when we let people emotionally break us, we crave more than anything their very approval."

Wanting approval from those who can't or won't offer it has been a theme in my life since I can remember, but it was especially true regarding those who offered intermittent attention, including my high school coach. I know I'm not alone when I say the athlete-coach relationship is a complicated one. This applies to many areas of life. Damn, we all just want to fit in and be heard and acknowledged and feel some love now and then. Life is fucking hard. It helps to have support.

There's no doubt that I walked into adulthood loaded with baggage, damaged, broken, and emotionally scarred. This led to severe depression. It was, in addition to genetics and brain chemistry, directly related to the chaos I faced in my childhood. Regarding the abusers from my childhood, there was never any closure. I had to smile and pretend the abuse never happened. I certainly never got an apology for the actions of bullies and those who took advantage of me, and that left me vulnerable to repeating the cycle as I got older.

When I look at my high school coach, I carried around a lot of anger and resentment years after graduating and leaving his program, but I did go back for a summer of training and racing in college. And I got more hurt in the end and was called a head case. It's only more recently that I have let all of that go. In my book, I see how guarded I was writing about my experiences, taking a lot of the blame, but there were things he said that I can never forget. And yet, people are rarely all bad. In his case, he did a lot for me. In many ways, he helped me achieve some of my loftiest goals in life, but it was often at the expense of my mental and physical health. It wasn't entirely his fault, but he did a lot of damage. And I'm not alone in that, either. Several other runners on my team suffered, and it wasn't just the women who did.

I mentioned previously that some of the people who once denied the prevalence of eating disorders at the professional level are now encouraging women to come forward and tell their stories or retell them. While I see we are pretty much on the same side and basically want the same changes, I wouldn't really want to share my story again in the presence (virtual or otherwise) of someone who basically shot me down. It's not that this one person in particular was outright mean to me, more that her tone was condescending, accusatory, even. People who take a haughty stance have never impressed me, but in certain situations, they can be intimidating. Unfortunately, I didn't address it at the time. See a pattern here?

It wasn't until later that I realized how much this interaction affected me. I was caught off guard in the moment and had trouble rebounding after sharing what I went through led to an entire discussion about how those with eating disorders couldn't last at the professional level and how you just don't see it blah blah something about statistics being exaggerated, which is not true, but, again, it threw me to the point where I didn't know how to respond. This may seem trivial, but I felt very much like I was being discounted and put down in a way, like you have to be strong and above it all to compete as a pro, something I clearly failed at accomplishing, even though I was at a pro level for a while, just not able to accept money for my efforts. Anyway, because I didn't stand up and call bullshit at the time, it left me taking indirect swipes at this person years later, something I'm not real proud of. At the same time, I just don't want to engage with her, at all.

That happens a lot with individuals who have been bullied. An upsetting incident happens, and we go numb at the time, only to have a reaction later on, some kind of delayed stress response. So while I will share these kinds of thoughts here, I have no desire to confront the person who did this, privately or publicly. On social media, you're not only in a conversation with one person. Their followers are sure to jump in, and that can get ugly, at least from what I've seen. In the end, I'm glad there are people speaking out and supporting those who come forward.

My own resentment and story aside, what's unreal to me is that, despite the tremendous support those who were abused are receiving, some people are still defending a rotten coach.

A good coach doesn't fat or body shame his (or her) athletes.

A good coach finds the appropriate training program for each athlete, and that will vary based on a lot of things, including body type. The solution to an athlete's success isn't "lose more weight," it's "how can we get you to train and run optimally given where you are right now?"

A good coach creates and environment of camaraderie and support and doesn't pit one athlete against another.

A good coach trains different body types differently, in case that wasn't clear.

A good coach communicates well with his athletes and anyone involved in her (or his) training.

A good coach supports his athlete and encourages her to use outside support in the form of dietitians, therapists, strength coaches, and physical therapists.

A good coach doesn't encourage cheating.

A good coach looks at what can be changed in order to see improvements instead of placing all the blame on the athlete.

Lastly, someone pointed me to this rubbish, a calculator that, according the the RunBundle website, helps you find your ideal racing weight, but then adds: "Finally, although the majority of elite athletes we've tested do fit - or come close to fitting - the suggested weight ranges, there are anomalies. So, even if you're aiming for the podium, don't let an awkward Stillman result upset you." Too fucking late, assholes. Too fucking late. This is a dangerous and unhelpful "tool" and suggests nothing, a big fat zero about health and running capability. It doesn't take into consideration age, build, overall strength, flexibility, and, of course, mental health. It actually calculated my racing weight as a number that I was when I was anorexic, about the sickest I have been while still running. So fuck this bullshit, and fuck this company for putting out a potentially damaging gadget.

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