Saturday, June 16, 2018

What Outside Magazine Got Wrong

I wish online social media fuss didn't bother me as much as it sometimes does, but here I am writing another post on an article that derails the conversation about young athletes we should be having, one that includes how to properly guide them into a long and successful career. These kinds of situations are distracting, but I feel it's important to offer my viewpoint given my past as an athlete and my desire to continue mentoring others. This is a serious topic, so I don't like when people hamper progress in an area by quibbling over minor details. When there's a fire raging, you don't stop to yell about the dirt on the floor. 

For whatever reason, the article in the New York Times I mentioned earlier caused a lot of commotion. People stomped onto Twitter to say a lot of things about it. A few even suggested men shouldn't write about female issues. Imagine applying that logic to all areas, and you start to see how ridiculous an idea this is. But then a different man wrote something these same individuals agreed with, and it suddenly became OK for men to write about these topics.

It's unfortunate that so many people are misinterpreting the NYT article. The author, Mathew Futterman, recently mentioned on Twitter that his intention was to address the pressures young athletes experience. Could he have done it better? Probably, but nobody is suggesting puberty is the culprit or that the cruel twist Futterman mentions is the female body itself. The puzzle is why so many promising young female athletes have, as Kara Goucher put it, a "bumpy" experience when it comes to their running careers. The conversation should be about how to better support young athletes. Instead, despite the author's clarification, Outside Magazine Online decided it was necessary to slam the piece and insisted the article would somehow teach athletes to fear maturity. This isn't the first time Outside has published an article specifically to bitch about a New York Times article, either. It should be noted that the Outside article came out days after Futterman clarified his position.

A few errors that stood out to me in the Outside Magazine piece are listed below.


"The article quickly changes tack, however, in order to make the point that many top female high school runners fail to live up to their early promise because of changes to their physique. One of the “cruelest twists in youth sports,” it seems, is that girls become women."

No, this isn't what the article stated or even suggested. It suggested that the pressures young female athletes experience, especially those who have had some success early, to keep their former form as their bodies change is why you often see disordered eating patterns, overtraining, and body image issues develop, and this is ultimately why  many of them don't have continued success in their sport and why the success of those who manage well later isn't always a straight progression. As I mentioned before, it most definitely does not say that the cruel twist is puberty itself, becoming a woman, or a woman's changing body.  

Puberty is natural. How society and many coaches view it may not be. We also look at mothers who have recently given birth and expect them to be back to their pre-baby bodies too quickly. The focus is relentlessly on women's bodies. That's the problem. We don't need to be defined as strong or thin or fit or fat. We need new ways of looking at women altogether. THAT is the problem. People reinforcing diet culture, fitspiration, thinspiration, and posting images that strictly define women as something to look at that put unnecessary attention on the body only are a big part of the problem. Keep in mind I'm talking about athletes here, though this happens in the world at large, too. 

The New York Times article is not the problem, far from it. All it did was point out something that happens that many of us observe or have even gone through and offer ideas about how to possibly prevent burnout, injuries, and disordered eating from occurring in a specific population. Another problem is that we aren't willing to look at statistics and information objectively anymore. Bill Mahr is right when it comes to outrage. People get riled up over someone who's actually trying to help instead of addressing the bigger issues in society and the root issues. 


"Others criticized the author’s decision to cite Mary Cain, another high school standout from New York, as an example of a former teenage star whose career has “largely stalled.” Cain, as more than one person noted, has only just turned 22 and hence still has several years to develop and improve."

Nobody said Mary Cain's career is over, but it has stalled. That's an observation, not a criticism. There's nothing wrong with that at all. It just is. It doesn't mean she won't run well later or even soon. Still, she's missing what could be some of her most enjoyable years as a competitor, and there's no indication that she will return to the sport. Whether or not she does is nobody's business, really, but to pretend she's not like many others who had extra bumps in the road isn't being realistic. Bringing her up at all was only to mention that Tuohy and her team are aiming to try things differently and keep social media pressure and other stresses off of her as much as possible. I already addressed this in my last blog post. Whatever Mary does, she has already placed herself among the best of the best in running. If she likes, she has every right to rest on her laurels. If not, she has plenty of time to continue her running career. Nobody is denying that. 

Right before speculating about Tuohy's future and comparing her to another young athlete who set a world record, the author had this to say:
"As for Tuohy and her fellow high school runners, I think Fleshman and Goucher are right in that we should forswear speculating about their future potential."

The whole thing is rather confusing presented this way because we are supposed to acknowledge and celebrate her success, but only if we do it in the context of "her current athletic level." Despite the fact that this young lady is breaking course records and has two national high school records, we are NOT supposed to call her a prodigy defined as a person, especially a young one, endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities. No, that would be BAD and put too much pressure on her. 

In my opinion, what's more problematic than pointing out the prevalence of female runners who struggle to have a steady progression with large stretches of smooth sailing or calling someone with talent a prodigy is discounting or outright denying the number of times runners, even those who have had tremendous success, go through career-ending or potential career-ending struggles. I know at least three female Olympians who had major slumps early in their careers. Not that my personal observations mean anything, but there's a difference between a difficult transition and dropping out or being forced out of a sport you love early. This isn't to say women should achieve the same statistics or aim for the same type of progression as men; it's just pointing out that there is a difference and questioning why. 

What we should be addressing are how coaches can better guide young female athletes through the changes they naturally experience and how to keep the pressure off them so that the temptation isn't to try to hold onto an unrealistic standard. Encourage building strength so that they don't fall into disordered eating patterns or attempt unrealistic training schedules that their bodies may not be ready to handle. 

Though this wasn't the main topic of either article and is, perhaps, somewhat unrelated, we also need to be more aware and not deny the prevalence of eating disorders and body image issues at the elite running level. We also need to stop stereotyping those with eating disorders and other mental issues and stop focusing only on how someone looks as an indicator of wellness. Those who struggle don't choose a disorder and don't use it primarily to gain an advantage athletically. Mental illness is not a method of cheating. Implying otherwise certainly doesn't help resolve any issues young female runners might experience. 

Monday, June 11, 2018


Recently, I saw some Tweets expressing outrage about an article in the New York Times. I clicked the link expecting to be horrified by the content and, instead, found a very cautiously written piece on young female athletes. I read and reread the article, trying to see the cause of all this anger. It seems people often want to shoot the messenger instead of get to the root of the problem.

The article actually addresses something Brad, Kevin, and I discussed at our book signing. An audience member asked us why so many young, successful female athletes disappear after high school. Asking the question doesn't make anyone the bad guy. These are important issues that need to be discussed. As the article points out:

...since 1980, just one female winner of the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships has made an Olympic team, compared with seven male high school champions. Just four have won an individual N.C.A.A. championship, but none of those were in cross-country.

In regard to the changes young females and young female athletes experience at the onset of puberty, Melody Fairchild offers her perspective in a thoughtful and measured response by saying:

That is not a sustainable thing,” Fairchild said in an interview from her home in Colorado, where she is a personal running coach. Even more dangerous, she added, is the message young women get when they are encouraged to fight to regain their high school physiques. “We want them to embrace being in a strong woman’s body.

Then the article goes into how Tuohy, a runner who is already breaking course records in cross country and track, her parents, and her coach are doing what they can to avoid mistakes they see others made. They are limiting her mileage, doing what they can to keep media attention to a minimum, encouraging her to stay in school and not go pro, and working to keep her healthy and her life balanced.

There's already a healthier trend in high school running programs that, fortunately, encourages young women to embrace their strength. Things are definitely different now than they were in the 80s, though there's still a very long way to go. Still, sayings related to being thin to win are no longer the norm. It should be noted, too, that nowhere in this article does it suggest you have to be thin to be successful. Nowhere in the article does it say or suggest that puberty is the problem. It very clearly states that the issue isn't staying thin but not building strength to sustain changes that naturally occur at puberty. There is a huge difference, an enormous one. In fact, the article suggests that a false assumption that an athlete has to stay lean is what often leads to disordered eating and low self-esteem and, eventually, the common crash and eventual disappearance of promising female athletes after high school.

I could spend more time on this and go through the article sentence by sentence, but that's it in a nutshell. I think people are misinterpreting the content of the article and taking a few lines out of context. For me, there are bigger battles to fight when it comes to what's going on in our society to promote, intentionally or not, unhealthy eating and lifestyle patterns, and mustering outrage at a pretty sensibly written article isn't on my list of time well spent. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Race Report

I'm not sure how I feel about that race. Going into it, everything seemed to play out smoothly. I wasn't all that well-rested, but I wasn't overly fatigued either. I'm probably not training hard enough to be at this point. Surprisingly, I got enough sleep and woke up in time to get myself to the start line, a feat that has been a challenge for me in recent years. Long gone are the days I used to be out the door by 6:15 a.m. for my regular runs.

The 5K in Louisville provided a fun but not fast course with a few sharp turns and some rolling hills. After a somewhat rocky start with a kid 400 meters into things randomly and suddenly deciding to turn at a 90-degree angle and bolt from my left side right in front of me and then to my right, which caused me to stagger step which wasn't good for my body or my morale, I jumped into an unfamiliar pace that was somewhere between too fast and race pace, though I could have just been nervous and feeling mechanically off. Eventually, my pace settled into something more sustainable. Once again, I got lost in thought in the second mile and forgot to actually race. My confidence decided to wander off and left me alone to question what I was doing and how much my body could handle. In the third mile, my leg started doing its weird clicky thing and got a bit stiff. In fact, for two days after the race, I worried I had gone past the not quite injured zone and into the injured one, but, fortunately, by the third day, things felt much better.

It's embarrassing to note that I ran over 22 minutes, but it was enough to place 5th and win the old folk's division, which also means I won my age group division. That was nice. For now, my big issue is the endometriosis monster that sometimes sleeps fitfully but is always noticeably present in my abdomen. When it gets angry, it flares up and howls as if it's trying to claw its way out, but it usually settles back down within a day or two. The cramping and pain can be almost unbearable, and, unfortunately, I'm looking at laparoscopic surgery as a solution in the coming weeks. It's not a cure but should help reduce the severe pain I've been experiencing.

I continue to do physical therapy for my legs and feet and also see a chiropractor, one that isn't among the many quacks out there. He's legit, and I notice a difference since I started seeing him. The surgery will be a setback, but I'm hoping I can actually start training and maybe build up some confidence and learn how to race again.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Stereotypes and Anorexia

I was given a prompt to write about stereotypes in the eating disorder community. I'm a firm believer that we are all unique and that one condition will never look exactly the same on someone else. 

Any time anyone overgeneralizes about a group of individuals, it reinforces possibly incorrect beliefs held in general society. It's true that some stereotypes have a basis for being formed and aren't necessarily harmful or hurtful, but others are used to demean and repress certain groups of people. When it comes to eating disorders, we come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and genders. There is no one specific look that exemplifies eating disorders. In fact, there isn't even a look that's specific to anorexia. Those who are not emaciated can still suffer from the illness. You can't tell if a person has an eating disorder by merely looking at him or her, and not all underweight people have anorexia nervosa. Anorexic or not, there are plenty of people, especially on the internet, who knowingly or unknowingly promote an unhealthy lifestyle, diet culture, and/or extreme thinness. I have addressed those who are unwell and pretend they're not while promoting their unhealthy ways in previous blog posts

The typical myth floating around regarding anorexia is that people who suffer from the illness are generally thin, white, female, relatively wealthy, and controlling. It's starting to become more widely accepted, however, that anorexia and other disorders affect men and those in the LGBTQ community as well. It's also becoming common knowledge that having an eating disorder is not a choice, is not considered cheating in sports, and it isn't a lifestyle to be admired. In 2013, several groups of researchers looked at brain imaging, and the results suggested that anorexia is a neurological disorder. Specifically, those with eating disorders show dullness in the insulas but overactivity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This suggests that anorexia is more than purely a behavioral issue. 

Statistics around eating disorders vary, but the one thing that's clear is that eating disorders are the most deadly of all mental illnesses. Because the incidence of bulimia is increasing, there are now almost as many deaths occurring with bulimics as with anorexics and those with EDNOS. It may seem unfair that more attention is directed toward anorexia, but when anywhere between 5-10% of anorexics die within 10 years of the onset of the illness, time isn't on our side. Early detection is important, and treatment is crucial. As much as I agree that awareness needs to be showered on all eating disorders, there's no denying the fact that anorexia and related illnesses can kill quickly. 

It should be noted that I support the HAES movement, but there are some points that a very small group of individuals associated with the movement see differently than I do. I agree that, in general terms, fat people are discriminated against more, and that weight doesn't necessarily determine health. But thin people face some of the same problems as those who don't fall into the unrealistic beauty standard set by society. For example, anorexics also go to the doctor wondering if they will be heard and not discounted because of their diagnosis. Doctors often think whatever real illness we face is self-induced because of our eating disorders. We also get called names and get ugly stares in the streets. People tell us how and what we "should" be eating. Somehow we are expected to keep quiet about this because, oh, I don't know, somebody else has it worse or something. Obviously, I understand the major differences and the different stigmas of the two situations, but you just can't look at someone and make assumptions. 

My main point is that drawing attention to anorexia doesn't mean ignoring other illnesses. Just like people can support raising awareness around the diminishing population of mountain gorillas without discounting that of the blue whale, it's not impossible to call attention to those suffering from anorexia without discounting the severity and the symptoms of others who have different eating issues. 

Looking at someone, it's also impossible to know her history, and many people with eating disorders have struggled with multiple types of illnesses. For example, it's not unheard of for those who have been obese to become anorexic or fluctuate between heavier and lighter weights. You just never know the inner struggles of someone by looking at her outer appearance. Fat or thin, you don't know if she struggles with depression, addiction, poor self-esteem, anxiety, OCD, bipolar, or any other mental illness or condition. Many of us have had experience being at both ends of the spectrum, bullied and teased for being "too" fat at one time and "too" thin at another. 

Ultimately, try to have a little compassion. Avoid making judgments, and treat others who are struggling with the same compassion you would like to receive.