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A conversation with Sally Kipyego

Sally Kipyego spent much of her time in the NCAA out front. Here she leads the 2007 NCAA Cross Country Championships.

Sally Kipyego was born in Kenya but came to the U.S. to attend South Plains College, where she won seven NJCAA titles, before moving on to Texas Tech, where she added a record-tying nine NCAA titles. Kipyego earned silver medals in the 10,000m at the 2011 world championships and the 2012 Olympic Games for Kenya. She became a U.S. citizen in 2017, and became a mother later that year (after infamously finishing second at the 2016 New York City Marathon while she was unknowingly pregnant).

Kipyego, 34, has been open about her challenging return to fitness after giving birth, but in February, she proved herself to be one of the best marathoners in the U.S., finishing third at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, where she earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

We caught up with Kipyego by phone last week, from her farm on the outskirts of Eldoret, Kenya. Kipyego had recently returned from a two-month trip to the U.S., to train with her Oregon Track Club teammates. She traveled without her husband, Kevin Chelimo, and 3-year-old daughter, Emma, and cut her stay about a week short, fearing that the lockdown in the U.K. and travel restrictions in Europe might prevent her from returning to Kenya. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Fast Women: Up until your early departure, how were things going in Oregon?
Sally Kipyego:
Everything was going fantastic. I like to go back to Oregon for training in the winter and to get my base going and hit the gym a little bit more. Just to have my coaching staff be able to observe and see things to work through for the next season. I traveled by myself. I left my family behind with my three-year-old.

Is it hard being away from your family for such a long stretch of time?
It’s so difficult. My husband and I have had our own ways of being away from each other, but now that we have a little one, it’s different, and I hadn’t been away from Emma for that long before. I think the longest I’d been away from her was two weeks, so this was a long stretch. It was difficult emotionally. But it kind of just makes you want to work a little bit harder to make it worth it. It was definitely hard. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again any time soon.

Is the plan to stay in Kenya for a while? Is it hard to make plans right now?
We always have a tentative plan, so the plan is to go back to the U.S. around February, March, and April, but it depends what is happening with Covid. You can’t really plan anything right now. You plan and be flexible about it. If we can travel and races are not canceled, I think we’ll be able to travel back to the U.S. as a family maybe late February, unless I can race before that.

What kind of races would you ideally be running?
Initially I was going to train for the Boston Marathon, but then that was canceled. I also thought I was going to run the Houston Marathon, but that was canceled, too. At this point, I’m just kind of getting ready for whatever is available. I don’t think I’ll do a spring marathon, I think we’ll stick with half marathons, 10Ks, just to kind of get some speed going and get a little bit quicker on my feet before we build up for the Olympics. I haven’t really been training for a marathon. I’ve been training [for] 10Ks and half marathons. I have tried to stay away from the grind of marathon training, just to make sure that when I get going again to get ready for the Olympics, I will be fresh and ready.

How is the Covid situation in Kenya? How does it compare to what you were seeing in the U.S.?
It’s better than the U.S. for sure. The cases are not as terrible, the cases are not as high. It is still rising, so we haven’t gotten to a point where it has stabilized yet, but compared to other places in the world, it’s much better. We live in the outskirts of Eldoret, and we try to stay away from the cities. We feel pretty safe out here, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. Things are pretty laid back and we avoid going to the city as much as possible.

Do you have any training partners there at all?
At the moment, I’m just training by myself. My husband and I sometimes run together, but mostly by myself. I might run into one or two neighbors and we go for a run, but not necessarily as a training group.

When you’re in Oregon, do you have people to train with much? Or are you doing different things because of your varying events?
I work out with the boys, I work out with Hanna Green a lot, and some of the 800m and 1500m guys. I really didn’t train by myself in Oregon, I always had company, so that’s something I’m missing a bit. Even though they run the 800m, I still help them with the strength stuff and they help me with the speed.

Have you had any trouble staying motivated this year, without races?
It has been difficult. I really shouldn’t even say “difficult,” because too many people are having such a difficult year. The uncertainty, I would say, is the difficult thing, because we’re not able to plan for anything. I think most of us elite athletes tend to be very plan-oriented. We plan for things way in advance and when the calendar is blank, it’s kind of difficult. 

I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to train for nothing, basically. I always plug races into my schedule one or two years out, and just to look in my calendar right now and have nothing in there, it’s kind of difficult on your psyche. At the same time, I know I have a race coming up, when the Olympics happen, so that gets me up. I’ve found ways to stay motivated and push myself a little bit more.

How different is your daily schedule when you’re in Kenya compared to Oregon?
It’s very similar. My coach and I speak every weekend or so to catch up and see how the workouts are going and plan for the next week’s sessions. My schedule is the same, it’s just different here because I live on a farm. I do things other than run. I find myself quite busy on this other end of the world. In Oregon, I can relax, watch Netflix, and kind of just chill. Especially during the winter. While here, it’s warm and sunny and bright and all day long, I find myself on my feet more than I should. I find myself doing things that I normally wouldn’t do in Oregon because of my settings, my settings are completely different. I’m keeping chickens and I have a garden…you know.

How much of the farm work are you doing yourself?
We have a lot of people helping, but you find yourself doing things here and there. My husband is really into it, he’s really the farmer, but I find it difficult to stay still and recover the proper way. I have to force myself to actually recover and sit still.

I saw your post about voting, was it exciting to vote in your first presidential election?
Oh yes, absolutely. I figured I was going to be in Oregon, that was something I had to do and I had to get a photo. It was just a drop-off, but I felt like that was a huge moment. It’s good to vote in a presidential election for the first time.

When you talked to Runner’s World in April, you sounded disappointed about your Olympic Trials race, is that an accurate assessment? Did you feel like you underperformed there?
Yes, I did. And I mentioned in that interview that I know it’s difficult to say I’m disappointed, because I made the Olympic team. I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong. The point was that I was disappointed because I felt that I was fitter than that and I felt like I was ready. I came into the Trials basically to win. More than anything, I was surprised that I didn’t perform as well as I thought I would because I felt really ready, I felt really fit. Was it a case of me having a rough day or was the course harder? But I looked at the competitors and a lot of people struggled, so maybe it was the course, maybe it was me. I made the team, and that’s huge, but I also wanted to win, and I felt that I was ready.

You mentioned on Lindsey Hein’s podcast that you’d like to win a world marathon major title and an Olympic gold medal. Is that what you’re focusing on now?
Before I retire, I would like to win Olympic gold and a world marathon major. I have an Olympic silver medal and I’ve finished second at a world marathon major, so it would be nice to just top those two.

The women’s field [for the Olympic marathon] is just ridiculous. There are athletes that are running incredible times right now. So it can be daunting and almost intimidating when you’re training to race against those women, but you have to approach it from that mindset. For example, I’m probably going to be running against someone who has run 10 minutes faster than I have. That’s just scary even to think about it, but at the same time, this is a championship and anything can happen. Wild things happen. All you need to do is be competitive on the day. I’m trying to be in the best position to be competitive and when the opportunity presents itself, you might surprise yourself.

You’ve talked about your pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum struggles before and I really appreciate that, because we don’t always hear as many of those stories. When did you really start to feel like things were clicking for you again?
It took maybe 14 or 15 months. It felt like I struggled for so long. I always write everything down, and looking at that, I was making progress, I just didn’t feel like I was making progress, because it was difficult. I didn’t have one of those stories that you have a child, a few months later you come back and by the time your child is one year old, you’re running really well. That wasn’t my story. It was a difficult one because my body kind of resisted, to be honest. It basically was fighting in every possible way. I raced when she was nine months and I ran a 10K in Boston, I think it was 34:09 or 34:10. It was an okay showing, but I felt nothing like myself.

Is there anything you can take from the whole experience, or anything you would have done differently, in retrospect?
I expected a lot of different things. I read a lot of things, I over-planned for things, and I expected things to be different. I was surprised and I was kind of caught off guard by what happened. First of all, I thought I was going to be able to run through my pregnancy, because I’d seen all these women run through their pregnancy and do really well. I thought, “Surely I’ll be fine, my body’s feeling okay, I’ll be able to do it.” It turns out I couldn’t. Every time I would try to run, I would have so many issues, so I had to stop around 18 weeks of my pregnancy. That was a surprise. I think in the future, I might go in with a more open-minded approach that maybe I might not even be able to train.

Another thing is that I wish I had a personal trainer after I gave birth, because I had so many weaknesses in so many areas, in my hips and pelvis, because so much movement happens during pregnancy and childbirth. You get a lot of changes. And I just wish that I had someone look at me, and I wish I had the specific strength training, because I was back to doing normal things that I did before having Emma, and looking back, maybe I should have done more specific things to get my body strong to be able to handle the training. At the same time, we are all different. You can’t read one story and think that’s normal.

I want to make sure to ask you your thoughts on the racial reckoning that the U.S. has been experiencing since May. Were you in the U.S. while the protests were at their peak?
I wasn’t, but everywhere in the world, we read about it. It was a difficult time, but a very necessary time. It’s time. It’s time for that, it needed to be addressed, and I hope that we get better as a country. I hope that we move forward and we just become better—better human beings to each other, more considerate, more inclusive. I just hope that all this is not in vain. I hope that real change will happen.

Did any of it cause you to reflect differently on the experiences you’ve had living in the U.S.? I remember you saying on Lindsey Hein’s podcast that you didn’t have a lot of shoe contract offers coming out of college. Is that something you would attribute to racism?
No one ever made a judgment based on skin color when I lived in Africa. I didn’t even realize that there were conditions that came with that until I was in the U.S. and I realized, “Oh, there are some expectations, some connotations, that come with me being a Black woman.” And most of them were not positive, most of them were negative. You start learning these cues and you start realizing what society is always thinking about you.

Obviously I’ve experienced unfairness, even coming out of college, I didn’t have a lot of companies that wanted to sign me. I don’t know if that had to do with my color or whatever. But I feel like, just based on how I was performing, I was running really well. Probably if I was a different-looking kind of girl…but I don’t know, I can’t speak on that. But society [needs to]  acknowledge that we are all equal and we all deserve whatever’s on the table.

I’m raising a Black child who is American. I hope that down the road, she doesn’t have to fight so hard to just be acknowledged and just to be like everyone else. I hope it gets better both for her and her children.

Are there ways in which you think the running industry can do better?
I think the running industry can help. It’s huge what we tell young girls and young boys. When you print a poster or you print a magazine, and all of the images are of white women, it’s very difficult for a Black little girl, an Indian little girl, or an Asian little girl or boy to look at those images and recognize themselves. They’re not reflected in anything, so it’s really important that the running industry is inclusive of everyone else. That way the upcoming generation can see themselves.

I think shoe companies can try to be more diverse. If you have athletes who can compete, try to give out those opportunities to a more diverse group of people. That promotes the younger generation to see themselves in the older generations.

Speaking of representation in magazines, there’s been some coverage of your story, but not a ton since you made the U.S. Olympic team. Are you avoiding the spotlight somewhat, or are people not reaching out?

I don’t avoid it. I don’t think I turn down interviews, I talk to the people that want to talk to me and the people that are interested in having a chat. I’m always up for a chat. So no, I don’t turn anything down. But I also wouldn’t just want to be put somewhere just for the sake of saying, “Oh, we have a Black woman.” Different people, different companies, and different magazines, they have a following and they have their own objectives and goals.Whatever they want to promote, whatever they want to show, whatever they want to share, that’s their say. So if someone felt they wanted to talk to me about something, that’s fantastic. I think that I would be open to that, but that’s their call. But I’m perfectly fine, trust me. I live on a farm in Kenya (laughs).

How do you feel about social media?

I am terrible—that’s maybe another reason why I’m not being interviewed that much, because I am never present anywhere. As you can tell if you follow me on social media anywhere, I’m not good at it, it’s the last thing that ever occurs to me. After one month, I have to remind myself, “Oh, you might want to share something.” I don’t remember it, I don’t think about it. On the list of things on my plate, it just doesn’t occur to me. And I know it’s part of the job, you’re supposed to do these things, but oh God, I am terrible and it’s a real struggle.

That’s funny, I feel the same way. But at the same time, I also enjoy following some of the people who are more reluctant to post, because when they do post, it’s often refreshing and not the same as what everyone else is posting. I imagine the photos you could take in Kenya. Seeing your day-to-day life would be so interesting.
It’s not. It’s me chasing chickens (laughs). The thing with social media, for me personally, I am really happy to sit in a corner and I hibernate. People that know me know this. Especially when I’m really getting ready for a big race, I tend to hibernate. I hide away and I don’t want anything to do with anyone. I do that for months at a time. That’s my life, that’s living for me, and any time I have to come out of that it’s like, “Ohhh, we have to do this again.” I like my hiding. I thrive in that. I thrive in getting away and not being bothered by anyone. So I actually feel like my life is quite boring. What am I going to tell you about? I have nothing to tell everyone all day long every day, twice a day, I really don’t.

Do you look at social media much?
I look at social media, especially for my news. I mean you shouldn’t really be getting your news from social media, but I feel like if I want to catch up on what’s happening, I’ll scroll through social media for like 20 minutes so I know what’s happening in the world, and then I kind of throw my phone away. I always leave my phone in the house and I rarely look at it and I always have a ton of missed calls, because I’m never really close to it. That’s just habit, and it’s not like I don’t care about people, I just forget about it.

I shared an article about whereabouts failures in Kenya a while back and Aliphine Tuliamuk commented that her schedule is more predictable when she’s in the U.S., but there’s more spontaneity when she’s in Kenya. The article mentioned that some athletes in Kenya don’t have addresses. Having lived in both places, would you say it’s harder to stay on top of keeping drug testers informed of your whereabouts while in Kenya?
Yes, I can see that. It’s more difficult here. Like you said, there’s no physical address, so you’re basically kind of suggesting where you live by either describing the home you’re living in or the neighborhood you’re living in. On top of that, there’s a lot of movement in Kenya. Kenya’s the size of Texas and you can just go between Iten and Eldoret without even thinking about it. That can sometimes be problematic for people, because you might go to the village, and that becomes even more difficult, trying to describe where you are. And in the remote areas, you might not have connections, your phone reception is bad.

In the U.S., that is almost a non-factor for me, because I have a specific address. If you’re training at a track, you know you’ll be at Hayward Field. That’s easy, it’s clear. But when I’m in Kenya, I don’t know. Sometimes it rains and if I go to a dirt track and it’s wet and muddy, I might have to go somewhere else. There are a lot of factors. I can see why it can be problematic, but you just have to be diligent. I just have to be on top of it, more than anything. I have weekly reminders to remind me where I’ll be for the week. You just have to do it, it’s your number one job. As an athlete, if you really care about your integrity, there’s no option about it. As much as it’s challenging, and I can sympathize and understand that, you have to be on top of it.

What is Emma up to all day?
She keeps us on our toes. She’s very active. She runs around and she has a lot of space to do so, so she never sits still as well. The only time she’s indoors is for meals and sleep (laughs). Just to eat and sleep and nothing in-between. She’s loving it. And we have a lot of people around us, a lot of family and a lot of help. It’s just fun, and she’s at a really good age right now where she’s just exploring a lot of different things. This is a good environment for her for sure.

Is she bilingual?
We have not actually spoken English to her at home. We are just starting now to introduce English at the house. Right now she communicates in Swahili. We wanted her to learn a first language before she speaks English.

Do you ultimately have plans to settle in one country or the other once Emma’s in school?
I hope we get to go back and forth, we really like that. Now I feel like we spend more time in Kenya because it is more convenient for our family to do so, but I think when she gets a little older, we’ll probably spend more time in the U.S., and that’s a huge privilege for us. We would love to be able to go back and forth and just have both worlds for our children and our family; that would be fantastic.

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Fast Women’s guide to the best women’s running books

For decades, running literature was dominated by books by and about men, and the quality of the books was hit or miss. That’s gradually changing, and there are more quality options for running books by and about women.

If you would like to support Fast Women and independent bookstores, please visit and shop from our bookshop.org list. Ten percent of purchases through Bookshop.org go to independent bookstores (you can select a specific one), and if you shop from our list, an additional 10% will help keep this website and the Fast Women newsletter and social media accounts going.

We also made a list (below) through amazon.com, because quite a few of the books we wanted to recommend were not available through bookshop.org. Purchases through these links will also support Fast Women, in some cases, but less so.

Fast Women’s Amazon.com Book List:

Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, by Deena Kastor and Michelle Hamilton
Deena Kastor tells her story while sharing tips and tricks for running strong. This book set a new bar for quality of running books and might still lead the way.
Dandelion Growing Wild: A triumphant journey over astounding odds by American marathon champion Kim Jones
Kim Jones writes about the hardship she endured on the way to becoming one of the top marathoners in the world in the 1980s and 1990s.
Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big IdeasOlympian Alexi Pappas’ memoir, available for pre-order now, comes out January 12, 2021
Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, by Wyomia Tyus and Elizabeth Terzakis
A 2018 book about Wyomia Tyus, who was the first person to win back-to-back Olympic 100m gold medals, yet isn’t well known.
Running Tide by Joan Benoit and Sally Baker
This is Olympic marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson’s autobiography, published in 1987. It’s out of print but still available and still good.
Feel-Good Fitness: Fun Workout Challenges to Inspire Your Fitness Streak, by Alysia MontañoOlympian Alysia Montaño demonstrates strength exercises and shares fun workout challenges.
First Ladies of Running: 22 Inspiring Profiles of the Rebels, Rule Breakers, and Visionaries Who Changed the Sport Forever, by Amby BurfootEach chapter of this book features a different “first lady” of U.S. long distance running.
Girls Running: All You Need to Strive, Thrive, and Run Your Best, by Melody Fairchild and Elizabeth CareyThe book you wish you had to guide you as a young runner.
Passing the Baton: Black Women Track Stars and American Identity (Sport and Society), by Cat M. AriailComes out November 30, 2020, can pre-order now.
Strong: A Runner’s Guide to Boosting Confidence and Becoming the Best Version of YouA guide and tool for building one’s running confidence, from Olympian Kara Goucher
The Silence of Great Distance: Women Running Long, by Frank MurphyIncludes what is probably the best history of women’s long distance running, but also chronicles some tough stories involving mental health struggles.
A Long Time Coming: Running through the women’s marathon revolution, by Jacqueline Hansen
The autobiography of women’s running pioneer Jacqueline Hansen, who helped fight for the opportunity to get women’s distance events into the Olympic Games.
Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe, by Becky WadeProfessional runner Becky Wade spent a year traveling the world as part of her Watson Fellowship, and learned about running (and eating) in different cultures around the world.
No Finish Line: My Life As I See It, by Marla RunyanThe autobiography of Paralympian and Olympian Marla Runyan, who has one of the more incredible stories in the sport.
Uncommon Heart, by Anne Audain and John L. Parker, Jr.
The story of New Zealand’s Anne Audain, who overcame childhood challenges to become the first women’s professional runner, an Olympian, and a Commonwealth Games gold medalist.
To Boston With Love, by Bobbi GibbBobbi Gibb tells the story of becoming the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966. This 50th anniversary edition includes a new introduction from Gibb, as well as illustrations drawn by Gibb.
Wind in the Fire, by Bobbi GibbI’m not sure how this compares with the previous selection, but you can get a pretty long preview by using the “look inside” link, to get a sense of the content.
Running Home: A Memoir, by Katie ArnoldA memoir by Katie Arnold, the 2018 Leadville Trail 100 champion
A Beautiful Work In Progress, by Mirna ValerioMirna Valerio writes about her journey from beginning runner to ultramarathoner.
Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s SportsAn autobiography of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon
Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness
Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton writes about her running journey, her battle with mental illness, and her experience working as an escort.
Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team, by Elise HooperA novel, published in 2020, about Betty Robinson, Louise Stokes, and Helen Stephens.
What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen, by Kate Fagan
The story of the mental health struggles and death of Penn cross country and track & field runner Madison Holleran.
The Oval Office: A Four-Time Olympian’s Guide to Professional Track and Field, by Lauryn Williams
A guide to being a professional track & field athlete
The Fragile Champion: Doris Brown Who Always Ran the Extra Mile, by Ken ForemanThere are a lot of words other than fragile that I can think of to describe five-time World Cross Country champion Doris Brown Heritage, but this is the best source of Heritage information out there.
World Class: A Champion Runner Reveals What Makes Her Run, With Advice and Inspiration for All Athletes
Autobiography of nine-time New York City Marathon champion Grete Waitz. It’s out of print, but used copies are still available.
American Women’s Track and Field, 1895-1980: A History, 2 Volume Set, by Louise Mead Tricard
More of a reference book, and an excellent source for the nerdiest of track nerds.
The First Lady of Olympic Track: The Life and Times of Betty Robinson, by Joe Gergen
A biography of 1928 Olympic 100m champion Betty Robinson
Determined to Win: The Overcoming Spirit of Jean DriscollAutobiography of eight-time Boston Marathon wheelchair champion Jean Driscoll
Runner: A short story about a long run, by Lizzy HawkerWhen I previously made a list of books without this one on it, several people recommended it.
Chasing Grace: What the Quarter Mile Has Taught Me about God and Life
Autobiography of Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross
Unwavering Perseverance: An Olympic Gold Medalist Finds Peace, by Mary Wineberg
Autobiography of Olympic gold medalist Mary Wineberg
Amazing Racers: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Team and its Revolutionary Coach, by Marc Bloom
A look at the Fayetteville-Manlius high school running program
Robin Emery: Maine’s First Lady of Road Racing, by Ed Rice
Daughters of Distance: Stories of Women in Endurance Sports, by Vanessa Runs
Girl Runner: A Novel, by Carrie Snyder
High Performance in Midlife and Beyond: Champion Masters Women Runners and Other Experts, by Cathy UtzschneiderThis book came out the day I made this list and looks interesting.
Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries
Not specifically about women or running, but applicable to both, and much of the guidance comes from fast women
Running: A Love Story: 10 Years, 5 Marathons, and 1 Life-Changing Sport, by Jen A. Miller
A Race Like No Other: 26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York, by Liz Robbins
Liz Robbins’ book about the New York City Marathon
The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras, by Sarah Lavender Smith
Go, Gwen, Go: A Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold, by Nancy and Elizabeth Jorgensen
Technically a triathlon book, Gwen Jorgensen’s mother and sister tell the story of Gwen’s road to the 2016 Olympic gold medal in triathlon.
Young Readers:
Mighty Moe: The True Story of a Thirteen-Year-Old Women’s Running Revolutionary, by Rachel Swaby and Kit Fox
The story of Maureen Wilton, who held the world record in the marathon at age 13. Aimed at middle schoolers, but I’m told it’s a great read for all ages.
The Running Dream (Schneider Family Book Award – Teen Book Winner), by Wendelin Van Draanen
Fiction, written for teens, but I’m told adults will love it, too.
Ya Sama! Moments from My Life, by Tatyana McFadden and Tom Walker
The story of Tatyana McFadden, aimed at middle schoolers.
The Heartbeats of Wing Jones, Katherine Webber
There aren’t many novels on this list, but every time I make a list of women’s running books, someone recommends this one.
Jason Reynolds’s Track Series Paperback Collection: Ghost; Patina; Sunny; Lu
Series for 5th/6th graders about an elite track team. Only one of the main characters, Patina, is a girl. You can get just her book here.
Right on Track: Run, Race, Believe, by Sanya Richards-Ross
A biography of Sanya Richards-Ross, aimed at teens.
Run with Me: The Story of a U.S. Olympic Champion, by Sanya Richards-RossA biography of Sanya Richards-Ross, aimed at 8–12 year olds.
Fearless Frosty: The Mighty Story of Mountain Runner Anna FrostA children’s book about New Zealand’s Anna Frost
The Quickest Kid in Clarksville, by Pat Zietlow Miller
A children’s book about Wilma Rudolph
The Girl Who Ran: Bobbi Gibb, the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon, by Kristina Yee and Frances Poletti
A children’s book about Bobbi Gibb
Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon, by Kim Chaffee
A children’s book about Kathrine Switzer
Girl Running, by Annette Bay Pimentel
Another children’s book about Bobbi Gibb
Wilma Rudolph (Little People, BIG DREAMS, 27), by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara
A book about Wilma Rudolph aimed at ages 4–7
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman, by Kathleen Krull
Another Rudolph book for the same age range.
Unbeatable Betty: Betty Robinson, the First Female Olympic Track & Field Gold MedalistA children’s book about Betty Robinson aimed at ages 4–8
I Didn’t Win, by Mary Wineberg
Olympian Mary Wineberg’s children’s book about goal setting and self belief.
Cookbooks:
Run Fast. Eat Slow.: Nourishing Recipes for Athletes: A CookbookShalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky’s first cookbook teaches readers how to say no to diet culture and focus on sustainable fueling.
Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.: Quick-Fix Recipes for Hangry Athletes: A Cookbook
Flanagan and Kopecky’s second cookbook, with a focus on recipes that are a bit quicker than those in the first book.
The Runner’s Kitchen: 100 Stamina-Building, Energy-Boosting Recipes, with Meal Plans to Maximize Your Training, by Emma Coburn
This is 2017 world steeplechase champion Emma Coburn’s cookbook, available for pre-order. Comes out on December 22.
Training Journals:
Believe Training Journal (Classic Red, Updated Edition), by Lauren Fleshman and Róisín McGettigan-Dumas
A place to record your training, with much wisdom interspersed. I’ve been using these logs for years, and they’re great.
Believe Training Journal (Electric Blue Edition)For those who like blue better. (There are more color choices on the Amazon website, and also on their website, if you want to support them directly.)
COMPETE Training Journal (Tangerine Edition) (Believe Training Journal)This is also a training log, but the wisdom focuses more on preparing for competition.

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Tierney Wolfgram breaks the American junior record in the marathon

Adam Sjolund and Carson Leavitt lead Tierney Wolfgram on the American River Trail. (Photo courtesy of Nevada Cross Country.)

Tierney Wolfgram, 17, set a pending American junior record in the marathon on Saturday, running 2:31:49 at the Parkway Marathon in Sacramento, California. The record was previously held by Cathy (Schiro) O’Brien, who ran 2:34:32 in 1984 before going on to make the 1988 and 1992 Olympic teams in the event.

If you’ve never heard of the Parkway Marathon, that’s because it was created solely for the purpose of this record attempt. Danielle Domenichelli served as race director for the three-person USATF-sanctioned race, which was kept quiet in advance to avoid attracting spectators.

Wolfgram raced alongside Adam Sjolund and Carson Leavitt, two of her University of Nevada teammates, who were there to provide pacing assistance and to make it an official race. (USATF rules require three starters, but they don’t all have to finish. Only Sjolund and Wolfgram did.) They each had to have two negative Covid tests in the week leading up to the race, to comply with USATF rules. 

The plan was for the trio to run 5:53 pace before picking up the pace the last 10K, but they were feeling good and ran ahead of pace from the start, ultimately averaging 5:47 per mile. Kirk Elias, Nevada’s head cross country coach, asked the pacers about the quicker pace post-race. “They said, ‘Coach, every time we tried to dial it back to 5:53, she’d push up in between us and start pushing the pace again,’” Elias told Fast Women on Saturday.

Wolfgram admitted to that, but she said learned a lot about proper pacing in this race. “In my other marathons, I’d always go out too fast and crash and burn. This time, Adam and Carson really helped make me successful,” she said.

They raced on the paved trail that runs along Sacramento’s American River, doing two out-and-backs on a 6.55-mile stretch. Conditions were near perfect, and traffic was low on the path when they began, at 6:15 a.m. But as more people headed out for their morning workout and noticed the fluid stations set up along the course, they began to ask the race volunteers (other Nevada team members) what was going on.

“Tierney started getting support from people along the path because they heard that there was somebody trying to set an American junior record in the marathon,” Elias said. “She got more support than we would have expected.”

The team set up aid stations every three miles, and got fueling advice from Nevada assistant coach EmKay Sullivan, an accomplished trail and ultra runner and an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier. Wolfgram used a combination of Gatorade, water, Run Gum (for a late-race boost), and also went with the slightly less conventional choice of applesauce packets.

Wolfgram, a first year student at Nevada who won’t turn 18 until May 10, opted to graduate from high school a year early. Not only did she begin college amid a pandemic, Wolfgram and her teammates have also had to contend with unhealthy air quality in Reno due to wildfires this semester. Because of that, and rising Covid rates, Wolfgram spent a good portion of the fall semester at home in Minnesota and at her grandparents’ house in Wyoming, training solo and taking classes online. Joining Strava helped keep her motivated, as she followed her teammates’ training and tried to match their progress.

But when she returned to campus two weeks ago, she was reminded how much more fun running can be when done with friends. “The first run back with them, I was overcome with happiness and all these emotions,” she said. “I had forgotten what it felt like. When I was alone running, I felt kind of robotic because I was just doing the process instead of enjoying it. And then coming back and running with them, oh my gosh, it helped prepare me a lot for this and get excited for it.”

Sessions like 4 x 20 minutes averaging marathon pace or a little faster (with 5:00 rest) helped Wolfgram know she was on track to take a shot at the record. Her mileage peaked at 102 miles, which was more than she ran in preparation for February’s Olympic Marathon Trials, but significantly less than the 120 per week she ran leading up to her first marathon at the 2018 Twin Cities Marathon, where she ran 2:40:03 at age 15.

Heading into that first marathon, Wolfgram and her parents wrote her training. “There was no science. We didn’t know what we were doing,” Wolfgram said. “We didn’t know how much stress we were putting on me. We thought that if I could actually do it then what harm could it be doing to me? I ended up getting injured for a whole year after that.”

Because of injury, Wolfgram only had 10 weeks of running leading into February’s Olympic Marathon Trials, so she took a more cautious approach, and her mileage topped out closer to 85 miles. Wolfgram finished 76th in the race, running 2:42:47, and told Elizabeth Carey that she wouldn’t be running another marathon until she was 22 years old or so. But many things have changed since early March.

“A week or so after the marathon, I got pretty sad about not getting the record. I thought that the Trials was my last shot and it was pretty hard to get over. I was kind of mourning that,” Wolfgram said. When Nevada’s cross country season got postponed, Elias encouraged team members to think of a goal to shoot for during the fall, and Wolfgram immediately knew what hers was.

“I thought it was 50-50 that [Elias would] think it was a good idea, and I could see both sides,” Wolfgram said. “He was a little cautious at first, but he said his job as a coach is to help me reach my individual goals and if that was something I was serious about doing, he’d do anything in his power to get me to the starting line in shape to break the record, and that’s exactly what he did.”

Now Wolfgram thinks she really is done with the marathon for a while, and she’s turning her focus to helping out her new team. She’ll take it easy for a month before ramping things back up—but likely not quite so high mileage-wise—for the winter cross country season.

“After the marathon I was walking around saying, ‘I think I could give this up for a couple of years now because that hurt quite a bit,’” Wolfgram said. “It was this record that kept me itching to keep doing marathons. Now that I’ve done it, I still love running marathons, but I think it’s time to develop myself on the track.”

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A conversation with Keira D’Amato

Keira D'Amato celebrates her finish at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials as spectators cheer her to the finish.
Keira D’Amato finishes 15th at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2:34:24. (Photo courtesy of Credit Union Cherry Blossom Run.)

Two days before her breakthrough 1:08:57 half marathon performance last week, Keira D’Amato announced that she’ll go after the American 10-mile record for a women’s-only race on Monday, November 23. The current record is 52:12, set by Janet Cherobon-Bawcom in 2014. Coincidentally, D’Amato, pregnant with her first child, held the finish line tape as Cherobon-Bawcom broke the record. 

After a long hiatus from competitive running, D’Amato has worked her way back to the elite level over the past several years. This year in particular has been a good one for her. In February, she finished 15th at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2:34:24. In June, D’Amato made headlines when she ran a 15:04 5,000m time trial on the track, which, if official, would have shaved 65 seconds off her personal best. 

D’Amato, who turned 36 in October, works full time as a realtor in Midlothian, Virginia, and has two children: Tommy, 5, and Quin, 4. After her post-race cooldown on Wednesday, D’Amato had to rush back to her hotel to meet a work deadline before catching her flight home. She takes pride in her unconventional path to success, and she is currently unsponsored, though Tracksmith and CEP provide her with apparel, and Potomac River Running has helped her out with shoes in the past.

After the November 10-mile race, which is at an undisclosed location, D’Amato is scheduled to run the Marathon Project on December 20, and she is considering doubling in the 5,000m and 10,000m at June’s Olympic Track & Field Trials. I caught up with her last week, two days after her win in Michigan. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Fast Women: What kind of time were you thinking you could run heading into Wednesday’s race? Did your performance surprise you at all?
Keira D’Amato: We were kind of using the race as a good tempo/tuneup towards marathon training. When I was chatting with my coach (Scott Raczko), the time wasn’t really a focus, it was just the effort to make sure I was running smooth, locked in, strong, comfortable, and the goal was just to run the second loop faster than the first loop. So when Emma took it out, I was like, “Okay, we’re doing this!” I wasn’t surprised that I ran that time, but I wasn’t expecting that I’d run that time that day, because the time wasn’t even the goal of that race.

Were there specific workouts you did that gave you the confidence you could run in that time range?

I’ve done a lot of work under 4:40 per mile for shorter intervals, and I’m very comfortable running mile repeats under 5:00. I’ve also done a handful of longer tempos right around marathon pace or a little under. So I thought 5:20s would feel pretty comfortable. I was pleasantly surprised that running 5:15s felt pretty darn good, too.

When you run marathon pace in training, is that your past marathon pace, or a theoretical marathon pace that you think you can run in the future?
It’s theoretical. After the Olympic Trials, I knew, in my head, that I was ready to break 2:30, it just didn’t happen that day. I moved past the Trials thinking, “Okay, now you’re a sub-2:30 marathoner, let’s work on improving that.” So even though the time wasn’t there, I knew I was in that kind of shape. Now I’m working on faster than that and aiming for around 5:30 per mile for the marathon (which would put her in the 2:24 range).

As I look at your official personal bests on the World Athletics website, it says 16:09 for 5,000m, even though you’ve run 15:04 in a time trial. Is there any one particular personal best you really think has to go, or do they just all have to go?
I think I’ve had workouts where I’ve run faster than all of my PRs, including that time trial 5K, which was a glorified workout for me. I kind of look at all of it and know that I’m so much fitter than anything I’ve ever done in a race, so I think that all of my PRs need to be rewritten.

You have the 10 miler and the Marathon Project coming up. In the longer term, are you still thinking about running the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials as well?
I’m definitely going for the track trials, but I feel really patient about that. I know I’m capable of hitting the Olympic standard for both the 5K and 10K, I feel very confident about that, so I’m not in a huge rush to shove it in where it doesn’t belong. Right now I’m in marathon base mode and I’ll be doing races that fit toward that end goal of running a really fast marathon in December.

I’m hoping that there will be a number of opportunities, come 2021, that will allow me to get into a race and hit those standards. I feel like when you’re trying to force things in, that’s when things can get a little crazy and you get stressed or tired and run your body down. I’m trying to focus on base training right now and then I’ll focus on that in the spring.

I appreciate your laid-back attitude that the opportunities will come as well as your confidence that you can do it.
I feel very confident in what I’m capable of, but I’ve kind of fallen into this journey in a backwards way. I’ve had an untraditional path, so I don’t have any set way that’s worked for me in the past. I’m not on a team, I’m doing this by myself, kind of bushwhacking my own way here. I have really great direction from my coach. He’s been there and he’s done it before, but we’re also kind of in no-man’s land here, which has been really fun. I have a whole village of people who support me, so I’m not alone, but in a way, I feel like I’ve done it alone, and I’m pretty proud about that. It may be a little unconventional, but so far it’s working for me.

Do you have training partners right now?

Not really. I do the majority of my runs and workouts alone. The guy that I liked to work out with leading into the Olympic Marathon Trials moved about an hour away, to Charlottesville, so for hard efforts, I sometimes just drive there and beg him to work out with me. I’ll do that maybe a couple times a month, and then I have a girlfriend who I like to do my long runs with. But I do everything else on my own. I did get my husband a bike for Christmas, so now maybe once a week, he’ll bike with me.

I also really relish in that solo time. I’m kind of an introverted extrovert or extroverted introvert, so I really enjoy that time to recenter, refocus, and regather myself on those solo runs.

Once you dropped everyone in Wednesday’s race, did it feel like you were out on a training run with your husband, as you chased the lead bike?
I thought about that, too. The lead biker was staying 10 meters ahead of me. I was thinking, “Okay, this is my husband trying to drop me on this run.”

Was it at all hard to push yourself in a race that didn’t feel very race-like, especially once you were alone?
I’ve gotten really good at running solo. I’ve kind of considered myself the time trial queen this summer, because I’ve done so much on my own. But I will say that knowing that Emma Bates is right behind you is terrifying (laughs). I was thinking, “This girl is so tough and so strong, if I let off the gas pedal, she is just going to eat me up.” That created a whole ’nother fire for me that I do not experience in time trials and running by myself.

If the right sponsor approached you, would you accept an offer?
I would. There have been some rumblings, so we’ll see if anything comes together. At the same time, I don’t think I’m what most brands are looking for. I think a lot of sponsors like sponsoring a team or that NCAA champion right out of college, with a lot of potential. I’m neither one, but I do think it is a little close-minded. I think I’m unique and relatable to a lot of people that have ambitions or dreams that they didn’t chase, or those who didn’t quite reach their goal and decide to give it a second chance. But I get why I’m not sponsored.

That’s precisely why I’d love to see you at least have sponsorship options. You have the ability to reach and inspire a different segment of the running population. It seems short-sighted of companies not to consider or value that.
Yeah, and I think that I reach beyond running in a way. Virginia as a whole has been very, very supportive because they’ve seen my journey from being out there just trying to get back into running after becoming a parent to, “Wow, look, she’s competing in these local races,” to “Oh my gosh, we’re supporting someone who just qualified for the Olympic Trials.” Even outside of the running space, people have seen my journey and have been part of it. I hope it does inspire other people to say, “You know what? I have a goal, too, and I’m just going to go for it. What have I got to lose?” That’s what I’ve been saying this whole time. I have absolutely nothing to lose in this running space.

When you were holding the finish tape for Janet Cherobon-Bawcom, while pregnant, in 2014, were you ever imagining that that could be you someday?
No, definitely not. But there was a part of me holding the tape—and I don’t want to take anything away from what she did, because she’s a phenomenal runner and I’ve always looked up to her—but there was always a part of me watching runners or holding the tape thinking, “Why wasn’t that me?” I had a lot of unfinished business that I didn’t quite know how to resolve within myself. When I was holding the tape, I never thought that I would come back at this level. I never thought I’d ever have an opportunity or be able to say with a straight face that I’m going to try to break that record in a month, so it’s pretty wild how far I’ve come.

You sometimes think, “If I would have known then what I know now.” And I have the luxury now of knowing what I know now and getting this second chance, so I feel like this time, I’m doing it right, which I’m really proud of.

What have you learned from your past experiences, and what are some of the things you’re doing differently?
I think the biggest thing is patience, and knowing it’s not going to happen overnight. I understand the importance of consistency and the long game, and I didn’t then. I also think I’m much better at dealing with pressure now. There’s just a perspective change. It was my whole world then. Everything revolved around me being Keira the runner, and now I’m Keira the mom, the wife, the realtor who runs, and that’s really liberating and gives me a lot of room to take risks.

What did you go through 10 miles in during your half marathon on Wednesday?
I think it was 52:37, so about 25 seconds slower than the record.

Did that give you confidence?
Oh yeah, when I saw that I was that close, I was like, “Yeah, I got this.”

Do you expect to have other people in the 10-mile record attempt who can keep up with you at that pace?
Bill Orr, who is the elite athlete coordinator for the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, has graciously taken the lead on inviting some other athletes that we feel like could potentially get the record, too. At first, I was thinking I would just time trial it and get the record, but seeing everything that goes into making this USATF-certified and a record-eligible course, it felt a little selfish to do it by myself. And also, it doesn’t feel like a true record attempt if I’m not racing people. I feel like I’d be doing a disservice to the running community if we didn’t open it up. There are going to be a handful of people who I think can also break the record, so it’s going to be a pretty exciting race. That’s another way in which my mentality has changed a little bit. On November 23rd, I hope somebody gets that record. I’m going to work my butt off to make sure it’s me, but I know that as a group, the women’s American distance running community, I feel confident that somebody is going to get it that day.

I know that you and Matthew Centrowitz go way back (his father was D’Amato’s college coach), but what’s the backstory of him trying to get you more Instagram followers?
Probably at the beginning of Covid, I mentioned something to him—I don’t know if someone told me this or where I heard this—that I need at least 5,000 followers to even be considered for a sponsorship. I said something about it to him, and he offered to help. He posted maybe six months ago, saying he’d send out some swag to my followers, once I hit 5,000. Someone was following and noticed that I passed 5,000 followers after Wednesday’s race, so he’s following through. 

(D’Amato is a great follow on Instagram, both for the running content and for her children’s amazing Halloween costumes.)

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Jaci Smith negative splits a Trials-qualifying 10,000m in New York City

Jaci Smith, shortly after taking the lead in the 10,000m at the Big City Invitational – Presented by Trials of Miles x Bakline. (Photo courtesy of @baklinerunning)

Jaci Smith did not plan to run under the Olympic Trials 10,000m qualifying time of 32:25 at the Big City Invitational – Presented by Trials of Miles x Bakline on Friday evening in New York. That’s not to say that the thought hadn’t crossed her mind. She had, after all, reached out to USA Track & Field to find out whether the Nike Alphafly shoes she planned to wear to protect her calves would be allowed for Olympic Trials qualifying performances. (Answer: they would). But after injuring her Achilles in July, needing a PRP injection, and doing pool and bike workouts for 6–8 weeks, Smith thought of this event as more of a rust-buster. She had done only five track workouts leading up to the race.

Smith knew Allie Kieffer would be going for a fast time, so she opted not to go with Kieffer and the rabbit and aimed for a 16:20 through 5K instead. Kieffer hit 5K in 16:07, already having backed off the pace she was running in the early laps, and Smith went through 14 seconds back, in 16:21. “Honestly, at the beginning of the race, I didn’t feel spectacular. I wasn’t sure I could even sustain that 16:20 pace,” Smith told Fast Women on Sunday night. “But as I kept going—I don’t know if it was the excitement of being back on the track—I just started feeling really strong.”

With about 10 laps remaining in the race, Smith realized her pace was creeping down into Olympic Trials qualifying territory. With eight laps to go, she started clicking off 75-second splits. With just under six laps to go, she moved into the lead. “I just found a rhythm and ended up closing hard and it was a super exciting result,” Smith said.

Not only did Smith run under the 32:25 Trials standard, she ran 32:10.31, the fastest time by a U.S. woman in a women’s-only race in 2020. (Kellyn Taylor, Stephanie Bruce, and Lauren Paquette ran faster, but with a male pacer.) Kieffer finished second in 32:52.89. Smith secured her spot in June’s Olympic Trials, and took 17 seconds off her personal best. After running the first 5K in 16:21, she ran the second one in 15:49.

Smith, 23, who is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2019 and joined the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). Unlike the Army’s WCAP, the Air Force’s program operates only for the two years leading up to an Olympic Games. The original plan was for her to be a part of the program for one year before taking on a full-time Air Force job as an astronautical engineer, but the pandemic extended that for an additional year. While in the WCAP, her full-time job is training, and she’s not permitted to have an agent or outside brand sponsorship.

Smith is still coached by her college coach, Ryan Cole, and trains with Hannah Everson, who has run times similar to hers. After the 2021 Games, Smith will be stationed elsewhere and working long hours, but she plans to continue training and racing to the best of her ability during that time, and will keep applying to the WCAP for as long as they’ll take her. “I know that I want to run for as long as my body lets me,” Smith said. “You see women running well in their mid to late 30s. That’s what I’m passionate about—the 10K for now and the marathon later. I know I always want to have that as part of my life.” 

Smith made her half marathon debut when she was 11 years old (she ran a 2:23:55), following her father into the sport, and says she was not a natural. Ultimately she focused more on tennis in high school, where she won two individual and three team state titles. (For more on her collegiate success, thisis a good article from Runner’s World.)

Smith ran more than twice as fast when she returned to the distance, recording a 1:10:42 at the Houston Half Marathon in January, which convinced her to give the Olympic Marathon Trials a shot. Smith ran a solid race there, finishing 19th in 2:36:34. She says it was a valuable learning experience, but the distance was hard on her body and solidified her decision to stick with the shorter distances for now. “You go through so many mental ups and downs in a race that long that you have to learn to fight through those. It was just something I’d never experienced,” she said.

Smith plans to race a 10,000m again in early December in California, where she can race a little more aggressively with the Trials-qualifying pressure off. The next standard to shoot for is the 31:25.00 Olympic standard. She doesn’t expect that she’ll get there by December, that’s more of a spring goal right now, but hey, she’s surprised herself before.

Race results and video (the 10,000m starts around the 2:05 mark)

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A conversation with Samia Akbar

I recently wrote about Samia Akbar being the fastest known U.S.-born Black marathoner with her 2:34:14 at the 2006 New York City Marathon. Last week, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with her, and I’m sharing some of the highlights here. Akbar was an All-American runner for American University, and she was inducted into their athletic hall of fame in 2017. She went on to run professionally for seven years and now works as a global marketing manager for New Balance.

When you ran your 2:34:14 at the 2006 New York City Marathon, were you aware of it being the fastest time by a U.S.-born Black woman?
No. I was aware of it when Gary Corbitt mentioned it to me like two years ago. That’s definitely something I had thought of, because friends and family had asked me about it many times. I thought of it as a cool trivia question I should probably delve into some more, but I didn’t know who had held the fastest time before me.

To this day, why is 2:34 the PR for a Black woman born in the U.S.? I feel like the time should be faster and we should have progressed by now. I do feel like it’s only a matter of time [before that time comes down], but it bothers me. It’s not just Black runners, there’s not a lot of diversity across the board. The white women who occupy that space are awesome and deserving, but I definitely think it’s something to note and keep talking about, thinking about, and questioning, because it has not changed, which is problematic and sad.

Diversity is something that is important for everyone. What could we achieve if we were really firing with all pistons and including every part of our population to go forward and represent us?

Can you share some of your thoughts on getting more Black children running distances? Many people were accustomed to talking about how accessible running is, saying all you need is a pair of shoes and a safe place to run. But Ahmaud Arbery’s case has made it very clear how complicated the safety issue is, and how that’s a barrier to participation for some.
Growing up in the suburbs with a couple other Black friends, we all have stories about the police being called on us in our own neighborhoods, police officers going up to us or our siblings and asking, “What are you doing here?” when the answer was, “I’m walking to my house. I live here.” Even in a place like Northern Virginia, which feels pretty safe and people are really educated, I didn’t feel like I was running around amongst a bunch of confederate flags or something, but people were still very suspicious that my Black self was in this space that was predominantly white. So I think it’s a very complicated thing and I don’t know what the solve is to get more Black people involved in distance running, but what I do know for sure is that it’s going to be many things.

Maybe you need to make sure that you have a coach that takes you to a green space from a city space…I don’t know that everybody has access to that and the time or money to rent a van or take a carpool. There are so many things that I think about that could be barriers for some people.

It’s also a cultural thing. People should feel encouraged to try the longer distances. I was encouraged to try it because I started track with a friend who was a sprinter. I kept trying really hard to run fast at 200s and 400s in practice, and it was not panning out. I was game to keep moving up until I found a space where I was more successful. If you have kids coming out for track, that’s a great place to start. Just say, “Hey, it probably sucks to come in last in every 200m repeat, but I think you might like running more if you tried the mile or you had a leg on the 4x800m team.”

Being able to see yourself doing these things and understand what it takes to be a professional distance runner is also part of the hurdle with distance running. It’s not something that you see a lot on TV. But now, with social media, there’s a way to make it really fun. You can get a peek into this professional athlete’s life, it’s them telling their own story, talking about the things that they like to do, posting pictures of themselves.

On the Citius Mag podcast, Russell Dinkins recently talked about why it’s harder for track & field athletes to speak out about their experiences, because they have less job security compared to other types of professional athletes. More athletes have been speaking out in the last few weeks, and I’m curious what you think about all of it.
It’s been exciting to see Marielle Hall use her voice and write something, and seeing Alysia Montaño all over the place, having these conversations about women, being pregnant, and the sport. Hearing from Allyson Felix and Alysia, along with Kara Goucher, even if you don’t know running that well, you hear these people talking about a compelling and interesting topic that transcends sport in a way. That makes me really happy.

Seeing those athletes in Sports Illustrated talking about their experiences with racism is important because one thing that a lot of marketing people can tell you is that social justice is important to young people. In basketball, the players are able to have a voice and wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to practice. In the NFL, they’re having an interesting time now, but for a long time, they really tried to suppress progress, I believe. They were not rewarding people who were speaking out about what was going on around them. I think what’s happening lately in our sport is so cool because this is another way to attract people.

It’s so crazy that we’re just getting to this point in time, but if you take race out of whatever you’re doing, any human being connects with another human being because of their authenticity. And young people, especially, can tell when they’re full of it versus not. I think it’s really healthy and to our advantage that we’re having this dialog about inclusivity and diversity in our sport.

These things that people are talking about have been going on forever. If you’re Black, you deal with this no matter where you work, whether you’re a professional athlete or not. You deal with the precariousness of wanting to make change in your workplace or in your career and also feeling like you have to make sure that whatever you’re doing, you can create something positive without getting fired or being shunned by your coworkers.

It’s so exciting that there’s so much change happening. It feels like the Twilight Zone when you wake up and they’re like, ‘We’re going to remove Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from these products,” And you’re like, ‘That is great,” but there’s also that sick feeling you get because people have been telling [these companies] that this is inappropriate for a long time and…if it’s that easy, why weren’t they doing the right thing from the beginning?

While it’s really cool that people are speaking out and we’re getting more information that’s less watered down…Black people are constantly feeling like we need to edit ourselves, from the way we look, to the way we speak to people, to the things we say. We have to make determinations all day long with different groups of friends or co-workers about if I say this, will people really understand, are they really listening, will they really hear me, will they care?

Do you have other thoughts on what else we can do to get more Black kids running? How important is representation?
Representation matters so much…and it’s important to put people of color, Black women, men, on the cover [of magazines]. I definitely think that that’s like the first step. I’m sure this is the case in many Black families, but my parents were constantly telling us that we have to see it for ourselves, because if our expectation was to go out in the world and see Black men and women doing a full span of things in the world, that’s not reality, so you have to be able to see yourself doing it. But it would be really cool if we could see people doing this kind of stuff in film or in magazines or when people are making their ads and putting stuff together for social. Whatever that outward reflection is to your consumer, whatever industry you’re in, if you can show people being a part of the sport, that would be a really great start. 

It’s going to take a lot. I don’t know that I have all the answers. I would love to be a part of some kind of conversation where people are thinking about how to get more kids involved. Also, it starts with talking to kids. Because I’m a marketer, doing your market research and thinking about what kids emotionally connect with.

I would hope that it doesn’t get reduced to some kids being able to get to an open green space to run for miles and miles in high school and then other kids can’t. I feel like we’ve got to be more creative than that.

Another part of it is making sure kids don’t feel like they’re not an other. When you do have kids trying the mile, the 5K, the 10K, racism and snide remarks [can’t be the] thing that makes this kid think, “I should just try the 400m or 500m again.” That’s probably just an ongoing conversation, making sure that people feel welcome and know that the events are for everybody. Anybody can run the 200m and anybody is welcome to try the two-mile in high school.

I spent a lot of time being the only Black person doing all kinds of things when I was growing up. I had a wide range of experiences with people being extremely welcoming, and having this warm running community full of people that are thoughtful and really smart and go on to do all kinds of cool things after running. And also people that said things to me that were really hurtful because I was Black and I didn’t fit in their box, and they didn’t understand why I was there or why I was trying to have a professional career after college.

It’s tough for anyone, other than the very top runners, to make it as a professional runner, but did you feel like there were additional barriers there, as a Black woman?
It’s a hard career, because we’re in a sport that’s not football, baseball, and basketball, so there’s just a totally different setup for the sport itself, in the way that the governing bodies manage athletes. I didn’t have an enormous contract, but I had what I felt like, and still feel like, was a solid contract at the time. I was able to have a career running mostly and I wasn’t constantly stressed about money. I did live at home with my parents most of the time, but I was also traveling a lot…

One of the things I think about is Black people in America and their wealth. There are a lot of studies about people who earn college and graduate degrees not only making sure they can sustain themselves, but also helping family members. It’s like a web where everybody’s lifting up the next person. When you come from a family where they’re helping you put down for an apartment or a starter home, you find yourself in a different scenario as far as having a career and being able to financially move through life with a little bit more ease. I didn’t necessarily have that issue for myself, but it is something to think about if we’re talking about Black people and people of color.

If it’s Samia, the Black woman speaking, I definitely noticed the kinds of questions they asked women, and also the questions that they asked me, being a Black woman with the last name Akbar. There was definitely this weird undertone, sometimes, of being an other. Like, “Where are you really from?” And I can’t tell you how many times people have asked if English is my first language.

I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, near the middle to end of my career, if I was thinking of having a family or if I was married. And having male journalists tell me it would be an advantage if I had a kid. I remember [talking to] one guy straight one day and saying, “Have you ever talked to Marla Runyan about what it’s like to have kids? It sounds really hard.” [Meanwhile] some man who is a running nerd is thinking about and reading about a weird genetic boost. It doesn’t really have the same practical effect, if you actually talk to women. I think there were just a lot of people who hadn’t met somebody like me, because I was a first and only, so I feel like I got a lot of weird questions.

I definitely feel like people didn’t even think I spoke English some of the time, so people wouldn’t bother to talk to me about things. It bothered me a little bit, but I also feel like it created a safe space because the less crazy conversations you’re having, the more you can just focus on the things that are important, which was my running career, and the fulfillment that I was getting out of participating in a sport that I really loved. And doing all the cool things that come with it, like being able to travel, and make new friends, and push my body, and just having a lot of self-reliance, inner strength, and mental focus.

I feel like I’ve spent so much time not really talking about this kind of stuff until now with folks, because I don’t want it to take away from all of the things that I’m so grateful for. Running and my family have given me so much. But [how she was treated] because of who I am, that has also stuck with me. It’s made me tough, too… I didn’t necessarily think that it held me back, but I have to think, now that we’re chatting about this, how could it not? If people are constantly thinking that deep down, Samia Akbar is a Moroccan. I’m going to keep pressing her and she’s going to tell me that her mom is actually from [somewhere else]. It really wasn’t my problem, but for those people that really cared to ask and really just had to know, it was clearly a barrier for them in really connecting with me or seeing me as somebody who represented them in the United States of America.

It can be a hard question to answer because sometimes the microaggressions and white centering are so subtle that no one can prove it. My hope, as we’re having these conversations, is that some of these things are going to change.
That’s definitely how it works, and I agree that things are so subtle. As we were saying earlier, things haven’t changed. The things that you would like and the conversations we should be having, that standard has never changed, just because all of a sudden, it’s occurred to a whole industry that they should care about a whole plethora of issues.

I really hope that that happens, and I think, depending on the industry, it will. In footwear, people are wanting to appeal to as many consumers as possible in business. If they’re smart, then this is not only the right thing to do, to think about diversity and to care, it’s also the smartest thing to do from a business sense. It’s pretty straightforward.

People had to get mad and companies had to feel like there was something at stake, something to lose, to actually do something. That’s pretty bad, but I’m with you, hopefully this sparks the change.

I think that leadership needs to change in the sport, because we need people to be thinking about this from a lot of different angles. You can’t have one kind of person making the decisions in any sport, or any endeavor, or any business and think that you’re going to get an authentic, correct, or fresh way to address an issue.

I think you need people who are willing to talk about these things and make them a priority and actively try to sign people and give them reasonable contracts where they can make a living and not feel like they have to hustle and do 15 other things. Give them a really good start so they can see if they can progress under the best circumstances, not under $10,000 a year and good luck with your life. And, “Oh, you didn’t perform? Well we gave you a few years of that and it’s over.”

I know money doesn’t grow on trees and it’s a whole business thing, but if you want to try and see if this could work, if people can do their best, you should probably really give them a fighting chance. You should probably not cut them if they’ve been an amazing athlete for you for years and years, they’ve made it to the Olympics, and they have a baby and want to continue to run. You should probably think about that.

Your former high school, college, and post-collegiate teammate Keira D’Amato just ran 15:04 for a 5,000m time trial at age 35. Did that make you want to dust off your spikes, get out there, and see what you can do?
I definitely felt an extra zing and zip on my run that day. I’m so excited for Keira. We’ve known each other for such a long time that it’s pretty emotional for me to watch this journey that she’s on. Because she’s my sister, she’s my good friend, it just makes my heart soar.

There are so many things that women feel, and people feel, like they should do in a specific order. The running side of me is like that’s freaking incredible, you put yourself in the archives amongst this amazing list of women, at this age, that have done this thing. And then, on the life side, and the friend side, I’m so proud of her. This is what running is about, as far as being an individual sport. This is all Keira. All these things were inside of her all along. She had the right timing and the determination to really make so much of this happen

She’s living her life as a mom, a wife, a family member of a close family, she’s always there for people, and she’s just awesome. I’m so proud of her for thinking, “I care about doing this and I want to try this, so I’m gonna do it.” I feel like women get so many messages to not do that…

I believe that she’s going to break 15:00. I can’t wait until races start bumping back up, because I know that it’s going to happen. Keira is so fast and she always has been. I think she can do whatever she wants in the marathon, but I really think that this 5,000m/10,000m space for her is going to be the best, and she’s just getting started. I think that the strength that she gained from that marathon training is really showing up now.

I got emotional a little bit earlier thinking about some of the things that I kind of tried to not think about during my running career, being a Black woman, but I’m also getting choked up talking about Keira now because it’s just pretty incredible. I’m just really proud of her. I’m really happy for her. And she deserves to just have fun and continue to do whatever she wants to do. It’s so cool.

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Women’s Running Crossword

Julia O’Rourke, a 2019 graduate of Bowdoin College, where she holds a 5,000m school record, recently created a women’s running crossword puzzle, downloadable here, for a friend who was sick. She then modified it for the Bowdoin track & field team’s weekly newsletter, which they began as a way to stay connected when their season abruptly ended and team members spread out all over the country.

O’Rourke thought it might help get more people interested in women’s running, and that they might look into Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky’s cookbooks or a new podcast after seeing clues for those things. “It could maybe spiral into them seeing other facets of the women’s running sphere that I really enjoy,” O’Rourke said.

The puzzle’s answer key is on the fourth page.

womensrunningcrossword

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My case for large Olympic Marathon Trials fields in 2024 and beyond

The primary purpose of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials is to select the three women and three men who will represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games. But the women’s Trials have always included decent-sized fields, with the number of qualifiers ranging from a low of 118 in 1992 to a previous high of 267 in 1984. Though everyone lines up at the Trials technically having a shot at making the Olympic team, for many runners in the field, the race is their Olympic Games.

With 512 women and 260 men qualified for the 2020 race, it raises the question of how inclusive the Trials need to be. No one involved ever intended to have a field this large, so it seems inevitable that the women’s qualifying standard will get tougher in 2024 and beyond. This large Trials race, which has come about via a perfect storm of variables, wasn’t intentional, but it’s going to be wonderful. 

Runners used teamwork, both in person and online, to make it to the Trials, and in the process, they created community around this event like we’ve never seen before. Each runner has a local army of supporters, plus an online following, who will be cheering them on in person or from afar. And most runners have local newspapers and/or TV stations eager to highlight their accomplishments, whether or not they understand the difference between qualifying for the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games. There have never been so many eyes on a U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

Having a relatively easier standard keeps more women in the sport, or lures them back in, and that elevates the entire field. As the Atlanta Track Club’s Jay Holder told Chris Chavez in this episode of the Citius Mag podcast, “Your 2:42 marathoner of today could be your 2:24 marathoner of 2024. If there’s not someone there encouraging and supporting that, then that might not happen.”

Esther Atkins, who became a USA marathon champion and world championships team member, and Samantha (Bluske) Palmer, who is now a 2:29 marathoner, said recently that the goal of qualifying for the Trials helped keep them in the sport. And while the standard wasn’t what initially motivated Roberta Groner, it was one of her goals along the way, and now she, too, is a 2:29 marathoner, as well as the sixth-place finisher from last summer’s World Championships.

Some challenges and context

Many people agree that having a larger field and more attainable standard on the women’s side has done great things for the sport. That part is not particularly controversial. It’s easy for us to sit at our keyboards, however, and say that USATF should always have 500-person fields. But it’s more complicated than that.

I reached out to Mike Scott, who currently serves as the chairman of USA Track & Field’s Long Distance Running (LDR) Division, to help me further understand the factors that go into the USATF LDR committees’ decisions regarding the qualifying standards.

For one, we must consider the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which dictates, among other things, that the qualifying standard for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials can’t be more difficult than the Olympic qualifying standard. That’s how we ended up with a 2:45:00 qualifying time for women this time around. The 2016 Olympic standard was 2:45:00, and when the USATF LDR committee set the 2020 standards, they had no way of knowing the standard would drop to 2:29:30, because it wasn’t announced until March 2019, after the qualifying window had already opened.

Without going into too much detail, the value of a Trials race in future years depends heavily on what World Athletics decides regarding the Olympic qualifying procedures going forward. If they move to a model that depends heavily on world ranking or if our new, tough qualifying standards (2:11:30 men/2:29:30 women) get even tougher, or even if they stay the same, it could lead to a scenario where the first three runners across the finish line at a U.S. Trials race wouldn’t necessarily make the Olympic team. That was a real concern for the 2020 Trials, especially for the men, but after USATF expressed its concern, World Athletics granted our Trials one-time gold label status, which saves the race this time.

If for some reason, the first three runners across the finish line are not guaranteed spots on the Olympic team, that devalues the race for all involved—USATF, the local organizing committee (LOC), and the TV broadcasters, who don’t want to have to explain a convoluted qualifying process to would-be fans. This likely affects just about everything else about the Trials—who is willing to bid to host the race, how much money can be made from the race, who wants to watch it, and who wants to televise it. For that reason, USATF has worked hard to protect that aspect of the Trials, though the decision is ultimately up to World Athletics.

Putting on the Trials is expensive. This document outlines the associated costs, in general terms. We don’t know how much the Atlanta Track Club will pay to host the 2020 event, but according to the linked document, they needed to pay a $100,000 rights fee, spend at least $75,000 to market and publicize the Trials, provide the prize money ($480,000), and cover all the costs associated with putting on a race (security, medical, facilities, hospitality, and so on). USATF requires only that the LOC pay for “A” qualifiers’ travel and lodging, but expecting a much smaller field, the Atlanta Track Club committed to paying for all qualifiers, and that will end up costing them twice as much as they anticipated.

The potential income streams for the LOC, also outlined in the document, aren’t what you might expect, especially because any local sponsors can’t conflict with USATF’s or the USOC’s sponsors. The LOC generally has rights to ticket sales and on-premise food and beverage sales, but there aren’t many tickets to be sold at a marathon.

The bigger the field gets, the more expensive the race gets. Even if all of the B qualifiers cover their own hotel and travel, they still cost the LOC money. I’ve seen people saying things like, “If X can put on a 10,000 person race, surely the LOC and USATF can handle a 1,000-person race.” The major difference, Scott points out, is that the Trials is essentially a marathon with roughly 700 invited athletes. No race has 700 athletes in its professional field, and mass marathons have large fields who pay entry fees and can help offset some of the other costs.

Finally, the larger the field, the tougher the logistics. If anything goes poorly logistically in Atlanta—top athletes missing their bottles, falling, or traffic jams that interfere with the race—it’s going to be harder to make the case for a large field the next time around. Scott points out that not only is there going to be lapping on the Atlanta course, with the men’s and women’s races happening simultaneously, the various vehicles on the course (TV, media, etc.) might have a hard time getting through runner traffic on the narrower roads, especially with long fluid stations narrowing the road.

Potential solutions
Despite the challenges and costs associated with hosting the Olympic Marathon Trials, the OTQ (Olympic Trials qualifying time) has become the BQ (Boston Marathon qualifying time) of our sport’s very elite. It has raised the level of U.S. distance running, especially on the women’s side, and it’s one of the best things the sport has going for it right now. Instead of automatically reverting to the old model of smaller fields, I think it’s worth looking at how USATF and the running community might be able to build on this, or at least keep it going.

I don’t have a fully-formed solution, but here are some thoughts:

  • Go back to holding the men’s and women’s Trials on different dates and in different locations. This means fewer runners total and a more affordable race for each LOC. Challenge: Believe it or not, 2016 was the first year that both the men’s and women’s Trials were on live TV, and I’m told that a big part of the appeal in televising the race was having both races on the same day. But at the same time, it was so much fun when all of the attention was focused on one race at a time.
  • Consider having different levels of tiered perks. Have a tough A standard, which earns athletes hotel, travel, and bottle service. Have a still-tough B standard, where athletes get a place on the starting line, but none of the above perks. And there could even be a C standard, if we want to make the race even more inclusive, where athletes have to pay their own way and pay an entry fee for the race, as they do for most marathons.
  • Offer some level of host family option to a limited number of athletes who can’t afford their own hotels, or offer a financial aid options to athletes who wouldn’t otherwise be able to make the trip.
  • Offer individual donors the opportunity to sponsor a runner’s travel, hotel, and expenses.
  • Hold the race on a course with fewer loops, to make lapping less of an issue. (Scott points out that closing down more miles of road will generally make both the race and the TV broadcast more expensive.)
  • I’m curious if there are other possible funding streams that haven’t yet been considered, like additional companies funding athletes’ Trials participation, and getting credit for it, without somehow conflicting with the USATF/USOC sponsors. It seems like there should be creative ways to involve sponsors in an adjacent manner, without stepping on toes.
  • Hold some type of mass destination race either the day of or the day after that helps cover some of the costs. (Atlanta is already doing this, as have others, but I wonder if there’s even more untapped opportunity there. And again, I wonder if there’s some way to make it feel more Trials adjacent, like calling it Atlanta 2020, or Road to Gold, so that the whole thing feels more brag-worthy and appealing to the masses.)

If you have any creative solutions for making a roughly 1,000 person race (500 men, 500 women) logistically possible and more affordable to the LOC, or other ideas, please let me know.

Scott said that nothing has been decided yet, and no formal discussions will begin until after the 2020 Trials. “The committees will have to examine the totality of whether it’s feasible to have a similar Trials next time—look at bidders, finances, and all those factors,” he said. In the meantime, let’s just appreciate the Atlanta Track Club for taking all of this on, and rolling with the punches when the field size ballooned beyond what anyone imagined.

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What I learned by handling eating disorders and RED-S poorly as a coach

I did some things right during my 13+ years as a high school and college coach, but I also did quite a few things wrong. One of the areas I had the most room for improvement was in how I handled most things related to what we now know as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S, pronounced “reds”).

I went into coaching roughly 18 years ago, pretty well educated on the topic, for the time. But despite coming from a place of awareness, I still didn’t always voice my concerns about eating disorders and RED-S well. I understand why many coaches struggle with it; it’s not an easy topic, and nothing in my many hours of coaching education prepared me for it.

Having been a part of 10 different cross country and/or track & field teams as an athlete or coach, and having known people who were part of countless other programs, I know that eating disorder issues are widespread within collegiate teams. Here’s what I would do differently now, based on what I’ve learned:

I would always proactively discuss eating disorders and RED-S with the entire team
At times, I feared that some of the discussion might make an eating disorder seem like an appealing shortcut to success, so I sometimes addressed my concerns on a case-by-case basis. In doing so, I missed people who needed to hear the same messages. There will be obvious eating disorder and RED-S issues on almost all teams, but a fair amount of it can be more subtle and harder to detect. Knowing what I know now, I would always bring the subject up proactively with the entire team, in an age- and gender-appropriate manner.

In a recent discussion with Kara Bazzi, a former Division I runner and co-founder of Opal: Food+Body Wisdom, she pointed out that silence will only lead to athletes to jump to their own conclusions about where a coach stands on the topic. Bazzi recommends that coaches don’t go too far outside their role; for example, nutrition should be left to a professional. But coaches can give athletes some of the basics, like emphasizing that adequate nutrition, eating frequently, and consuming protein, fats, and carbohydrates are all important. And if student-athletes have further questions, they can explore those with a professional, preferably a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and athletics.

Bazzi says it’s okay to acknowledge that eating disorders might temporarily lead to improved performance, but it’s important to pair that with the information that it will not last very long, and what the long-term consequences of inadequate nutrition are.

“Once you have the felt experience of losing weight and getting better, that felt experience is far more powerful than knowledge and words and people saying, ‘Well you’re going to eventually crash,’ because it’s experiential and it’s really seductive,” Bazzi says. “If you can catch an athlete before they’ve done that, you’re far more likely to have them not go down that path.”

At one of the schools at which I worked, a professional spoke with the team privately, and coaches weren’t allowed in, so that the athletes would feel comfortable asking anything they wanted to know. If I could do that over, I would find out more information about the messages the professional was sharing, so I could work to fill in any gaps, and do a better job of following up on the issues that were addressed.

I would talk to the women and girls about puberty
Bazzi recommends sharing the message that weight gain is to be expected during puberty, and she says that the average weight gain is around 40 pounds. She said coaches can talk about the importance of putting on fat, acknowledging that it will shift the way athletes are moving and feeling in their bodies. Bazzi says coaches can say things like, “This is an exciting thing your body is going through, and it’s meant to be. Let’s see how that shift and those changes, how that interacts with your athlete side. Let’s work with it and not fight against it, because it’s really important that your body is doing it.”

Coaches can emphasize that attempting to fight puberty is a shortsighted approach, which will not lead to the best performance in the long term. And as Lauren Fleshman pointed out in her recent New York Times opinion piece, “It is grown women, not girls, who top the most prestigious podiums. It is grown women in their late 20s and 30s breaking American records. It is American women in their mid-30s winning the Boston and New York marathons. Imagine if we gave more girls a chance to get there.”

I would have a proactive plan in place
Instead of waiting to discover eating disorder and RED-S cases, I would assume they’re going to exist and have a proactive plan in place for how to handle them. That includes having a plan for how to intervene, and knowing exactly which professionals could help on campus or within the local community, and having tiers of options depending on the resources available at the school (since I know resources are very limited in certain communities and programs). I would also ask about how such things are handled and what resources are available during the job interview.

At several schools where I worked, the established protocol was for all such cases to be referred to the athletic trainers. In some situations, that might be a satisfactory route. But in a couple of cases, the athletic trainers were not equipped to handle such things. If I could go back, I’d do more digging to find out what resources were available to the entire student body, and see if there were additional on-campus resources that the student-athlete could use. If the school did not have any such resources, I would look for what’s available within the community, or via telehealth.

I would always intervene right away when I suspected an eating disorder
When I look back on my coaching experience, the thing I regret most is that I did not always intervene immediately when I suspected an eating disorder. I had a long list of excuses. They included:

  • Wanting to be sure before intervening
  • Being certain that the athlete would be in denial
  • Having a head coach tell me they had already handled it and it was under control. In some of these cases, it was apparent it wasn’t, but I felt there was a limit to how much I could contradict my boss. In retrospect, I’d speak up (ideally by convincing the head coaches rather than contradicting them), no matter the cost. I trusted other people to be the experts because they had more years of experience, even when I knew I shouldn’t.
  • Not wanting to step on someone else’s toes (like intervening during the track season when I was only an assistant cross country coach).
  • Sometimes I didn’t intervene soon enough because the athlete was running so well. “Someone can be ill and performing well because, as we know, there’s usually increased performance with inadequate eating initially, temporarily, then some of the RED-S symptoms really start to show up,” Bazzi told me. It’s not easy to put the breaks on when an athlete is winning, having the best season of their life, and appears to be getting away with their detrimental habits. But it’s important.

It’s surprisingly easy to make excuses and avoid the conflict, but within a team, nothing is more important than the physical and mental health of the student-athletes. And when it comes to eating disorders, early intervention is important.

I would intervene differently
When I did intervene, I didn’t always do it well. Bazzi recommends having such conversations in a private location, when you’re not rushed, and she says curiosity is key in not eliciting defensiveness.

“You might state some observables,” Bazzi says. “‘I’ve been noticing that X, Y, and Z are happening. What’s that about? How are you doing? I’ve been wondering about you and am kind of concerned.’” (X, Y, and Z might be any of the items from the list at the bottom of this piece.)

She says if the student-athlete is prickly and defensive, that might be a sign that you’ve hit on something that is true. If they deny it, the door has at least been opened, and you can always try again later. If they do open up, having a next step ready is important, whether that’s asking how to support them, what it means for their experience on the team, or asking whether they’re open to receiving help.

Bazzi says that if you’re really worried about the athlete’s health, that’s when you might need to wield your power as a coach and set participation boundaries, ideally with the support of medical professionals.

I would model the behavior I wanted to see
It doesn’t matter what kind of messages you are trying to convey if your actions send a different message. Bazzi says that coaches need to look at their own beliefs and biases around food, weight, and performance, and understand where they’re coming from. If a coach says eating protein, fat, and carbs is important, but follows a low-carb diet, that sends a message.

I would also look to team members to model the same kind of behavior. If the top runners on the team bring their own food to meals or refuse to eat at the same restaurants as the rest of the team, their teammates will likely get the subtle message that that’s what it takes to be successful.

In this episode of her podcast (around the 34:00 mark), Olympian Carrie Tollefson talks about being recruited by Villanova coach Gina Procaccio, who was a reigning U.S. 5,000m champion at the time. All these years later, Tollefson still remembers Procaccio eating a hearty meal during her recruiting process. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, if my coach eats like that and she runs [that fast], that’s who I want to coach me.”

I wouldn’t make disparaging remarks about my own body, and I would do my best to avoid comments that suggest that certain foods are bad or good. (I’ve been working on this lately in general, and it’s harder than I would have expected, especially when talking to kids.) Bazzi points out that athletes can take information out of context and run with it. Bazzi says a safer approach is to work on developing body knowledge and understanding how certain foods make one’s body feel and perform.

I would be more aware and concerned about eating disorders in people with bodies of all sizes, as well as in men
Bazzi says that eating disorders don’t discriminate with body shape, so someone could be in a “normal” or larger sized body and be very ill. Regardless of body size, Bazzi says some of the signs to look out for include:
-Weight loss or gain
-Preoccupation with food
-Compulsive training, including putting oneself in dangerous situations to get in training
-Training more than the coaches recommend
-Avoiding food-related social activities
-Strange eating behaviors
-Difficulty completing workouts (though this could be attributed to any number of things)
-Anxiety when they can’t practice
-Avoiding dressing in front of people
-Resistance if there is a recommendation for weight restoration
-Negative body comments
-Secretly eating, hiding, or stealing food
-Social withdrawal from teammates
-Frequently weighing oneself
-Avoiding water or excessive water intake

Since Mary Cain came out with her New York Times Op-Ed in November, I’ve seen quite a few coaches discussing what they do within their teams to avoid eating disorders and RED-S. Some of them have made comments that suggest they have it all figured out and don’t have any issues on their team. While that’s possible, it’s statistically unlikely, especially when dealing with distance runners. 

If I could go back, or if I ever coach teams again, I will be more prepared. And in the meantime, I hope that each organization that hands out coaching certifications in this country is working to build more of this kind of information into their coaching education.

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All-Time NCAA Women’s Distance Performances

Rich Ceronie is compiling all-time NCAA women’s distance performance lists for runners who have met the following marks:

Indoor Track
800m: 2:05.00
Mile: 4:38.00
3,000m: 9:10.00
5,000m: 16:00.00
DMR: 11:02.00

Outdoor Track
800m: 2:03.00
1500m: 4:15.00
Steeplechase: 10:00.00
5,000m: 16:00.00
10,000m: 33:10.00

The document is a work in progress. If you see any missing marks, please reach out to him with corrections.

Full-Revised-Collegiate-Rankings-Green