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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

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When Opinion Is News, What Are the Requirements?

By Sarah Lorge Butler

My initial reaction to the Mary Cain video—as a runner, a mother, a human—was shock. Cain endured some terrible treatment, and she is brave to have spoken out. 

When I watch it as a journalist, I’m perplexed. Why wasn’t the piece in the sports section, with a thorough investigation of all the parts of the story and corroborating accounts from various witnesses? Why wasn’t it a news story? 

Instead, the piece is part of an “Opinion video series.” As an opinion, it does not have a full accounting of the facts of Cain’s allegations. It omits a lot: who saw her cutting herself, where and when she sustained broken bones, which high school and junior records she set. The piece just says she set national records. The video’s final panel reads, “In an email, Alberto Salazar denied many of Mary Cain’s claims, and said he had supported her health and welfare.”

What claims specifically did Salazar deny? Many of them? Does that mean he agreed with some of them? If so, which ones? 

This much is certain: Even though the video is labeled “opinion,” it is news in the running world. So what are the journalistic standards when a piece is both opinion and news? 

The questions only multiplied with Nike’s statement that Cain had tried to rejoin the NOP in April. Did the Times know this when they published the video? If so, why did they leave that piece of information out? Including it would not have lessened the power of Cain’s allegations. 

On Twitter, runners past and present were speaking out in support of Cain and backing up her accounts. Typically those sorts of comments would be quoted in a news article; they wouldn’t turn up on social media later. 

Are running issues relegated to opinion, because the sports pages are full with news from the Giants, Jets, Knicks, and Nets? Entirely possible. I’d love to know more. But in a strange twist, the Times did cover Cain’s allegations in a news article on Friday. So the sports department reported on a piece its own opinion pages produced. Why doesn’t sports just cut out the middle step and hire Lindsay Crouse, who produced the video, as a sports reporter? 

This may seem to be missing the point. Mary Cain was treated badly; that much seems certain. But her claims could have been more credible with a full investigation behind them. 

The Times provides on a daily basis examples of how to thoroughly report on controversial topics in news, which makes this all the more confusing.  

I recently listened to a podcast with the two Times reporters, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who won a Pulitzer Prize for their work in breaking the Harvey Weinstein story. They were on Fresh Air with Terry Gross on September 10 in a segment called ”Behind the Scenes of the Weinstein Investigation.” 

In the final question of the podcast (at 39:00), Gross says, “Between the two of you, you’ve reported on so many sexual harassment and sexual assault stories, including Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, Jeffrey Epstein. But one of the things you don’t like is the catch phrase, ‘Believe women.’ I want you to explain why.” 

Kantor replies, “Actually, the spirit of that imperative is one of our lodestars. Megan and I have devoted our careers, separately and now together, to documenting women’s stories and putting them into the paper. So we do in many ways want to live and work in the spirit of that statement. 

“But there’s a conflicting impetus in journalism which is that everything needs to be scrutinized, everything needs to be checked. We believe the really solid, well-documented reporting protects women. So we have found that in our work, and we’re only speaking for ourselves and the kind of work we do, the best way to get people to believe women is to document those women’s stories really thoroughly.”

I believe Mary Cain. I don’t know if everyone will. Maybe a thorough investigation would have convinced more people.  

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About Fast Women

From 2000 to 2006, I operated a website called fast-women.com, which focused on women’s competitive middle-distance and distance running and was hosted and funded by New York Road Runners. After 2006, I continued to cover women’s running, but it eventually took a back seat to my other pursuits in the running industry.

I always missed it, but I loved the other things I was doing as well. And all along, I fully expected that someone else would take up the mantle and operate a similar website. I might feel a little sad that I wasn’t involved, but I’d be thankful for the coverage.

But all these years later, while there are more people than ever providing amazing coverage of the sport, I’m a bit surprised that no ever created an online resource that solely focused on women’s competitive running in the U.S. .

In thinking about my return to focusing on women’s competitive running, I decided that I might be able to help fans of women’s running more by focusing on consolidation of the existing content. I wanted people who are enthusiastic fans (or potential enthusiastic fans) of women’s competitive running to be able to follow the sport in depth without spending so much time hunting for information. And that’s how the Fast Women newsletter came to be (with many nudges from my editor, Sarah Lorge Butler in the preceding year), at the start of 2019. The original domain now belongs to a kayaking club in Indonesia, so fast-women.org it is.

As a lifelong fan of women’s distance running, I’ve always wished that I could nerd out with more people over the latest news in the sport. Through this newsletter, I hope to find the existing running nerds, and help convert more of you. (Don’t worry, it’s a good thing, I promise!) When the runners in the pack learn about the runners up front, they can glean information they can apply to their own running, get a big dose of inspiration, and they often learn that they have more in common with the pros than they imagined.

For weekly updates, and nothing more, you can subscribe to the Fast Women newsletter here.

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Why so many fast women?

Women’s Running published an article last week about why there are so many “fast women” (specifically in the marathon, in the U.S.) right now, and not surprisingly, I have opinions about this.

First I’ll go through their points, then add a few more.

It’s a generational thing. They point out that those who are reaching their prime today grew up after 1984, when Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first Olympic marathon for women. That is true, but it’s been true for a while now. I think in general, the farther we get from the more sexist ways of our past, the more women’s sports are going to thrive.

There’s still a lot of room for growth, and I see this all the time as a parent—boys still dominating sports on the playground, and more sports-themed onesies for boys. There will continue to be room for growth in all sports until women’s sports get as much coverage and fan support as men’s sports.

More successful female role models. I agree with this. There’s no question, for instance, that Shalane Flanagan and Des Linden’s major marathon victories inspired many women of all abilities, and success is contagious.

Big goals and the means to achieve them. The article specifically mentions Boston qualifying and Olympic Trials qualifying standards, but I disagree that that’s led to any sort of change, because those standards have been around for a long time. I do think more people want to achieve them now, partially because more are aware of them (thanks in part to social media), and there’s no question that the Boston Marathon’s popularity increased after the events of 2013.

Social media. This is true across the board, at all levels of running. It’s allowed for more information sharing about training, gear, fuel, coaches, etc. It also allows a firsthand look at what it takes to be great. You see more recreational runners than ever adopting the habits of the pros—Normatec boots, Maurten, Vaporflys, cryotherapy—it’s a dream-come-true for the people trying to sell these products. But also, when you see that someone else is getting up at 4:30 a.m. or running 100 miles per week to make their dream happen, you see that it’s possible.

Teamwork. This is true at all levels, and social media has helped connect women with similar training goals. At the professional level, there are more teams for women than ever before (but there’s room for growth there too—some top teams currently have small women’s rosters or no women).

On top of that, the pros have learned to work together. With the revival of training groups around 2000, the early word was that some coaches were finding that pro women could only train together if they competed in different events or were from different countries, which has since been proven untrue many times over.

If you haven’t read Lindsay Crouse’s 2017 article about the “Shalane Flanagan Effect,” it’s a great outline of how this has worked. Flanagan was not the first female runner to figure this out, but she was one of the more prominent ones to do so, and the ripple effect has been huge.

Now here’s what I would add:

Technology. I don’t think the role of technology can be discounted. I’d love to see what Joan Benoit Samuelson (who ran 2:21:21) could have run in the marathon in her peak wearing Nike Vaporflys, fueling with Maurten, sleeping in an altitude tent, and coming back from injury with the help of an Alter-G or underwater treadmill. Heck, even modern fabrics might have helped her.

We also know more about how to train than ever before. Altitude isn’t exactly technology, but with the rise of groups and funding for those groups, more pro women are spending at least part of their year training at altitude.

A crackdown on doping. At the highest levels, drug use has been rampant in women’s running since before women were running long distance at the Olympic Games. With the drug bust of Rita Jeptoo in 2014 came more awareness of the fact that drug testing was inadequate or nonexistent in some countries.

Next came the discovery of systemic doping in Russia, which has disproportionately affected women’s running. And then came the news that not only were athletes doping, but our sport’s governing body was aware of it and accepting bribes from athletes to keep it under wraps. So the U.S.’s best athletes are currently having more success at the highest levels partially because the sport has been cleaned up somewhat (though there’s still work to do, and Americans cheat sometimes too).

Improved nutrition, healthier runners. One of Flanagan’s (and Elise Kopecky’s) biggest contributions to running is their cookbooks. I remember eating dinner with a handful of the fastest women in the U.S. after they competed in an event in the early 2000s. I was disappointed that all of them ordered very light meals, as if they were afraid to eat too much, or at least afraid to have their competition see them doing so.

But since then, the focus has shifted from low-fat/low-calorie to fueling one’s body well. With her cookbooks, Flanagan has provided a detailed guide on how to do this, and the word has spread that a well nourished runner is a healthier and faster runner.

The talent has always been there, now the opportunities are growing. As legendary coach Arthur Lydiard said long ago, “Champions are everywhere.” The more I coach, the more I see this at all ages. So many women who think they are slow or average runners have just never really learned to train properly, or have never done enough of it to get a sense of their potential.

There have been many U.S. women with a lot of running talent for a long time now, but now, more than ever, that talent is mixing with desire, opportunity, time, support, and direction, and the results are inspiring.