by Tom Chobot
This article is submitted to coincide with INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY, March 8th, and is intended to address several topics related to female runners including safety, body development, and simply acquiring a healthy and passionate love for running in a way that works for women and girls. Please bear with me if I seem to jump around as they are all interconnected.
For decades, I would run through the hills of Pennsylvania, sometimes with a group, but mostly by myself, without a care in the world, the least of which for my personal safety. As a guy with a little bit of meat on him and carrying no valuables, I just figured that the bad guys wouldn’t waste their time on me. If I couldn’t hold my own, I could probably outrun them anyway. For my wife, daughter, and every other female runner that I know (and don’t know), the harsh reality is that they run in a different world than I am used to. Like a gazelle on the African Plains, they must always be vigilant. They choose their routes and schedules wisely, and run with a partner or group whenever they can. Last fall in Tennessee, Eliza Fletcher’s life violently and tragically ended during an early morning run at a time and place that she felt safe. Her story received an abundance of media coverage and sent shock waves through the running community. A few weeks later, we heard nothing.
Lecturing runners about personal safety is preaching to the choir. We are well aware of the risks and hazards of our passion for both men and women. We constantly discuss the issues among ourselves, and watch each other’s backs. Some might even argue that this is the most important benefit of belonging to a running club.
There was another story in the news about the same time that barely got noticed. Dina Asher-Smith, a British sprinter, had just lost a major race because of cramps. In her interview, she blamed her performance on “girl stuff” and proclaimed that more research needs to be done on how female specific physiology affects athletic performance. Nearly all of the news outlets simply quoted her as saying she had calf cramps and left it at that.
Notice the contrast between the two stories. Eliza could have been any one of us. Dina, on the other hand, was dealing with something that only concerns her gender. Hence, her appeal was all but completely ignored. This of course is generally par for the course and adult female runners have learned to limit their discussions to within their own gender or figure things out on their own. To be fair, there is plenty of published material out there (mostly written by females) to educate women on how to work with their physiology as they train and compete. Guys generally stay out of the conversations. Some because it doesn’t affect them. Others, out of respect for women’s privacy and dignity, and are just trying to be gentlemen. Most because society has programed us not to talk about that stuff, so we, including many coaches–both male and female–avoid the subject like the plague.
Female (and male for that matter) runners who are beyond the college years seemed to have adjusted or at least accepted the fact that things probably won’t change any time soon. It’s a whole different ball game with regard to adolescent and teen girls, and college-age women on multiple levels (those who are still going through developmental stages). There are many physiological, psychological, emotional, biological, metabolical (you name it) differences between females who are older than their lower twenties and those who are younger. The most critical is bone development, as it tends to end in one’s early twenties. What they have by this time is what they get. If adequate and healthy development has not occurred by then, the door is open to a wealth of bone issues in mid-life and beyond including osteoporosis or other variations. Bringing it closer to home, I wonder how many women within our own club have lost interest in running because of aches and pains they have accepted as part of the aging process, when in reality, it was because of how they trained during their developmental years.
Taking it a step further, as girls go through their teens, bone development, female physiology, and diet are more closely related and interconnected. So, for example, a 15-year-old girl (who is already fit) is told by someone (friend, parent, coach) that if she loses a few pounds, she could be faster. She attempts to do so on her own. She ultimately becomes undernourished and under-fueled. This leads to physiological dysfunction, which leads to less-than-ideal bone development at the most critical time in her life (the Female Athlete Triad or RED-S). It’s much more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
Bottom line, training and coaching strategy become a balancing act between short term versus long term objectives. Sure, we can make them faster for awhile, and the temptation is always there, but at what cost? To be fair, most coaches work very hard at finding that balance, but they can’t always control the societal and cultural pressures that come with the “win-at-all-costs” mentality we are surrounded by. On top of all that, think about the 16-year-old girl who is being considered for a full-ride scholarship at the college of her dreams (one that her family couldn’t possibly afford) …IF…she performs at a certain level. These are not highly paid professional athletes. These are children in the middle of their most critical phase of growth and development. How easily we forget that when money becomes part of the equation.
I learned all this through trial by fire when I took a position as the assistant coach of our school’s girls cross country team 16 years ago. Years later, I eventually became the head coach after spending a few years with the junior high team as well. The thought of coaching young people became a goal once we became empty nesters. My feeling was that when you invest a lifetime into your passion, whatever it is, what good is it if you don’t share it with anyone? I went into it with one goal – share my love for our sport with the next generation. In that short time, I came up with more questions as to how to accomplish this than I had answers – more problems than I could fix. Performance-wise, they did great. Still there are questions I couldn’t answer that continued to keep me awake at night. How can I keep them healthy and uninjured? How can I keep them happy and proud of themselves and see their steady progression? How can I instill my own passion into them and get them to see that running can improve their quality of life for the rest of their life? How can I retain them so they stay with it, and help them navigate through the endless list of obstacles, some gender-specific and some not, as they go through their high school years. All this while getting them to reach their potential, be competitively successful, and satisfy the pressures from parents, peers, school, and society to perform. Many of them were successes. They did well in school and continue to run today. Far too many did not. For the girls with whom I directly worked, that’s on me, at least in my own mind. But these problems aren’t isolated to one coach or one school. They are systemic, far-reaching, and societal.
Our teams had many successes, and I was fortunate enough to get plenty of positive support from parents, yet the most common complaint I got was that we weren’t pushing the girls hard enough. One mom told me how she was pushed a lot harder as well as encouraged to watch her weight and diet during her high school years, and she didn’t have any problems. Now in her early forties, she still runs recreationally, but no longer races. When I asked her why not, she said, “Oh, my knees are shot”. It was the way she said it, as if it was perfectly normal and expected for female runners to retire from competitive running by age 40, like an NFL player. I don’t need to tell you how many women in our own club have proven how incorrect this notion is.
Nothing scares me more than the dad who is jumping out of his skin because his 11-year-old daughter just won a race. When he says, “You made me so proud today,” what she hears is, “If you perform well, you’ll get my love and approval.” In 2 years when she is no longer beating the boys she once did, how do you think she is going to feel? Often, young athletes are taken out for ice cream or dinner because they ran well. Perhaps they should be taken out because they RAN. This is where it starts. And, we need to talk about it. Clubs are the leading edge of the running community. Whatever we do, the rest will follow.
There was a 7th grade girl on our junior high track team who was showing some real potential. She was already exceptionally thin even for her age, but she loved running and her dad had stars in his eyes. At one meet, she didn’t win the mile and her dad, a big gruff man, was clearly not happy with her. As he was talking to her privately along the fence, it was clearly evident that he was voicing his displeasure over her performance. As everyone was leaving, he made her go out on the track and run the mile again to better her time. She stayed with track and cross country right up to graduation, but hardly ever competed as she was almost continuously injured.
I have personally spoken with countless women in our club who are thriving now, but didn’t have the high school or college experience that they had dreamed of. Some even stopped running for years. Even some men in our group have done the same thing, telling me that they got burned out in high school and didn’t acquire a true love for running until after they joined the club.
One lady I know, now in her 50s, has struggled her whole life with bone issues, depression, addiction, you name it. An elite runner and fierce competitor in her prime, she shared with me that at one point, she went 6 years during her late teens and early 20s without her female cycle. She said no one ever told her it was a problem.
What are the root causes? There are as many theories as there are people, but probably the most general and widely accepted one is that most sports and their respective training techniques are designed around the attributes of males. Girls generally are athletically on the same level as the boys before puberty, but once the onset hits, Mother Nature takes them on very different paths. However, society stubbornly can’t seem to wrap its head around that concept. In other words, sports are still predominately a male’s world, and we keep trying to fit girls into it. It’s not just the coaching; it’s society as a whole. It’s the peer pressure and body shaming. It’s the expectation that girls will progress linearly just like the boys. It’s the assumption that girls will become leaner, stronger, and faster in proportion to their efforts and work. Even the best coaches who truly understand how to work with girls can’t control everything. I’ve seen it all. I’ve heard spectators, peers, even parents talking about a girl who “choked” because of “female issues” as if that were a hinderance or weakness. We avoid discussion about female specific functionality as if it didn’t exist, yet there are still far too many girls who fall victim to Amenorrhea, Female Athlete Triad, RED-S, undiagnosed anorexia, anemia, or other gender-related concerns. Never heard of these terms? My point exactly. I could go on and on, but all these examples beg the question, “How can we say that we’re doing it right?”
This brings us to the whole point of this writing. How do we bring young girls into the wonderful world of running and keep them? Is this a club concern? It is if we want to think about the future of it.
So, what can we do about it?
Everything starts with education and dialogue. We have plenty of members with young children. We also have members who may choose to coach one day as I did. They need to be mentored BEFORE the girls under their care acquire an interest in running. We need adults who view things from THEIR perspective–their hopes and dreams as well their attributes and limitations–as opposed to lumping both genders together. A program called GIRLS ON THE RUN for elementary-age girls might be on to something. Their emphasis is on building confidence and self-esteem through running while also making running fun. I have often wondered why we can’t continue that philosophy all the way through.
In the summer before my last year as a coach, I tried something that didn’t necessarily sit well with everyone. We called it “Ladies night out”; a panel discussion where the audience was our team and their moms, our (female) assistant coach, and the (female) athletic trainer. The panel was made up of a nutritionist, a PA with specialization in orthopedics, a licensed counselor, and an accomplished local runner who had her share of struggles in high school. All of them were females and current runners. There were two rules: there would be no males in the room, and all discussions would be directly related to the teen female distance runner. The attendance was modest at best, but those who were there expressed plenty of appreciation and approval. Audrey, our trainer, told me enthusiastically, “Tom, we need more of this!” A few dads expressed some resistance, but most didn’t seem to care or didn’t see any value to it. I don’t know if this practice was continued, but I have great respect for the coach who followed me. He and I thought very much alike.
To the club’s credit, the membership has been very supportive in many ways, probably more than they realize. In 2009, Phil Lechner (a junior high coach himself), my wife Gwyn, and I approached the club about supporting an annual Berks Junior High all-county cross country championship race. The emphasis would be to give the kids a first-class event with a well-designed course, along with a festive atmosphere and tons of awards. In most dual meets in junior high, the girls and boys run together. In this specific race, we have separate races for the boys and the girls – giving the girls their own race to compete against their peers. The club instantly embraced the idea and has supported the race ever since. To this day, the runners and the coaches will tell you that it is the highlight of their season. More importantly, we are giving them a reason to fall in love with running and that’s the whole idea.
There is much more to be done, but as I said before, everything starts with discussion. Just as in politics, it’s a long slow process to change people’s thinking and attitudes. Before we can fix anything, we must first bring things to light. I’m not asking members to do anything. I’m asking you to think about it and talk about it. The next generation of runners, male and female, are counting on us.
In the essence of space, I’m not listing my references here, but I will gladly share a mountain of books, articles, and other materials to support my claims with anyone who asks.
See you on the trail.