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  • Sheridan Wilbur

Dear Duke: No Rest, No Renewal

Promise of a cross country championship season laid on the horizon. As a recent grad, I sensed the sting for my former teammates when Mark Emmert, president of the N.C.A.A., announced in August this year’s national championships would be postponed. Almost everyone, postgrads included, adjusted to a different connection. I gave kudos through an app. Long runs and bike workouts turned into a notification. Thanks to Strava, they became a jolt of motivation— but his decision was sad. It was not surprising, given an ever-lasting coronavirus season. Emmert’s call to hang up racing spikes made my heart break. The disappointment felt unfamiliar.

Back in March, my thirty-second season stopped before it started. I let out a sigh. My coaches and I never had to see each other again.

"It is often taboo to talk about weight next to performance."

Last winter, we raced the first indoor meet to bust the rust. I came in third overall in the race, out of a field of twenty two runners, but walked away with a neutral feeling. No sunshine that comes after a PR nor the internal criticism and blues upon a loss. Our assistant coach drove a van full of sweaty runners back to campus. As we drove home, I made an intention to train with better habits.

On the drive, my assistant coach and I talked about Lauren Fleshman’s piece, “I Changed My Body for My Sport. No Girl Should.” Fleshman, a former pro runner, shared what her younger self thought it took to be successful. She studied her strengths and weaknesses. She had increased training, restricted eating and committed to overcome what held her back. She admitted she had modeled habits after leaner women she watched in the Olympics. Weight fell off. She got faster. Until she didn’t.

Our conversation about an elite’s habits hit hard. My assistant coach said, “You have to change your body for your sport.” Anxiety crept in. Fleshman changed her body and lost her period. She wrote to us, readers, “injuries set in.” They interrupted the first half of her professional running career. The night before this meet, I had eaten dessert. I had watched a movie with a teammate and went to bed around midnight. For the sake of balance, my night was intentional to feel calm. Choices I made became challenged but I wanted to understand through his eyes. The coach’s view affects runners’ careers and relationships with their bodies and my assistant coach’s shared perspective is an example. I committed to listen carefully to why he disagreed with her title and to keep an open mind. Teammates in the van kept their ears open. His beliefs mattered. He was an assistant coach on Fleshman’s team before he came to Duke.

About a month earlier, Mary Cain had brought abuse from Alberto Salazar into the spotlight. The former pro runner revealed her former coach’s notorious training methods. As I sat in the passenger seat, I brought this instance to him and aimed to avoid a news recap everyone in the running world already knew. She exposed Nike Oregon Project’s demands for her to lose weight in order to improve performance. My assistant coach said, “Cain was not a good fit for the intensity Salazar brings.” I remembered, as a sixteen year old, I had stood in awe when Cain, then also sixteen years old, had earned two American high school records. At the same meet, I ran a PR I was proud of, a fairly impressive time for a high schooler, but she could have run laps around every athlete in my heat. Cain proved breaking any record was possible. I noticed my instinct to defend her to my assistant coach.

It is often taboo to talk about weight next to performance. It is more accepted to associate wellbeing and performances from running, with coaches themselves. Those in authority have the chance to be honored with ethical conduct by athletes or even holiness, out of respect for the coach-athlete relationship. While all genders of coaches need to be trained on the problem of prioritizing weight before wellness, my assistant coach never recognized the gender bias in our coach-athlete relationship. He said, “your body naturally changes the harder you train.” He ignored obvious and harmful patterns of behavior seen throughout the running community and focused on the literal fact that the cellular makeup of the body changes in response to exercise, without a mention that running on fumes alters the functioning of your brain. I looked at the periphery of my younger self as we spoke, trying not to take what he said personally.

It felt like someone touched a scab I had nearly healed then began to pick at it. I opened the conversation but asked him to close what felt like a mini-lecture. It sounded like, to him, an athlete was made of fast and slow twitch muscles, tibias and hip flexors— what an athlete’s body did was its core value. My perspective came from the human within it. My past experience with Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) calcified. Being misunderstood was something to accept, invisibility was harder to deal with. His perspective in the driver's seat, shortsighted the range of women who sat in the van and heard. I sat next to him in the passenger seat and getting teary, looked out the window. Silence responded when I did not; friction simmered between us. There was another hour left. Music played in my headphones. We arrived on campus together then did not talk for months, only when we had to.

"RED-S is a medical condition. A blaring sign that women are in poor health."

More than half of female distance runners have RED-S or the Female-Athlete-Triad. They are symptoms. Not the cause of a broken system. RED-S happens when women operate in a short or long-term energy deficit. Athletes who develop RED-S often do not eat enough to fuel their energy needs for training, daily existing and vital functions. Or their exercise energy expenditure is too high. Their lack of fuel often leads to injuries or illness, a lost or missed period and low bone density. They are at risk to develop osteoporosis. RED-S is a medical condition. A blaring sign that women are in poor health.

Laws of physics prove lighter body mass is easier to carry. RED-S proves 'lighter' is not always better. Due to women’s menstrual cycle, our hormones change in cyclical patterns. We have different regulatory hormones than men. People may try to apply physiology about men to women. We cannot get faster in a sustainable way through a debt of energy. Research on female athlete physiology lacks. This is not an excuse. Women often experience a performance dip (or plateau) and weight fluctuations during puberty. This is natural. Grown women, not young girls, are the ones who usually break long distance records. Unlike men, women improve on a non linear path. Our bodies do not always change as a result of training. When coaches suggest otherwise, it becomes easier to place blame inside and hear “not intense enough.”

Last spring, outdoor track was expected to start. I went to the office where both of my coaches have a seat, for our preseason meeting. My head coach asked what goals I wanted to set. My assistant coach sat in his desk chair and she stayed to my right, in hers. I sat on a black leather couch directly across from him. They stared at my furrowed brow. Pain after the fracture in my relationship with my assistant coach clouded my focus. The only goal I could think of was to train in a supportive environment. Instead of mileage plans, I faced the ride in the van.

I kept my back straight and held eye contact, then told myself to relax. His response to Fleshman and Cain’s stories hurt, but was dangerous to impressionable young athletes. My past experience with RED-S happened long enough before. I shared my point of view now with my coaches, to reveal blind spots before they coach the next generation of women. I said when I “changed my body for my sport” in their office, so they heard “why no girl should.”

I am not blaming them. Athletes are intrinsically motivated. At earlier points in my career, I see why I controlled what I could, to perform at my best. “Discipline is what it takes to be ‘great,’” my younger self said. In pursuit of PRs and improvement, I ate clean, opted in to extra workouts, had cold showers and went to bed early. No one held me back from choices I made in earnest. They sounded healthy.

A stress reaction in the longest and strongest bone in my body became a reason to rest. I began to understand my responsibility to heal. Athletic trainers and physical therapists guided me to recover and rebuild my strength. The period I had lost returned. Bone density levels increased to normal and the next season, I stood on the line at ACCs. Unlike that stress injury, the injury in my mind was harder to detect. Psychologists and meditation invited me to study mental health like physical health. It took empathy, concern from others and a closer look at myself. Self-awareness and agency replaced my mind’s injury— to hear from within that I am enough. This does not have the same linear progression. The way out of RED-S requires attention and self-compassion every day.

My head coach admitted she received a call from my assistant coach after the van ride. Neither of them said much more. They are not bad people. I lost more than my final season. I was unable to meet their expectations for outdoor, they were unable to identify with my struggle and provide support I needed.

In two different studies, the majority of coaches were unable to identify the three parts of the Female Athlete Triad. Confronting why some believe lightness is required to run faster may force us to admit we have no adequate response to being uninformed. When flaws rather than virtues bring life to women’s distance running, the system breaks.

What now?

Coaches make a convenient target. I forgive mine without forgetting. Recent scandals remind us that there remains cause for concern in running culture. While we wait for races to resume, I ask everyone to think as hard as they train.

The coach’s job, unlike the doctor or parent, is to guide athletes’ towards health and performance success. Coaches should support and protect in the face of RED-S. They do not have to know everything. Athletes have a responsibility to discern between coach and coachable points. As people who continue to work with athletes during the pandemic, they have a unique look into their lives. Coaches should know enough to tell athletes that proper fueling is important and point them towards a qualified resource, a registered dietitian. They should know enough to detect mental health patterns and lead them to make regular appointments with psychologists. No athlete should suffer in silence, under the authority of coaches.

The plot extends to the N.C.A.A., who publishes an annual code of ethics. When the N.C.A.A. and universities follow this, they do not fire coaches because they do not win a championship. That relieves pressure on coaches to put pressure on athletes. Universities can create their own individual policies that can be impactful. We need to guide each other through ebbs and flows. Before members of authority wield unhinged power. Before Emmert grants eligibility to compete.

A self-described “recovering professional athlete,” Fleshman let go of her role. She now coaches. An athlete on her team said, “we state our own needs and they’re accepted and heard.” It starts there.

Renewal comes from paying attention to body and mind, not working against it.

A body in motion, stays in motion. Pandemic or not.

Voices that say “leaner means faster” are easier to let go.

The way we narrate our lives changes how we live them. And now here I am remembering to say that to my students, when I teach mindfulness workshops. Running goes off script. “What am I training for?” There are no races on the calendar, mileage plans, scales or coaches to tell me what to do.

People still ask me, “why do you run?”

I answer for the same reason. Because I want to.

- Sheridan Wilbur

If you want to read more about these issues:

(Photo Credits: Duke Athletics and Sheridan Wilbur)


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