The most famous “great young American female runner” was probably “little” Mary Decker, so nick-named because when first burst onto the international stage she was an 85-pound 14 year old setting world records, running 2:02 for the 800 and beating Soviets (see above photo). Nobody really knew how to handle her development as a runner: It was tough to deny her the chance to compete when she was among the world’s best, but a lot of people felt a bit strange at watching somebody so young, and so small, push her body to the limit (not to mention her mind – she once was upset during a relay when she thought a Soviet runner cut in too quickly, so Decker threw the baton at her and started crying). Other athletes were more up front about how much she should be running (quotes from an article that came out when she was 15): Steve Prefontaine: “Her future could go up in smoke if she’s pushed too hard. I couldn’t believe her training schedule. She could become so sick of running that she’ll want to retire at 18.” Hammer thrower George Frenn: “You’re going to burn yourself out. You can only take so much out of the cash register without going bankrupt.” Mary Decker: “I don’t believe people burn out physically, they burn out mentally. Right now, track is 99% of my life. I’ve set myself goals in it. I want to break two minutes in the half mile, and I want to win a gold medal in the 800 meters at the Olympics.”
But here’s the thing, people do burn out physically – among them, Mary Decker. She spent basically her entire college and early professional career in immense amounts of physical pain from running too much. As per my high school coach’s claim that “After [female runners] hit puberty, it’s kind of a toss-up,” Decker herself probably said it best: “I grew from five feet and 90 pounds in late ’73 to 5’6″ and 115 by the beginning of ’75…I didn’t know what to do with all this body I had. I mean in my running. My stride changed. My center of gravity changed. The stresses were different. I was ripe to get hurt.”
Ultimately she had a few surgeries that helped temporarily ease her pain (recommended to her by the fantastically monikered Kiwi, Dick Quax), and did reach some high highs in her ‘later’ career (most impressively in the 1983 world championships, where she won the 1500-3000 double, though she also tested positive for testosterone in 1996, so…). Now, if she’s remembered for anything, it’s either as an early-blooming starlet who burned out too quickly, or as the distraught runner off the track after her collision with Zola Budd in the 1984 3000 meters.* Since Decker’s 1999 retirement, she’s had more than 30 orthopedic procedures in the hopes that she can run normally and naturally again. She can now run every other day.
In the 2008 olympic trials, Jordan Hasay jumped on the scene as a 16-year-old, running a then American HS record in the 1500 meters to qualify for the final. The crowd chanted for her to come to Oregon. She did. She’s run well since she got there, though perhaps hasn’t been the overall worldbeater everybody assumed she would be. She seems to have actually become a fairly mature runner with some interesting insights into the general process of running. The issue of young running phenoms is back in the news now that Mary Cain is starting to lay waste to some of the adult fields in her races.
But then how young is too young? What if there were two fairly good runners who were 12 and 10? When do we know that “Self-motivation” is actually that, and not “Pressure from parents”
It’s a tough question, and there are a lot of complicating factors, namely:
- Hasay and Decker both first hit it big when they were significantly smaller than the adults they were competing against. Decker tried to continue with high mileage while her body was changing, which was problematic. Hasay still has basically the same body she always has (quite light). Cain looks like an adult. Big difference. Cain can throw elbows to win races if she needs to (and has, see above), whereas the smaller runners can’t. Hasay still gives up time and distance to avoid contact — often running in lane 2 or 3 for a lot of the race.
- Athletes whose parents are too pushy often think that their reasons for running are their own, but, looking back on it, recognize that they were pushed to do too much too soon by overbearing parents. Decker included (in her case it was also a coach, though).
- Eating disorders and disordered eating (both, I guess?). This is the giant elephant in the corner. Let’s talk about it, because people usually don’t:
- The line between “healthy female athlete” and “unhealthy female athlete” can be precariously thin, and it’s easy to cross. In a sport that is so consistently measurable as running, and in which a few seconds can be a major difference, it’s easy to make the leap from “When I lose a few pounds, I get a little bit better” to “When I lose a lot of pounds, I bet I will get a lot better!”. ESPN did a report on this, and they summed up the next point really well: “Compounding the issue, the draconian, self-imposed discipline required to lose unsafe amounts of weight is something athletes… excel at. While the average person might call it quits when they start feeling weak or unwell, top athletes are trained to push through pain and thrive on challenging their body’s limits. Restricting food intake becomes another way to build mental toughness and show dedication to one’s sport.” Now, it’s possible that the very best young athletes are potentially less at risk, since so much more attention is being paid to them, but… I’m not buying it. I think the biggest issue here is probably the college level. Coaches are paid to coach well – they often lack either the insight to know when their runners aren’t eating properly or the courage to respond when they do know**
- Melody Fairchild, the only female two-time winner of the Foot Locker HS Cross-Country championships, has suggested in all seriousness that all female runners should take a year off before training competitively in college. Fairchild didn’t run for her first two years in college due to an eating disorder, and thinks that runners need a year to get used to, basically, being adults: Knowing when and what to eat. Anyways, I know this was a bit of a tangent, but if you were to ask me what I think the biggest issue in women’s distance running is, it would be this, no question about it. And it’s magnified when the runners are still young enough that their bones aren’t fully formed and fused, etc.
- The one other thing that must be mentioned is the way the US develops its athletes. High School and College are often seen as the 8-year-window for running success. It takes much longer than that to build up a quality runner. If talented runners (and their coaches) have the ability to take a long view and say “If our goal is to be a great runner in 10-15 years, and to have a sustained career, we should develop more slowly and not have weekly meets and race all three seasons, etc.,” a lot of this problem will go away. Some people think it’s troubling that Mary Cain is already being coached by Alberto Salazar – “why is she becoming a professional (basically) so early?” In fact, I think it’s good – she is now in the hands of somebody whose goal is to make the best long-term runner out of her, rather than somebody who wants to squeeze four good years of running out, in the search for, say, a national championship, no matter what the cost. It’s a bit like how some people recognize the best opportunity for saving some natural wonders is to privatize them, so that the incentive is to develop it long term. Alberto Salazar credits his own success to having two coaches (Bill Squires and Bill Dellinger) who recognized that Salazar should be aiming to peak as a runner well into his twenties, and not aiming to win points for Oregon. This is actually one of the reasons Salazar is so eager to start training runners like Cain, even if it seems strange to have them getting professional coaching so young. If you want a cake to be great, you should leave it in the oven and let it rise; most college coaches take it out of the oven every week and cut themselves a small slice, then can’t figure out why there’s nothing left two years after the runner graduates. You want an example? How about Natosha Rogers, who recently decided to stop running after a knee injury, only to have her coach basically throw her under the bus for not helping them win a team title. (Obviously this is a bigger issue in college sports, too).
Anyhow, I think it’s a really hard question. And I know I don’t have the answer. But uh… yeah. Get at me if you have any thoughts.
*Budd got blamed too much for this. She’s an interesting character, Zola Budd – a sort of quiet figure to whom history always seemed to happen. I’ve always liked her (and never liked Decker). If you want to read a great article, stop reading this e-mail and read this article. (Though, and I know I’ve mentioned this previously, it’s always worth bringing up the deeply unfair point that Budd, a white South African, was able to compete during South Africa’s international sports ban because her family was British, while athletes like Sydnee Maree, who was black African, could not. That’s baffling — “You cannot compete in our competition because your government is repressing you”.)
**I think the latter is much more common, and I think the first argument is basically horseshit. You see them for hours a day every day. The team eats its meals together. Even if coaches don’t know, teammates know. If coaches say they don’t know, then it’s probably through some ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ type of thing. Remember, coaches have jobs when their runners do well. They are just as susceptible to the above thinking as runners are. (That said, it’s tough to know what coaches can/should do. Basically it’s a really hard problem, and I am nowhere close to an expert on this.)