The increasingly parochial observations of a casual runner in his fifties. Was "serious" about "the sport" until personal and sociocultural inevitabilities prevailed.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

If these are your generals, don't expect a revolution

In 2011, one of my friends did a podcast on the topic of eating disorders with a professional runner. The audio portion of the podcast itself been lost, but some of the professional runner's impressions of the discussion, and of eating disorders among runners as a whole, remain online.

Lize was on the show mainly because she'd written a memoir about her own experiences as a top runner whose entire career was affected by bulimia and anorexia. In it, she describes the role of her coaches and other mentors -- fewer in those days, and apart from her peers and idols behind the starting line, all men -- in her successes and her disease in as nonjudgmental a way as anyone could, given the scope of the events she describes.

The pro runner proved to be something of a foil to the notion that eating disorders are really as much of a problem as is popularly believed. After the podcast was posted,  she characterized EDs as "a subject that is shaped everyday by millions of women doing the best they can to stay fit in a food-overloaded country." While allowing that she was aware of holding a perhaps unpopular opinion about such matters, she suggested that the "female athlete triad" (low bone mineral density, amenorrhea and negative energy balance) is, if not a nothingburger, flung around carelessly, and expressed annoyance at her own various doctors' asking about her eating habits when she was visiting for an unrelated complaint. She opined that "Someone just needs to write a tiny little book titled 'How to adjust your weight as a female distance runner without getting an eating disorder.'” She described her frustration in dealing with eating-disordered teammates, mainly because they refused to get the message abut what was healthy and what wasn't, and she found their fundamental incorrectness exhausting. She said that only by withdrawing emotionally from people with EDs could she foster any real empathy for their struggles.

She did say that college coaches absolutely need to take control of their teams in this area as much as in others by establishing a sound culture. But overall, she didn't exactly come off as a friend of anyone with EDs. She in effect said that those girls had chosen their path and she was grateful that she'd been able to choose a healthier one instead.

After the stories of the systemic mistreatment of some -- hell, maybe most -- of the runners formerly on the roster of the symbolically dissolved Nike Oregon Project started to emerge last month, it was only a matter of time before the words of those who by constitution seek high profiles started popping up in high-profile places, such as this editorial by Lauren Fleshman. Reading it offers the impression of someone releasing years of pent-up frustration: A male-dominated system had ultimately led her succumb to the pressure to lose weight at age 21, while she was still in college, despite her already galactic success at Stanford. This led to skipped periods and injuries, curtailing the first half of her post-collegiate career. Now retired, she's been thinking for years about how to fix the system, and it needs to be rebuilt to accommodate girls, full stop. In fact, when she retired over three years ago, a NY Times profile described her responding to a 2008 setback by "pursuing interests related to the sport but not integral to performance and talking about things she worried about, like athlete pay, doping and eating disorders."

The ideas of he pro runner interviewed with Lize are, while perhaps more dismissive of a serious problem than one would expect of a longtime female professional distance runner, not altogether at odds with most people's experiences. It is no fun dealing with someone who has an eating disorder, and if that person is a sports teammate it's all the more difficult. And by the same token, Lauren makes good points about the need for seriously reforming a system that is, in fact, both-male dominated and a precarious environment health-wise. She appears to imply that if she'd had different role models as a late collegian, she wouldn't have caved into the ambient pressure to be leaner.

As I have perhaps given away at some point, however, the pro runner who didn't seem to think that eating disorders were that big a deal in this overfed country and that more people needed to somehow get with it was Lauren Fleshman. The comments I drew on are here, on Lauren's site. Note that while she links to the podcast, she more or less tells her readers not to bother listening to it, an unusual move whatever its inspiration.

The fact that someone had what can only be called regressive views about eating disorders in the running world eight years ago doesn't disqualify her from being an advocate now. But in case I missed it, Lauren Fleshman apparently had a woke moment sometime in the past seven years, maybe before she started warning people that "the mortality rate from anorexia is 12 times higher than any other cause of death" for college-age women. At some point she decided maybe that not only were EDs a major problem, but that someone other that people with EDs were primarily to blame. Like men.

Lize's memoir stresses exactly the things Lauren is agitating for in her editorial, and does so both based on personal experience and in, as I noted, as fair-minded a way as one could imagine. But Lize doesn't have Lauren's platform; few do. And really, I think that Lauren owes it to people to convey that her views have changed (again, maybe she has, but if so I didn't see it). I stress that this isn't because she deserves to be flogged, but because other women in college are thinking the same contemptuous thoughts she did about eating disorders and who "gets" them -- "gets" in both primary senses of the word. If the idea persists that team culture is solely the responsibility of the coach, and not also in part the combination of ideas and attitudes a bunch of unusually driven women bring to any team setting, then nothing will change.

This is my attempted segue into the part where I note that a hugely disproportionate fraction of the people who wind up on college cross-country teams bring either active eating disorders or a strong propensity for one to college with them. This means that even the most attentive, compassionate and determined coach as invented by AI technology is facing a monumental battle, especially but not only at the D-1 level. A lot of this is in fact the result of how women (and plenty of men) relate to male authority figures, whatever the genesis of this trait, and I'm not sure there is a way to solve the problems this creates on running teams without doing more or less what Lauren and others suggest and getting men out of positions coaching women altogether.

The problem with this idea, even if it appears to qualify as "harm reduction," is that women are adept at mistreating and misjudging each other, too. If you have ever spoken at length with anyone who has ever been on or coached a successful college women's sports team, you will find that virtually all of the coaches have usually appeared a lot more prepared for the experience than they have felt. There is something about managing the brand of interpersonal conflicts that arise in this niche that poses a special challenge. So I would classify putting more women in coaching positions to be a necessary step, but a far-from-sufficient one.

One of the 10,000 or so former collegiate All-America selections who lives in the area told me that the idea of a group of women runners standing up in any material way to a male or female college coach who was taking teams to Nationals every year was a non-starter. Or even a coach who was plainly mediocre at best. The only two realistic fates of members of these teams, she figures, is to survive the system as it is or quit at some point along the four- or five-year journey.

This echoes my own, far more watered-down experience, which saw me run for two years at a non-scholarship, very bad D-1 school that had an abysmal coach -- one whose comprehensive futility, I must stress, had no role I am aware of in my discovering the joys of bulimia (and alcohol abuse) at age 19 and quitting the team at 20. I brought that psychological powder keg with me. And I wasn't even a good high-school runner, just a bag of sizzling inner imperatives.

Distance running is never going to not select for people more or less like me, Lize, and at least a half-dozen or more people you can name before you finish this paragraph. In truth, I don't know what the implications of this are in terms of establishing more favorable coaching environments. Neither does anyone else, obviously, or at best, the people with the best ideas who are also current competitors are not inclined to put those ideas out there. Lauren is retired now, and despite being gregarious by nature, she not only didn't say what she's saying now when she was still a pro runner, but she actively pooh-poohed a great deal of it. Thus just makes me wonder if some outwardly self-assured, but quietly suffering and compliant, 25-year-old is going to come out of the woodwork 10 years from now hollering about how much change was needed in 2019.

Again, rather than simply try to hold one person to account, this is an attempt to show just how hard it is and presumably will always remain, for whatever combination of reasons, to curb the sum of the physical and mental damage that distance running does to human beings with eating disorders every year and every season. The only thing that's plain is that eating disorders are clearly too difficult for people to confront in real time no matter who is involved -- be it negligent or even conspiratorial coaches, caring counselors and friends or both -- to expect a flood of reform measures. And really, it can do no good at all when longtime voices of occasional denial are not just yelling the loudest about the need for those measures, but pretending their own attitudes haven't contributed to the problem they are properly decrying.

Lauren adds at the end of her post about the podcast: "Feel free to disagree with me people; I love to discuss more than I love to be right." I am unconvinced of the second part of that. A lot of commenters disagreed as strongly as they dared with Lauren's take on EDs, but she only responded to a few comments and these responses conformed to the exasperated tone she had set in the post itself. But I really hope that all of this energy being put forth by Lauren and others really is more about improving the sport than self-promotion, because at this point it will take a lot more than post-hoc preaching to get anything done.

I do wonder what will happen in 25 years when most college women's running programs are presided over by women and EDs are still a major problem in NCAA distance running. That seems like plenty of time to produce a new scapegoat for a complex problem that is always going to be a factor in distance running and other sports and claim a certain number of lives. Asshole coaches are only the most visible part of the problem. Unless society can weed out imperfect parenting, the realities of interpersonal competition, and all sorts of other features of everyday life, EDs are here to stay. It would be nice to see fewer people in the grip of their misery, just as it would be pleasant to see doping and injuries disappear too. But in truth, I am no more cynical about this whole scene than someone who spends an entire career at the top level pretending it's a non-issue and then telling a completely different story after the fact.


  1. I have indirectly addressed this very issue, but thank you for putting it out there more fearlessly than I dared to. I did't quite know how to address all I have seen and experienced. I was so excited to be part of that podcast but felt discounted and shot down after opening up about my story. I'm sure that wasn't the intention, but I was completely caught off guard and a little confused about how things went down. To see someone who denied the statistics I presented and claim they were probably inflated then suddenly become an advocate for recovery and talk about those same statistics now is bizarre. But the more voices for positive change the better. In the end, we are on the same page, fighting for the same changes, at least now. I just wish we could hear more from those who have been fighting this fight consistently and for a lot longer. That's why I think people who have lived it like Amelia Boone, Rachael Steil, and Mary Cain are such great advocates.

    1. I don't know how well I conveyed this, but I am disappointed in Lauren's (and others') failure to acknowledge her past myopia concerning something so vital not because she needs to be flogged or her current words dismissed as fraudulent, but because others are presently making the exact same misstep out of a combination of fear of confronting a troubling coach and garden-variety personal denial. My core frustration is that if any dent is going to be made in the badness inherent in the game, it can't consist solely of retroactive finger-pointing no matter who's doing it.

      OTOH, maybe this will prove to be a watershed moment of sorts. But I trust that anyone who matters at Nike is laughing at this. They will soon release a well-crafted ad campaign touting their newfound commitment to women's running, and this band-aid will suffice because no one can really do anything anyway. I think pro running was less corrupt when it was an amateur sport and every payment was graft or a bribe of some sort by definition.

  2. No, you were clear. This is just more personal for me because I don't like what I see. It feels all wrong.

    I think the solution will have more to do with education and prevention. Again, I think people like Rachael Steil and, I will add, Melody Fairchild and Kara Goucher are offering real solutions, tangible acts that can potentially prevent at least some of the unhealthy atmosphere in the running community. These are the kinds of people who will ultimate help change things.

    I agree that pointing fingers isn't the solution. What I keep coming back to is that we need more awareness around and treatment for mental health. There are organizations where people can report abuse, but how many people who are being abused have the courage to come forward and report it? How many even recognize it and can describe in the moment? How many people who go through this kind of thing are young and feel unsupported?

    It's just not realistic to think that the solution is for someone hurting to gather enough courage to come forward. There need to be better coaching qualifiers and more checks on coaches and athletes. In a perfect world with a lot of money to be spent on this kind of thing, that is. 
    The solution to this big mess is going to take making changes in society, too, not just the running world. In some ways, it's happening, but there's a long way to go. And some people just don't get it. It's not about making random rules about weighing athletes or getting men out of the picture; the problem is much, much deeper than that. That's why I keep saying it's more important than ever for athletes who have gone through abuse and who have had eating disorders to be heard. As nice as it is for people to assume you can choose to sidestep an eating disorder and just choose not to be triggered by a number on the scale, that kind of talk isn't taking the severity of these kind of issues and illnesses seriously. It's unrealistic.

    Really, I should have just been more blunt on my own blog. But I didn't like the shitty way I felt after the podcast, so I have avoided conflict since then.   

    Nike and Runner's world are the same in that regard. Runner's world offered a huge apology for supporting diet culture, only to turn around and keep supporting it. It's about money for them, nothing more. 

    1. "What I keep coming back to is that we need more awareness around and treatment for mental health."

      This is what I was getting at with the idea that it's wise to acknowledge that successful runners are, on average, carrying around a lot of what can only be called pathology from their first steps. A lot of them may not genuinely recognize weigh-ins as abuse no matter how shamefully they're conducted because so many of them have been subjecting themselves to the same abuse for years, and punishing themselves the same exact way the coach is now doing. And I know it sounds like a stereotype, but there is nothing more than some anorexic and highly successful young women seem to want more than to please a male authority figure. This is neither speculative nor a character judgment, it's sad facet of the disease and I know very much how it feels and how easy it is to react in fucked-up ways. Perhaps if more people on college teams were aware of this -- and the information has been out there for a while -- we wouldn't be seeing as much unfair judgment from the inside, where misapprehensions and errant judgments can clearly do a lot of lasting damage.