Bob shares expertise on the developmental biology of adolescent females

‘You know….ah…the bodies of teenage girls change a lot during development.’  Aaron ducked as my father swung his glass of bourbon as he spoke, the liquid sloshing against the side.  Sauvignon blanc spurted through my nose.

Our dinner guest, Kim, was my mother’s younger sister’s friend.  She had brought her teenage daughter, whom we were meeting for the first time.  My mother often asks me to join when a guest brings their kid.  To make sure the conversation includes more than my father’s recent op-ed on ‘charter forests’.  Because companies always run things better than government.

But given the choice, I’m sure Kim and her daughter would have preferred an oration on Federal land management over my father’s description of the collision between my teenage running career and puberty.

Nothing my father was saying wasn’t true.  It was just twenty years too late.

We still coach young female runners as if they were boys.  With dire consequences.  

I had soared to success as a sub-100 pound running sprite my freshman year of high school.  I was tiny, and running came easily and naturally.  My nickname in elementary school had been ‘Boney Butt’.  Track went so well in the spring, I decided to forego field hockey and run cross country the next fall.  I got a side stitch my second race and finished fifth.  After that, I won every race, right through the Maryland State championship in November.

But I never won another state championship.  I wasn’t terrible.  I still finished top-5 at states.  But it was a far cry from what I was expected to be doing.  What ires me to this day is that no one — not parents, not coaches — seemed to recognize that a perfectly linear running trajectory was an absurd expectation for a young female runner.  I was a late developer, and my body changed dramatically my junior year of high school, including four inches in height.  A women’s capacity to create new little human beings is a miraculous feat of nature, and it shouldn’t be altogether surprising that the biological changes required won’t always align with efforts to improve mile times.

Boys have it easy.  Teenage boys get linearly faster each year, as they transition from gawky freshman to muscled men.  Increased testosterone and muscle tone are gifts to the young male runner.  For girls, it’s quite the opposite.  Lots of girls come out smoking as freshmen and sophomores, and then flounder as juniors and seniors.  Puberty is hard for any girl.  But it’s hell for young female distance runners trying to live up to their prepubescent selves.  Many girls fight it as hard as they can.  Starvation.  Bulimia.  Overtraining.  And many coaches encourage it.  Not always directly, but  by celebrating the performances of clearly underweight female runners.

Being anorexic or bulimic wasn’t in my nature.  So when I started losing races my junior year, and no amount of training seemed to help, I simply lost heart.  Sometimes I would drop out of a race, other times I’d just go through the motions.  By my senior year, I didn’t care at all.  I’d decided I wasn’t going to run in college, and just did high jump and relays.  No one knew what to do with me.  My parents sent me to a sports psychologist.  Coach Smart cranked up the training.  A single Coach Smart workout was more than we did all week with Coach Flemming, who was at the helm my sophomore year.  And yet I kept getting slower.

I cannot overstate the damage this experience did to a young female psyche.  I considered myself to be a fierce athlete who always rose to the challenge on big days.  Hitting buzzer-beaters in basketball. Playing through broken bones and bloody noses in soccer.  But suddenly I was subjected to the worst stereotypes about female athletes.  Girls are lazy….girls aren’t competitive…girls don’t like pressure…girls just do sports to hang out with friends and meet boys…girls are timid…girls are head cases.  And suddenly I was plagued with self-doubt.

Today, kids increasingly focus on one sport at a young age.  This is a terrible idea. 

The saving grace was that I was a multi-sport athlete.  The extra bulk I put on my junior year had sunk my running, but it did worlds of good for my soccer game.  As frustration with running mounted, I threw myself into soccer, reveling in my newfound strength and speed and becoming a captain of my team.  Suddenly, twenty pounds heavier, I wasn’t getting pushed around anymore.  Soccer wasn’t going to get my into college.  But it sure was fun.  And kept me from turning on my still-growing body.

Being well-rounded provided other advantages.  It turned out I didn’t need running to get into college.  Realizing that my grades and test scores would get me into a school of my choice was liberating.  I could go to Stanford without any pull from a coach.

The perfect teachable moment….wasted

One of the most important lifelong lesson you can impart to a kid is that progress is not always linear.  There are going to be setbacks.  It is going to feel like the bottom’s falling out.  But setbacks are not failures.  They’re simply part of the process.  And here we have a golden opportunity to teach young female distance runners how to ride out a difficult time with patience, and deal with what seem like dismal failures with grace, and help them understand that failures are not their fault but part of a larger process.  And — most critically — to trust that their bodies will adapt, and bounce back with a new ferocity.  To embrace — and not fight — all the crazy changes their bodies are going through.  The timing will vary from athlete to athlete, and some might have to wait until college.  But the dip is temporary.

I did eventually have a comeback, after many years of healing.  It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I would lace up my cross country spikes again.  And I did return reborn, besting my prior 5k PRs by over a minute.  But most girls never get a second act.

The corrosive environment of collegiate running

I will never forget the last dinner I ate with the Amherst women’s cross country team.  Carter and I, both rookies, had both finished All-America, leading our team to a 7th place finish at the NCAA Division III National Cross Country meet, the best finish in school history.  Spirits were high as the eight women celebrated with our head coach Ned and our assistant coach Seana.

I was so hungry, I didn’t even wait for the busboy to fully get my plate down before I launched into my burger and smashed some french fries into the corner of my mouth.  My first season of collegiate cross country had been rough.  I hated Ned.  I’d spent a month of the season suspended.  But I’d persevered and hammered through the last four meets of the season, getting faster and faster with each race.  Now we could celebrate, stuff our faces, and take a hard-earned break.

As the waiter dished out my teammates’ meals, my spirits dulled.

‘Garden salad?  No croutons, no cheese, and dressing on the side?’


‘Another salad….dressing on the side.  One more….no cheese, croutons and dressing on the side….’

Everyone was eating as if we were bikini models.  Except Ned, who had a burger too.  I devoured my plate.  I didn’t eat all the french fries, and offered them to the table, and my teammates took one or two.  I had sacrificed a lot to be a member of this team.  I had left Stanford after my freshman year to attend a school where I thought I could be a balanced student-athlete.  After an auspicious winter track season my sophomore year, I agreed to finally give up soccer, the love of my life, to run cross country in the fall.  I’d set aside my differences with Ned and worked my ass off to get back in shape for the final championship meets.  In that morning’s National championship, I’d dropped almost 40 seconds off my 5k PR to cover the rolling golf course in 17:42.

But that night I realized this wasn’t my tribe.  I’m not sure how I escaped the pitfalls of many young female runners, but I have to give some credit to my great, non-negotiable love of burgers and ice cream.  And it certainly helped that I played lots of sports like soccer that have healthier attitudes about women’s bodies.  Sure, the Amherst women’s soccer team ate salads, but only before the main course.  I knew anorexia was rife among female college runners.  My teammate would spend the next semester in the hospital.  Ned, of course, was oblivious.  In fact, a few weeks later he would publicly extol this runner’s sudden drop in 5k times as a sign of ‘hard work’ at our end-of-season banquet.  Ned never encouraged anorexia per se, but he did a lot of things to encourage it: telling girls they needed to lose weight, and praising those who did.  I noticed that Ned, in his round up of the season’s achievements, did not even mention my name.  He was still seething because I’d told him I was spending my spring semester abroad at the University of Melbourne, and would miss the indoor and outdoor track seasons.  Running, I acknowledged, was not my first priority.  And frankly, I needed a break.

I never ran for Amherst again.  During my international adventures in Australia and Africa I got really sick.  I had Campylobacter, which couldn’t be treated with antibiotics because the Epstein-Barr virus that was causing mono had infected my liver and giving me hepatitis.  I was bedridden and feverish for weeks, too sick to even read a magazine.  I sweated through the sheets so thoroughly they had to be changed multiple times a day.  But, hey, it was nothing compared to being an adolescent female runner.

A plea 

I know a lot of folks who coach high school cross country.  Most of them groan about their problematic female runners.  I hear the same stories over and over: talented female who stops thriving her junior and senior years.  These coaches would probably rather crawl into a hole than have a frank discussion with their female runners about the impact of puberty on their performance.  But our reticence is doing them a great disservice.

Folks who run with me know that I talk pretty openly about ‘female stuff’.  Some give me the TMI line, but I scoff.  As if the epidemic failure of our running community to squarely and openly recognize the complexity of female physiologies hasn’t done women enough damage, physically and emotionally.  Every high school cross country coach should explain from the onset to the team, boys and girls, the fact that girls will have more complex running careers than boys.  That it doesn’t mean that girls are washed up, or not trying their best, or inherently weaker.  Girls are just going to have a dip.  It’s going to be frustrating as hell.  It’s going to seem terribly unfair.  But a couple years of off running is a small price to pay for the power to bring life into the world.  And, most importantly, if a girl, and the community of teammates, coaches, and parents, keep their heads, weather the down times, and avoid the pitfalls, she’ll come roaring back.


I’m very fortunate that I survived a very long career in running.  And still hitting the races to this day.  I’d be remiss without pointing out a few folks along the way who kept me well fed and sane:

  • Chase W.: I’m sure Chase would be very surprised to find himself on this list.  He only ran one season of track during our final semester of high school.  Chase was not an athlete.  He only joined the team because he got busted with pot, and his mom thought running track would keep him on the straight and narrow.  I immediately designated Chase as my new favorite running buddy.  He was irreverent.  He didn’t care about running.  He had a bright yellow Mercedes that was ancient and felt like it was going to fall apart any moment.  And he liked chatting openly, like a girl, but with a male perspective.  So when I grabbed a chunk of belly flesh and moaned about how fat I’d gotten, and how I couldn’t run fast anymore, he responded: Girls are supposed to be soft.  You look so much better than you did before.  You were all angular and tendon-y.  Trust me, this is better.  I quipped back that I was still slow as shit, but the comment sunk in.  And I didn’t feel like ripping off my squishy belly fat quite as much afterwards.
  • Tom C.: LUNCHES.  Keeping me fed is a full-time job.  Tom’s heaping lunches kept me out of the underweight-red-zone for many years when I was living on a grad school ‘salary’.
  • Antonio’s pizza, Amherst, MA: I had trouble feeding myself when I got to Amherst.  There was only one dining hall, and I hated the food.  I dropped five or six pounds my first year.  I finally got a family doctor to write the dean a note and I was exempted from the meal plan.  Antonio’s pizza is walking distance from the college and serves up delicious slices with funky toppings like chicken tortellini.  If you ever have a chance to visit Amherst, Antonio’s should be at the top of your list.
  • Finally, this blog was inspired in part by a beautiful letter that pro runner Lauren Fleshman wrote to her younger self.

2 Responses to The Dip

  1. Kirstin C (@ultrarunnergirl) says:

    Great insights, M. Why aren’t you a coach?!
    I, too, am forever grateful that my love of burgers and food exempted me from the crazy body image issues so many women fall prey to and never seem to escape.

  2. martha says:

    I would love to coach. Truly. But I would fail at providing any structured training. There would be no clip board, no stop watch, no work-outs. It would just be: ‘Okay, kids, go run around until you’re tired and then let’s grab ice cream!’ Aaron and I would be a great team of co-coaches, because Aaron is the king of structure. But then there would be no one to pay any of our three mortgages….

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