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The Runaround: Running on Empty

by on December 03, 2019 4:30 AM

This past month in the running community was not one of its better ones. Legendary runner-turned-coach Alberto Salazar was given a four-year ban by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Everyone thought that would be the worst of his problems. However, it got worse — much worse. Many of his female athletes came out describing the physical and mental abuse they allegedly endured from Salazar. It turns out this trend of physical and emotional abuse is, unfortunately, a common theme to many female athletes. 

I wanted to write something about this mistreatment of female athletes by coaches but I didn’t feel I could do it justice being a male runner who was never in sports in high school or college (that year I threw a shot put a whopping 35 feet doesn’t count). I reached out to Cheryl Keller Capone, a local runner and triathlete, to give a female perspective on the issue. She went above and beyond. 

-Doug Schunk

By Cheryl Keller Capone

If you are part of the running community in any capacity, then you are likely familiar with Mary Cain’s recent New York Times op-ed piece in which she describes physical and emotional abuse by her former coach, Alberto Salazar, while she was training at the Nike Oregon Project. Cain, a professional middle distance runner from Bronxville, N.Y., and the 2014 World Junior Champion in the 3000 meter event, began training with Salazar when she was only 17-years-old.

In her video, Cain explains how Salazar and her other male coaches were convinced she had to get “thinner, and thinner, and thinner” in order to get faster. But instead of improved performance, Cain’s under-fueled, under-nourished body started breaking down. She lost her period for three years and broke five bones. In short, Mary Cain experienced relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S), a syndrome in which disordered eating (or low-energy availability), irregular or missing periods and decreased bone mineral density are present. As a result, she also experienced self-destructive and suicidal thoughts, all of which contributed to an early halt to a promising career of a very talented young woman.

If you did not run competitively in either high school or college, you may be under the impression that situations like Cain’s are isolated incidents. Sadly, however, that could not be further from the truth. In fact, they are all too common in all levels of women's sports.

I ran cross country and track in both high school and college and have always had male coaches. And while my high school coach was fantastic, and always had nothing but encouraging words for everyone on the team, my college coach was moody and abusive. Don’t get me wrong, I remember much of my time as a collegiate runner very fondly, and I made many lifelong friends during those four years on the team. But, I also have darker memories of that time. I graduated college in 1993, and yet still have a painfully clear memory of a conversation with my coach one day on the track. It was a cool and cloudy day in early spring, and we were standing on the far side of the track near the 200 meter starting line. I was not having the best day, performance-wise, probably because I had stayed up late the night before cramming for an exam.

My coach said, "Your thighs are getting too heavy."

Not quite sure I had heard him correctly, I responded, "What?"

"Your thighs are getting too heavy," he repeated.

I can’t even remember what I said or did immediately after that. I was shocked. I knew that he had criticized some of my teammates about their weight, but it was the first time he had said anything to me. I had always been naturally lean, and was already one of the more slender women on the team, standing 5-feet, 8-inches tall and just barely 120 pounds at the time. 

I do remember what I did later that day at the dining hall, though. I ate a smaller meal than what I needed to properly fuel my body. Fortunately, however, I also reached out to one of my best friends on the team about what had happened. Never one to be easily influenced, she convinced me that he was “wrong” (to put it politely), and that I should just ignore it. And thankfully, I did… to a point. I never starved myself to the point of only eating salads for lunch and dinner, as some of my teammates did, but the experience did lead me to be hyper aware of my weight at any given time.

Think about that for one moment. My coach said six words to me about my body, more than 25 years ago, and I still remember almost every detail about that conversation.

Coaches play a highly influential role in the lives of the athletes they coach. And there are some great coaches in this world — coaches who support and nurture their athletes, who help provide them with an environment in which they can grow and thrive as individuals. But there are also a lot of not-so-great coaches, like my college coach and Alberto Salazar, who hold a lot of power over the lives of young, vulnerable athletes, but don’t always make the wellness of those athletes a priority. 

In another recent New York Times article, retired professional runner Lauren Fleshman offers some helpful advice as to how we should address this pervasive problem. Essentially, we need to do a much better job supporting girls and women in sports, while not holding them to unrealistic body standards and forcing them to fit into a sports program designed for boys and men. We need to have more women coaches in power, and need to make more resources, such as sports nutritionists and psychologists, available to athletes of all genders. It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that a lean build can provide a competitive advantage, but it is far from the only factor, and weight loss should never be the focus of a training program. Rather, athletes should be provided with comprehensive information about nutrition and RED-S, which would help decrease injury risk and improve physical and mental health for both females and males alike. 

If you, or anyone you know, is suffering from an eating disorder, there is help available. Please talk to your doctor or visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/ to learn more about the  National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), which supports individuals and families affected by eating disorders. For 24/7 crisis support, text 'NEDA' to 741741.

Cheryl Keller Capone, a local runner and triathlete, is a scientist at Penn State University.



Upcoming Races:

12/8 – 10 a.m. - 36th Annual Nittany Valley Half Marathon - Penn State Ag Arena

My favorite half marathon! This is the only race that I can leave my house an hour before race time and still have plenty of time to park and use the bathroom. It’s challenging with the hills — especially the “spiral of death” at the end — but you’ll be able to recover with some yummy post-race food. Not a runner? No worries! Walkers can start at 9 a.m. 

12/31 - 6:30 PM - The First Night 5k Resolution Run - St. Paul’s United Methodist Church

Get a jump start on your New Year’s resolution early with the Resolution Run. This is the perfect race to do it. Starting at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church & Wesley Foundation, you will run through a surprisingly quiet Penn State campus before the final kick down College Avenue. I have run this race for a few years now and it is really well done. You can stay nice and warm in the church prior to heading out to the start line. Costumes are highly encouraged.

- Doug Schunk



Cheryl Keller Capone, a local runner and triathlete, is a scientist at Penn State University.
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