More Than Just A Bad Apple: It’s Time to Change Running’s Toxic Culture

By now, we’ve all seen Mary Cain’s op-ed and video in the New York Times reporting physical and emotional abuse by Alberto Salazar and his coaching team during her time with the Nike Oregon Project. Cain describes how, deprived of the food she needed to fuel her training and constantly hounded about her weight, she spiraled into injury, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Her running career, which had been stellar until she joined the NOP, was over.

But the problem goes much, much deeper than just one coach and just one athlete.

With the publication of this brave piece, Cain has sparked a public discussion of and reckoning with some of the most toxic aspects of our sport: the ways in which control and abuse of power by coaches leads to lifelong, life-threatening mental and physical health issues for women athletes.

Since Cain’s op-ed came out, the elite runner Amy Yoder Begley, who was a member of NOP from 2007 until 2011, has also gone public stating that Salazar bullied and abused her, not only about her weight, as he actively scapegoated her and isolated her from her teammates.

Demonizing Salazar seems, on the one hand, necessary. By all accounts, he’s a pathological personality with few actual qualifications who surrounded himself with equally unqualified yes-men: for instance, as Sports Illustrated documents in this wonderfully balanced article, the team “sports psychologist” had no qualifications or approbation as a psychologist, and reported everything the athletes told him to Salazar. Salazar is reported to have abused and shamed more than one athlete, and ruined at least two of their careers. Plus, lest we forget, he was recently banned from the sport for four years for violating anti-doping rules. The NOP certainly seems like a good example of what can happen when, as the sport scientist Ross Tucker puts it, “perverse incentives (& sometimes people) meet pathological environments”.

But demonizing Salazar and Nike lets us too easily forget that they are not isolated bad examples, and that this conversation is not (just) about healthy racing weight or sports nutrition or body image. It’s about control and abuse of power in the coaching world, especially when it comes to vulnerable young athletes in high school and college, and athletes who need to play along to keep their sponsor contracts. Weight and nutrition are one of the most (if not *the* most) common ways this power dynamic plays out in running. Salazar and his employees reportedly starved Mary Cain to the extent that she had to steal Clif Bars and eat them in secret. Well, it’s usually more subtle than that, but often not much more subtle.

More than one running friend has reported coach-supervised team weigh-ins on their college running team. That’s a guaranteed way to make sure many athletes, humiliated and afraid, will starve themselves. But all it can take is one well-timed glance and a certain inflection in the voice to make women understand that their bodies, however, high-performing, however many medals they’ve won, are not OK. British elite athletes describe this phenomenon very well in this article about weight-shaming, bullying, and verbal abuse of women at the highest levels of British track and field. The heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill was targeted by the British athletics team’s senior coach to the extent that her (man) coach complained about it — and was subject to a disciplinary procedure as a result. Again, on the surface it was a discussion about weight, but that the coach was then censured shows the underlying power structures at work.

In hindsight, we had glimpses of these stories for a long time. One detail from this 2014 profile of Jordan Hasay (featuring bonus Salazar fanboying) has haunted me since I read it. Every time I heard Salazar’s name after I read this, the image would appear in my mind and I’d shudder. Hasay describes, apparently in all seriousness, how Salazar lined up the athletes and inspected their butts looking for the perfect “bubble butt”. Gross.

“Bubble butt” is not a small, distasteful-but-insignificant detail; it points at the way random, external aesthetic factors can be weaponized against women in running like they are everywhere else. There’s glute strength, and then there’s “bubble butt”. Those are not the same thing. “Random” is a key word here as well that reveals how crazy-making this culture must have been: Amy Begley was reportedly harassed and demeaned for having what Salazar deemed too big of a butt.

Along similar lines, my heart broke for Suzy Favor Hamilton when I read her 2016 blog post about her relationship to her breasts. She describes how her body was portrayed in the media — depending on the publication, they’d either make her look “sexy” or alter the photos to make her look flat-chested and more like a “runner.โ€ As a fellow busty lady, I could feel her pain when she describes feeling her breasts slowed her down and made her less of a runner. My stomach turned when she described how her college coach told her, supposedly citing fan mail, that her breasts made people uncomfortable because they bounced when she ran. Yes, in addition to everything else, we’re supposed to be able to reverse the laws of physics. Note that this was in the late 80s or early 90s when sports bras, as I remember, were nothing near what they are today. They were crappy Spandex bits that came in S, M or L, and if you were DD like me, you had to layer two or three in order to achieve anything remotely resembling control. It was incredibly uncomfortable, with constant chafing, and really just created a big, bouncy uniboob. Ultimately, Hamilton underwent expensive, painful breast reduction surgery to quell the shame she felt about her breasts.

Are you wondering where this is going? All of these runners had bad luck, indeed, with their coaches and team situations, you may be thinking? Or perhaps: these male coaches are freaking dinosaurs, I’m so happy that can’t possibly happen anymore! Hmmm. Let’s have a few more examples.

Up to now, I feel like we’ve tended to treat these stories like isolated, unfortunate incidents. They aren’t.

Our own Cocoa remembers the female head coach of her college track & field team actively shaming the women athletes, especially the throwers and jumpers, about their weight. This coach threatened to hold back the scholarship money from one of the best jumpers on the team because the jumper’s body didn’t meet the coach’s standards. Cocoa told me, “I remember after one meet, we stopped at a restaurant and her getting upset that some girls ordered ice cream. After these girls had worked their tails off competing that day. While at that restaurant, I remember over-hearing a fight between this same head coach, and the distance coach (a male), where he told her she could not comment on food or weight to his distance girls. He was pissed. He made it very clear to us; eat whatever we wanted. . . itโ€™s a deep, deep problem, and female coaches can perpetuate it, too.”

Another Saltine who ran at a mid-major Division I university recalls that her coach required team weigh-ins and weight shamed women in front of the whole team, even injured athletes who put on weight while they couldn’t train. Stress fractures were common in the top performers on the team and parents even noticed that the best runners only lasted a season or two under this coach. Countless young runners had to quit the sport under his watch, plagued by injury and at least one case of a serious, life-threatening eating disorder, but this man stayed in his position until he retired.

Up to now, I feel like we’ve tended to treat these stories like isolated, unfortunate incidents. They aren’t. The sport needs fewer (alleged) misogynistic assholes, sure, so it’s great if Salazar never works again. But above all what it needs are systems that don’t reward those assholes and the destructive behaviors they perpetrate. Again, it’s too easy to demonize Nike and say, “of course they let this happen, winning at any cost is what they’re all about” — as if the rest of the world operates differently. How does someone like Cocoa’s head coach get a job where she’s supposed to be mentoring and fostering young talent, but is allowed to instead humiliate, belittle, and threaten her charges? Why do so many women runners have similar stories?

For too long, stories like these have been filed under “eating disorders” or “body image” or “that one terrible coach who did that shitty thing.” There has been victim blaming and an undercurrent of, “well, not everybody is mentally strong enough to make it” that puts the athletes at fault. But these examples aren’t, at their root, about any of that — just like #MeToo isn’t about sex. It’s about how women’s lives and livelihoods are ruined by the abuse of power.

#MeToo for the running community?

Maybe it was the #MeToo movement that made it possible for the response to Mary Cain’s New York Times piece to be so overwhelmingly supportive and positive; in short, for Cain to be believed. Many top runners, including former NOP teammate Kara Goucher and Nike-sponsored Shalane Flanagan have spoken out to confirm Cain’s reports and to apologize for having left her alone with her struggles. Goucher also publicly apologized to Amy Yoder Begley for not speaking out to protect her when they were teammates. In fact, Goucher has even compared the current discussion to #MeToo; at first I was skeptical of the comparison, but now I see many parallels not only in the way that power is wielded and abused, but in the way women’s stories are told or silenced.

And, of course, there is similarity in the way these stories are believed. Finally we are seeing a positive response to young women speaking truth to power. It has been widely accepted that the culture of the NOP caused Mary Cain to become mentally ill, rather than a traditional blanket denunciation of her story as being the work of a hysterical mind or a “crazy woman.” To me, this seems like the beginning of real change. Sure, Nike and Salazar released old-school victim-blaming statements (because of course) and there are the usual online trolls — the Saltine who accidentally clicked on a letsrun forum thread about Mary Cain regretted it immediately — but also so much affirmation and acceptance that these stories are true. There has been an outpouring of empathy and honest regret from people in the sport who can see they were in a position to help but didn’t.

I want to give a shout-out to the writer Lize Brittin, who has been writing and speaking for a long time about her experiences with eating disorders and toxic coaches. In 2012, Brittin published a book about her running career, and I remember feeling like she was so alone in sharing her story that way, even though if you looked at blog posts and comments, you could see that many other women had been through similarly destructive experiences in their high school and college running careers. It felt almost like a secretive, whisper-network conversation, something “everybody knew” but also something everybody seemed to treat as a bunch of isolated bad experiences. What public discourse there was on the topic tended to center on the topic of eating disorders in running, or adjacent issues of mental health, “exercise addiction,” what used to be called “female athlete triad,” and the like (which, don’t get me wrong, are all worthy of attention, but not the whole story). That was “only” seven years ago, but things are already changing.

Mary Cain has single-handedly opened the door for all of us

Recently I heard an interview with the author Linda Hirshman, who has written a book about the history of sexual harassment and workplace abuse in 20th-century America. Speaking about the women who entered the workforce in the 1950’s and 60’s, Hirshman mentioned that many of these women had originally filed their experiences of workplace harassment and abuse under “lighthearted entertainment.” They would glamorize the sex they were forced to have with their bosses or the unwanted flirtations; this was often a coping mechanism to help them tell themselves a halfway bearable story about what was actually a traumatizing experience they had no space or even the vocabulary to process. Later, when the U.S. slowly started to realize that women’s civil rights were violated on a regular basis and something had to change, these same women would realize they had been victims of abuse — and that they weren’t alone.

Sound familiar? In light of Cain’s and Yoder Begley’s stories, I have seen friends suddenly re-evaluate their past experiences with weight shaming and toxic coaching in their running careers, especially at the collegiate level. Experiences that left their teenaged selves disempowered and humiliated, but with no outlet for their pain, were for years cloaked in humor as a coping mechanism: “haha, can you believe this crazy coach?!” Suddenly, within the last two weeks, these friends have realized that shit was actually seriously f’d up. They were hit with the full force of the feelings they had to repress in order to survive within the system. It hasn’t been easy.

The part of the post that’s all about meeeee

When we first discussed this post behind the Salty scenes, I felt unqualified to write it because in contrast to many friends and acquaintances, I have been lucky: neither my high school nor my college coaches put any emphasis on weight, nor did they bully or shame us for any other reason. In hindsight it’s possible I got off easy on the weight issue because I was never especially “good” at running, I was just happy to be on the team because I liked to run. It would be easy for me to shrug and say “never happened to me.”

Not so fast, Caraway. I remember observing, particularly in college, what I perceived as coaches’ willingness to bury their heads in the sand as clearly unhappy, disordered runners got thinner and thinner but still placed and even won races and championships. Within the team, there were whispers and eyerolls about specific runners’ eating and/or excessive training habits; some of these runners ended up in a spiral of isolation and loneliness, even as they were still top performers on the varsity team. Now, I wish I had been kinder to those runners, gone to sit with them in the dining hall, removed myself from the gossip. But at the time, I was not kind. I kept my mouth shut and was probably just glad nobody was gossiping about me.

Was that great? No. It was not. I loved my teammates, but that behavior was not great. It was toward one end of the same continuum that has at its other end Alberto Salazar’s reported abuse and bullying of at least two women in his coaching group. Just because there’s no Salazar in your story doesn’t mean everything’s fine. There’s a lot of murkiness between “everything’s fine” and Salazar territory.

This example of my college running team is not actually here to make this post all about me; it shows that more of us are part of this system than we might think. I am not saying all teams have a toxic culture. And of course most coaches are not clueless, mean, or pathological. Mine weren’t. In fact, they were lovely people. They were doing the best they could within their own limitations (just like most of us in life!), but lacked knowledge about eating disorders and perhaps also the counseling skills to help an athlete in need. It’s possible that they were, themselves, bullied or weight-shamed in their careers and trying really hard to do better for their athletes. In fact, I remember — in what felt to me like a box-ticking exercise — one day in 1994 the college dietitian came to practice and gave us a little talk about fueling for our training. Then she left and we never talked about it again. I believe that was an effort to do the right thing, but it simply wasn’t enough.

Can we change it now? No. But I think it’s important to acknowledge what happened and, like Goucher and Flanagan, to state that we could have done better and will do in the future.

That’s an important first step to changing how we think and talk about these issues in running, but most of all I think it’s key to supporting our friends and loved ones who see shades of themselves — past or present — in Cain’s stories of a controlling, abusive coach she would have done anything to please.

Salty Running contributors make a great team!I’ve ranted for so many words now that I’ll leave the next part of the conversation, where we talk about how to fix this, to another post or another writer. I would like to say that I don’t believe the solution, as some have suggested, is that men should never coach women; as Cocoa’s experience shows, women are just as capable of perpetrating harmful behaviors. Right now we’re taking a powerful first step to real change in openly discussing and processing our experiences, holding each other up and saying to each other: I believe you.

So let’s talk about you: What are your experiences of coaching or being coached? Do any of the stories in this post resonate? Or not at all? If you’re a coach, what are you doing to change the way things are done? Let us know in the comments!

I'm a 43-year-old living in Berlin, Germany and currently training for the 2020 Berlin Marathon.

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