By Shannon Kennedy
I woke up on the morning of November 7 to the headline “I was the fastest girl in America until I joined Nike.” Opening the link, I felt a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. Before I’d even watched the video, I knew what the story was about.
Mary Cain’s experience is not an unfamiliar one. A young girl runs really fast, everyone gets excited, projections are made about her insane potential... fast forward three years and that girl has disappeared from the running scene, often never heard from again.
I was one of those young, “phenom” girls.
I was not on Cain’s level, but within provincial and national circles I was fast and I was young. I started running competitively when I was 11 and quickly found success. I raced against girls five to six years older than me because I could and because I loved the competition.
By the time I was 12, I was convinced I would go to the Olympics for running. I won OFSAA (the Ontario high school championships, one of the largest meets in North America) in grade 9 and 10, and set a few records previously held by some pretty awesome runners. In my eyes, my Olympic dreams were on track.
But over the next few years, my running plateaued, unraveling completely in my first year of university. I’d run for eight years injury free and suddenly I had a tibial stress fracture. Over the next four years, I had seven more stress fractures, until finally, I listened to my body. Despite having never realized any of my international dreams, I left running behind, switching to rowing.
The events that lead up to the disappearance of these young, “phenom” girls typically involve vicious injury cycles caused by overtraining and under-fuelling. After watching Cain’s video, I felt sad about how bad things got for her, but what I felt worse about was how I didn’t find her story surprising.
Back in 2013, when I first heard about Cain joining the Nike Oregon Project, a group that already had rumours swirling, I remember wondering how long it would be before her performance started to decline. It says a lot about a sport culture that instead of being excited about a phenomenal, young runner, I felt a sense of dread for the challenges I knew she would face.
My first running coaches were two males whom I trained with from the ages of 11 to 16. Looking back, the training I did over those five years was appropriate for an endurance athlete in the prime of their career, not a 13-year-old. At the time, I didn’t know any better and was reluctant to question anything as I was getting faster. These coaches also fostered a belief that taking time off was unnecessary and a sign of not being committed.
“It seems obvious now, but when you’re surrounded by a community that tells you to lean out and peers counting calories to get faster, it becomes easy to lose sight of the obvious.”
Despite being only a teenager—and skin and bones at that—comments were made about my body composition and eating habits. I believe that my first stress fracture was a result of these early years of overtraining. But once my body took its first rest from running in eight years, other changes started taking place. The next four years were a continual struggle. Food became a nemesis. If I missed my period, I was secretly ecstatic.
It wasn’t until I was a year into rowing that I heard a dietician refer to food as the fuel required to allow your body to reach new levels of performance. I wish that message had been explicitly stated to me years earlier. It seems obvious now, but when you’re surrounded by a community that tells you to lean out and peers counting calories to get faster, it becomes easy to lose sight of the obvious.
Why do so many young, female stars burn out so early? Why is my story or Cain’s story just one among thousands? The answers to these questions are multifaceted, but a major piece of the puzzle is that we don’t treat female athletes like the unique cohort that we are. Our bodies change and mature at different times and rates, and in different ways than males. We also tolerate and adapt to training loads differently.
It’s easy to train a 14-year-old girl who hasn’t gone through puberty to run fast. What’s harder is managing training as their bodies change and transition into strong, powerful women. It is crucial that during this time, girls are supported, that they are taught that change is normal and that if they can stick it out and get to the other side, their body will be capable of even greater things.
As physiologist Trent Stellingwerff pointed out on Twitter last week, none of the current women’s world records in running events have been set by young teenagers. It’s shocking what an increase in muscle mass and a more established aerobic system can do for you. Instead, running culture makes young females feel like their bodies are betraying them and sets the stage for establishing unhealthy eating practices, poor relationships with food, and a skewed body image and sense of self. There are so many other obvious and more important areas of performance to target, like strength, mobility, biomechanics, and mental training, to name a few. Yet, as a running culture, we linger on weight and body image.
Stories like Cain’s garnering attention are exactly what we need to start the conversation and begin the process of changing the culture, but it is only the first step. We need to move away from these entrenched, toxic, uneducated, and unscientific values that prioritize body composition and conformity above all else to recognize that there is so much more to running than just the numbers on a scale. It starts with educating coaches. But also teaching the athletes to respect and cherish their bodies, to understand that they are so much more than their performances, and to empower them to realize their voice is the loudest and most important of all.
Shannon Kennedy is a multiple OFSAA champion who now rows out of the national training centre in Victoria, British Columbia.