The dark side of young girls who run long distances

(PHOTO/New York Times) Kaytlynn Welsch, 12, center, and Heather Welsch, 10, before running more than 13 miles on a mountainous Utah course in September.

The New York Times ran a feature story this weekend about a pair of young sisters who are drawing lots of attention for their ability to run long and run fast.  The 12-year-old girl, Kaytlynn, won the women’s division of an Xterra half-marathon in Waco, Texas, while her 10-year-old sister, Heather, came in third.  This would be impressive enough if it was just a straight-up half-marathon, but Xterra trail runs are stupidly difficult. (The one time I seriously considered taking a DNF came during an Xterra half.  It nearly broke me into a million pieces.)  The girls have also competed in sprint triathlons and duathlons.  Kaytlynn ran the 2012 Houston Marathon in 3:45. Her half-marathon PR is 1:28:39.  No way around it, the girls are incredible runners.  I’m in awe of their abilities.  I aspire to be able to run that fast.

That said, as I made my way through the article, I found myself with some reservations about what I was reading.  The doctors talked about the effect of distance running on the girls’ growth plates and mentioned the possibility that they would face a delayed onset of puberty, but I don’t think those are the only risks the girls face.  Last year I wrote a post in which I talked about how I love to see young girls at local road races and how I hope that I will raise athletic daughters who love to run.  A commenter named Heather responded with a bit of a reality check:

I ran cross-country in high school, and I’d have to estimate that at least half my teammates openly displayed signs of significantly disordered eating (and given that cross-country is a sport that tends to attract loners, I have to imagine that even more of them were engaging in the same habits in private). And this was on a team that wasn’t remotely competitive, with an extremely supportive and down-to-earth coach who never commented on bodies (you weren’t allowed to practice if she found out you hadn’t been eating enough to fuel you through it), in a place where there was a greater tolerance for a female body that wasn’t stick-thin (Wisconsin). I can only imagine what things would have been like on a more competitive team, with a more intense coach, or in a more thinness-focused environment.

There’s more to her comment, and I recommend reading it.

After she posted that, I started reading up about the correlation between eating disorders and girls who run, and what I learned was really disturbing.  From a 2007 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Fifteen of the 21 metro Atlanta high school coaches who responded to an AJC survey said eating disorders are common on girls teams or it’s a problem that needs to be monitored.

From a 2006 USA Today article:

Disordered eating — reported by one-third of female athletes in college — is just one element in a spectrum of health problems many confront, studies show. Despite the opportunities that have opened up to women since Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 banned sex discrimination in schools that receive federal money, universities report that an increasing number of these competitors are suffering from depression and anxiety disorders.

From a 2006 New York Times article:

Ms. DeVinny sneaked in extra workouts, but her dazzling window of athleticism had already begun to close. “Her body kind of broke down during her senior year,” said her sister Gabby Fekete, 27. “She had lived on adrenaline.”

Last March, Ms. DeVinny died from cardiac arrest related to her starvation. She was 20 and weighed roughly 70 pounds.

I came across the story of a talented cross-country runner whose anorexia caused her bones to become so brittle that she broke her hip, and now she can no longer run at all. Lize Brittin wrote a book about her struggle with anorexia during her career as a top runner.  Lauren Fleshman has blogged about it as well.

What does this have to do with the Welsch sisters?  Everything.  What happens when they do hit puberty and they gain some weight?  What happens if they slow down as a result?  What happens if their father, who seems loving but also more than a tad bit overinvested in his daughters’ success, fails to understand the connection between the two? What happens if he keeps pushing them to succeed?  In the NYT article, he said to Kaytlynn, who had hurt her toe before the race, “A lot of people run with a stubbed toe, even a broken toe. They put it aside and do their best.  Did you do their best?”  That’s a lot of pressure to put on anyone, let alone a 12-year-old girl.  Especially considering that the people who do run on broken toes are usually doing so from some internal need to succeed, not a desire to please their fathers.

Are these girls destined to find themselves battling disordered eating as a result of their early success?  God, I hope not.  I hope everything works out wonderfully for them.  I hope they win a million races and become outstanding collegiate runners and that they make it to the Olympics, if that’s what they want.  And if they decide they no longer want to run, I hope they are able to stop without fracturing their relationships with their father.

Running can be a source of great strength and personal power, especially for young girls, who are so vulnerable in our society as it is.  I see that every time I read, for instance, about Girls on the Run, I feel optimistic that the girls will reap huge benefits from their time with the organization.  And of course, there are all of the studies that have found an increased likelihood of positive outcomes for girls who play sports.  Running, like any sport, has the potential to be life-changing, and for the better. But as so many young female athletes have found, running can also lead to some dark places, and I hope the adults in their lives are aware of this.

24 responses to “The dark side of young girls who run long distances

  1. I think about this every time I watch women’s gymnastics and ice skating…there’s a LOT of pressure in those sports to be at the peak and to have a certain body type (it’s often explained as “necessary”). And in sports where you’re often past your prine before you’re 25, or even 20 you HAVE to be at your best very young.

    I’d be interested to see a study on eating habits of girls who participate in sports (and what kind of sports they participate in) and boys.

    • I also wonder about this. I have read that there has been an increase in boys who run cross-country and who have eating disorders. Not surprising when the sport has this underlying theme that leads people to believe that if they only weighed seventeen pounds, they too could run a sub-13:00 5K!

      • I had a bunch of male friends in high school who wrestled, and it wasn’t uncommon to see them out on the track in heavy sweats, hoods up, gloves on, etc. the night before a weigh in. I remember thinking that was a seriously not-okay thing to do to your body, but everyone seemed to shrug and say, “Well, yeah. But that’s how it is.” Because, you know, “how it is” is never messed up.

      • I have known a couple of guys who battled eating disorders and coincidentally, one was a wrestler and one was a bodybuilder. There’s something about the severe caloric restriction that triggers a myriad of physiological and psychological effects in some people. Not everyone is prone to eating disorders, but those who are AND who participate in activities where excessive exercise and/or caloric restriction is a requirement may suffer major consequences.

  2. I saw Kaytlynn run at the Houston Marathon in January, and I saw her here in Dallas at the DRC Half just yesterday. It’s hard not to be impressed, and shocked, seeing her tiny figure running between grown men. I don’t have an answer as to whether it’s right or wrong. I do think she and her sister love running, but I’m not sure a 10 or 12 year old girl really knows what’s in her best interests at that age.

  3. My parents put me in running races as a kid, and while I was obviously nowhere near the level of these girls, I always did really well for my age. But then I hit puberty, and my speed and endurance tanked – weight gain and all that, as you mentioned. For me, it wasn’t a huge deal, but if your parents are putting a ton of pressure on you, it can be devastating. It’d be nice to just focus on athleticism without unhealthy levels of competitiveness, especially from authority figures like parents.

  4. I read a great book on a similar topic, by a great long-distance runner who also suffered from disordered eating, as well as being abused by her coach and suffering quite a lot of bullying from the male athletes on her team. It’s called Pretty Good For A Girl, by Leslie Heywood. This post just made me think of it, and I like recommending the book to people interested in these kinds of topics.

  5. My colleague coaches young athletes – but by young I mean 13-18 year olds. He has talked about having to have conversations with his female athletes about whether they have had periods because consistent hard training – particularly long distance – does prevent the onset of puberty.
    The important factor though, is that bone density is laid down during puberty and is related to hormonal changes. The amount of bone density a woman can achieve over her life – apparently – cannot exceed what she achieved during puberty. He says this means that delaying the onset of puberty by effectively keeping the girl a child with the body of a small boy (don’t take that the wrong way – I know it’s all wrong but that’s how he put it and I don’t know how to say it better) is the easiest way o make them good at running but prevents them achieving sufficient bone density and leads to osteoporosis in later life. There’s been quite a few cases – I had a look online after he was telling me and it seems to be quite well researched. There is a name for it I can’t recall at present.
    I think over here that juniors aren’t allowed to enter races exceeding a certain length which I think is somewhere around 10k length.
    This is all second hand info, supported by a bit of googling!

  6. In the UK, the UKAA (national body for athletics) has age limits for racing certain distances- Under 9 – 2k, 9 & 10 – 3k, 11 & 12 -4k, 13 & 14 – 6k, 15 – 10k, 16 – 16.1k, 17 – 25k

    18 & 19 – marathon, 20+ – unlimited

    I’m genuinely surprised that children are allowed to run a half or full marathon at that age.

  7. This incredibly moving (3 part) article came out when I was in high school:
    http://archive.apsportseditors.org/contest/2001/writing/over250.enterprise.fourth1.html

    I lived in a suburb of Dallas (where the article was printed), and I’m sure all of my teammates read it too. It scared me, but it didn’t stop my disordered eating from getting worse in high school and even worse at college. Part of the article talks about how Casi lived off of grapes. What were half of my teammates carrying around bags of the next week? Yep, grapes. To succeed at distance running, it takes extreme concentration, self deprivation, and even self torture. It’s not surprising that this leads to eating disorders especially considering that being unnaturally light helps many girls run faster and postpone puberty. Even when parents don’t put pressure on their kids, if you have the mentality and toughness to be really good at distance running, it’s not surprising that you can drive yourself to have an eating disorder. Distance running is a sport where you can excel without any natural ability whatsoever (like me) – you just have to work harder than anyone else out there. It makes perfect sense to me why I and most of the successful distance runners I know developed eating disorders.

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  9. I participated in sports in some capacity as long as I can remember. (I was a a t-ball team at age 7 or maybe age 6) I played on team sports from grade school on though college. I didn’t take up running until I was out of college, so I can’t speak to the culture of X-country, but I want to take a moment to defend girls in sports.

    There are countless studies showing that girls who participate in sports have better body image than girls who do not. Girls who participate in sports are less likely to find themselves in abusive relationships, and girls in sports generally get better grades.

    Yes, there are always cases of those who are pushed too far. The sports with a culture of smaller is better, and asshole coaches who tell girls to loose weight. But on the whole sports are a great place for girls to develop a healthy relationship with their body. One that doesn’t have anything to do with attracting men, or how it looks in in clothes.

    Of course we should be conscience of what amount of physical exertion is appropriate at certain ages, but don’t let cautiousness turn into blindness. Little ones can play sports too.

  10. I think more worrying than potential for eating disorders is potential for bone damage…their doctor seems on the fence (because it hasn’t been studied) but we do know about growth plates, pressure from running on concrete etc and there are lots of anecdotal stories of young runners having spine and knee problems. They are super fast but I think doing a race or two every weekend is heading into the unhealthy category – every few weeks would make more sense.

  11. Since no-one seems to have mentioned it, I thought I’d bring this up. I don’t know how competitive running is structured in schools, but I do know that countless studies have shown that weightlifting combined with running produces better runners than cardio alone. Weightlifting also obviously helps with bone density and other issues runners encounter. I feel that it would be far more effective than losing weight, since it actually makes you stronger, a better runner, and also helps increase your vo2 max. Thoughts?

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