This article, “Dear Younger Me: Lauren Fleshman“, is making the rounds on social media and in the running world. It covers many things about the transition from high school to college, college to real life, and the realization that fast times and running accomplishments are not the only source of joy. Lauren warns her younger self, and all young women runners willing to listen, about the dangers of sacrificing health for fast times and smaller bodies. It’s something I wish I had read before college, and contains a lot of things I haven’t really realized until the last few months. It doesn’t need much added to it, but I wanted to highlight some of her main points with my own personal experience.
The big issue: disordered eating.
“You can be fast and a developed woman. In fact, you can only reach your ultimate potential if you let your body go through its changes. If you get to the dips and valleys and fight your body, starve your body, attempt to outsmart it, you will suffer. You will lose your period. You will get faster at first. And then you will get injured. And injured. And injured.
Depending on the methods you used to fight your body, you may end up destroying your relationship with food and sport for years to come. You won’t go this far, but you’ll see so many of your friends and teammates do this. In your age group, the mortality rate from anorexia is 12 times higher than any other cause of death. You will see some come close.”
“You can be fast and a developed woman”, isn’t a concept that is easy to grasp when you consider yourself to be the “bigger runner” on a team. Watching teammates that are 20-30 lbs lighter than you be celebrated by coaches, idolized by teammates, and achieve all of their goals (and your goals too) only helps to reinforce the message that smaller = better.
But as time goes on, the tiny runners get injured. And injured and injured. I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been the bigger runner. And despite all logic that being “bigger” is healthier, it takes bravery and confidence that many young women, myself included, have not yet developed at the age of 18. Making a small choice to get little leaner is dangerous. Because soon, it’s no longer a choice. Falling into the behavior takes away your ability to see yourself for what you are becoming, and the choice to return to normal is one of the hardest in the world.
“In your age group, the mortality rate from anorexia is 12 times higher than any other cause of death. You will see some come close”. This is important. It shows the severity of eating disorders in runners. I think running often serves as a justification of unhealthy behaviors, because it’s normalized to look a certain way. Runners can walk around at an underweight BMI without drawing any attention, even though it’s still not healthy, because that’s simply “what runners look like”.
Coaches, teammates, friends and family learn to turn the other direction when someone is losing weight because they don’t know what to do, or maybe they assume it’s just a normal runner thing.
“You will see some come close”. Wow, ya. I’ve seen women at races that should not be racing, they should be in the hospital being treated. It’s so normalized to be extremely underweight, that the somewhat underweight women feel huge and the extremely underweight women feel normal.
In talking with another woman runner recently, she mentioned how she always thought she was one of the “bigger runners” despite being about 113 lbs. So when we say “bigger”, we mean “still underweight, but slightly less underweight”. And when we see someone that is a “normal BMI”, they are considered to be gigantic. It’s a problem of perception. Right now I don’t know what resolution to offer aside from awareness and celebration of the “normal” looking runner body as healthy and sustainable.
The importance of having a life outside of running, and how to cherish each accomplishment no matter what it is.
“Finishing seventh in the entire world in the 5K and having a bronze medal in cross country brings you a smile, the same smile as winning league with your team as a freshman in high school, the same smile as breaking 5:00 in the mile for the first time. The real life-changers, the memories that make the peach fuzz on your cheeks and the hairs on your forearms stand up, those will be braiding your teammates hair in the 15-passenger van on the way to a race; a random tempo run along a sidewalk past a gas station where you felt like you were flying while home on Christmas break; descending a forest trail at camp behind your best friend with your arms outstretched in flight; running at night with someone you are falling in love with; pushing your baby in a running stroller for the first time; passing under a canopy of trees temporarily blocking the rain on a cross country course you can’t remember the name of, the sound of your feet squelching in the mud while chasing your rival.”
I love this. Keeping in mind that running success isn’t the only source of joy, and that you can (and should) develop a life outside of your sport. I recently shared Nicki’s story about finding passion outside of running after 7 stress fractures, and Ammar’s story of throwing himself into a meaningful career despite having the chance to run post-collegiately, and talked in this post “The healthiest life could be the healthy-ish life” about finding balance. Once running isn’t Everything to you, you free yourself from having to be just “the runner”. You free yourself to become whatever body type you want, having whatever career you want, and achieving whatever else you want. Finding balance outside of running will also allow you to break free from the unhealthy standards of body weight because your identity doesn’t solely rely on what you look like and how fast you are.
Essentially, I think Lauren’s message is about finding confidence in your own body, being aware of the consequences of succumbing to unhealthy behaviors even when they are the norm, and the importance of developing a life outside of running.