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.