Running’s Cultural Reckoning Is Long Overdue
Since Mary Cain spoke out about the Nike Oregon Project in 2019, a growing wave of young runners have come forward with their own allegations of negligent coaching and toxic team cultures across the sport
Hannah Whetzel couldn’t sit down. When she did, pain radiated everywhere. So the then junior at the University of Arizona stood. She stood during the four-hour bus ride to Flagstaff for the team’s first cross-country meet of the 2017 season. She stood at breakfast. And she stood any time she wasn’t driving or in class.
The problem started in her hamstring while at preseason running camp. She notified her coaches during the first week of school, but she says they didn’t seem too concerned. At times Whetzel broke down crying due to the intense pain—sometimes in front of her coaches, sometimes alone in her car. But she kept running and racing. Oddly, it didn’t hurt when she ran hard workouts. It was as if her body’s circuitry misfired, holding off the searing sensation until the endorphins faded. Since she was a non-scholarship member of the team, she felt like she had no wiggle room to disappoint her coaches. Finally, in February 2018, Whetzel got an MRI, which revealed a partially torn hamstring and tendinosis. After receiving two platelet-rich plasma-therapy injections, Whetzel was left to rehabilitate on her own with little direction from athletic trainers or support from her coaches. “I felt incredibly alone and isolated,” she says.
Whetzel used to love running—the sense of accomplishment after hard workouts, laughing with friends, and all the people she met through the sport—and it was her dream to run for a Division I school. She also understood that sports and injury can go hand in hand. But over the course of her four-year collegiate running career, she began to associate running with one thing: pain. During the spring of her freshman year, the trainers thought she’d sustained a tendon injury and insisted she try running on an antigravity treadmill. But she could barely walk. How was she supposed to keep running? A week later, she saw an orthopedic doctor who diagnosed a stress fracture in her fibula. Then, her senior year, Whetzel developed another stress fracture, but she still raced every meet that cross-country season.
“You’re competing at a Division I level, and you have to compete through some injuries,” she says, voicing an unspoken belief held by many members of the team. “It felt like you couldn’t say no, like you didn’t have much of a choice. If you complained, you’re being weak.” Even when she reported an injury, she says the coaching staff didn’t always believe her. So she ran, mostly in fear—that her leg was going to snap midrun, or that she wouldn’t meet her coaches’ exacting standards.
Runners are often known for ignoring the first signs of injury and hoping a niggle doesn’t turn into something more serious. Suffering is just part of the ethos of the sport. At collegiate and elite levels, athletes don’t always feel comfortable making waves by questioning coaching practices and team behaviors—like inadequate rest and recovery for injuries, or disordered eating habits—especially when there are sponsorships or scholarships on the line. But the dialogue in the running world began to shift in November 2019; in a video op-ed for The New York Times, former Nike Oregon Project (NOP) athlete Mary Cain detailed the physical and mental harm she experienced while working with coach Alberto Salazar. She alleged that the unhealthy training environment under Salazar, including public weight shaming, led to three years of missed periods, five broken bones due to poor nutrition, and suicidal ideation. She spoke plainly about what she saw as the crux of the issue: the system was broken, and the sport’s culture made it difficult for young women to thrive. This wasn’t about one coach’s behavior or one athlete’s inability to endure. It was about the cumulative physical and psychological consequences of these norms on athletes’ long-term health. (Salazar has denied allegations of abuse and is serving a temporary suspension by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an independent nonprofit organization that investigates reports of abuse and misconduct in Olympic and Paralympic sports. Salazar is also serving a four-year ban for violating U.S. Anti-Doping Agency rules, which he is appealing.)
Cain says it took reading the 2019 U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report on Salazar—three years after she left the NOP—to understand her experience as abuse. “I suddenly realized, if I lived for the last three or four years unable to recognize abuse, there must be thousands of other young women out there who are experiencing the same blindness and, as a result, are unable to stand up for themselves,” she says. She wanted to show that someone “went through the scary and still came out of it.”
Cain’s story was pivotal. It helped reframe what many young female athletes feel is a personal shortcoming—that they aren’t cut out to run competitively—as a systemic and cultural problem instead. And it spurred a wider reckoning in the sport. Soon after the Times video was published, other athletes of all levels began to acknowledge living through similar experiences. Many came forward with their own stories on social media. They recounted situations in which body shaming, weigh-ins, bullying, and overtraining were normalized behind the scenes—practices that can be a pervasive part of the sport’s culture and often fall into a gray area where what’s acceptable is not always clear.
After watching Cain’s Times op-ed, Whetzel had a realization. “Mary’s experience was so similar to mine,” she says. “If she can say something, that it’s not OK, then that means what happened to me, to all of us, is also not OK.”
In 2015, former University of Arizona throws coach Craig Carter was arrested for assault and harassment of a female athlete he coached. He was convicted in 2018. But nothing changed within the culture of the university, according to Whetzel and other former members of the track and field team. In recent years, other female athletes in the program reported emotional and physical abuse by means of overtraining and bullying, along with claims of sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault by male athletes.
On July 8, 2020, Whetzel emailed Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke and other department officials. “You are completely aware of the heinous crimes that go on within your program yet refuse to take action because protecting the university’s reputation is apparently more important to you than the safety and physical and emotional well-being of your student-athletes who create that very reputation,” she wrote. The next day, she and seven other athletes contacted the Arizona Daily Star.
A few months earlier, at Wesleyan University, Cain’s story had a similar impact on another group of women. In March 2020, 36 Wesleyan cross-country and track alumnae signed a letter detailing allegations of a culture of disordered eating, body shaming, and injuries that they experienced under their head coach, John Crooke. They said that Crooke had encouraged athletes to lose weight without guidance from trained nutrition professionals and had provided medically incorrect information to women on the team, leading them to believe that gaining weight caused stress fractures, excess weight led to performance plateaus, and the absence of a menstrual cycle was not a problem.
As a sophomore in 2012, Claire Palmer approached the then Wesleyan athletic director when she became worried about her teammates’ physical and mental health and safety. “That should have been enough for someone to look into it,” she says. Instead, Palmer says that her concerns were dismissed. “I lost my belief in the value of sports as a good thing,” she says now, looking back on that time. Palmer quit the team at the beginning of her junior year.
There’s an expectation that colleges and universities have their students’ best interests in mind, but many of the runners interviewed for this story felt that their schools neglected those responsibilities. “When you’re a student-athlete, it’s a contract,” says Yuki Hebner, a 2017 Wesleyan graduate who coordinated her team’s effort. “I will give you all that I have for the seasons I run under you. In return, you’re going to have my back, and you’re going to make sure that I don’t come out of this physically or emotionally tattered.” Hebner developed a femoral stress fracture and an eating disorder while in college.
At both the University of Arizona and Wesleyan, athletes say that the coaches defaulted to outdated coaching tactics, like fat-shaming and a “no pain, no gain” mentality, and they weren’t always equipped to guide students in a way that prioritized their health. “I can firmly say that weigh-ins and body surveillance definitely would not fall within effective coaching practices,” says Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. “These are not scientifically proven, effective strategies for getting the best out of your athletes.” To put it another way: “This is about a misuse of power,” she says.
When an athlete’s nutritional intake doesn’t meet their body’s needs, it can set off a domino effect, leading to higher rates of menstrual dysfunction, injury, and low bone density. These symptoms are indicative of two related conditions, the female athlete triad and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). The triad was first recognized in 1992, and RED-S was introduced in 2014, but awareness of these conditions remains low among medical professionals, coaches, and athletic staff. A small study of Division I coaches found that while 43 percent could name the three components of the triad, only 8 percent reported consistently asking their female athletes about their menstrual cycle. Another study, this one of high school coaches, found that only 14 percent were able to identify the triad components.
To make matters worse, there’s no accreditation or education specifically focused on ethical coaching practices, leaving coaches with tremendous power and control over their athletes. “Where else do we tell people to follow this person blindly?” asks Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming and the CEO of Champion Women, an advocacy organization for girls and women in sports. “Don’t question your workouts. Don’t question how you’re treated.” This power dynamic allows emotionally abusive practices to thrive. Athletes need the ability to say no, she says. “If they don’t have a hard and fast no, then you’re going to have injuries and you’re going to have abuse.” The implications of this unequal relationship are reflected in some studies of female athletes. For example, Traci Carson, who investigates low energy availability and chronic stress in women, conducted research of both current and former Division I female runners. “Women could specifically pinpoint comments that coaches said five, six, seven, eight years back that were a trigger for food-restriction and body-image issues they were facing many years later,” she says.
For Whetzel, the environment at the University of Arizona exacerbated the eating disorder she had developed in high school. She claims that a university nutritionist scolded her for eating “fatty” foods, didn’t comment when Whetzel reported her continued weight loss, and asked her to list everything she ate during the day, down to the number of cheerios. From then on, Whetzel ate exactly 40 cheerios before every run, which became a team joke.
During her senior year, Whetzel says that the assistant cross-country coach chided her for consuming too much sugar, yet praised her when she dropped ten pounds from her already underweight frame, saying she looked “fitter.” (In a statement to Outside, the assistant coach strongly denied participating “in a ‘culture of overtraining, body shaming, and emotional abuse’” but did not comment further on specific interactions with Whetzel.) Over winter break, according to Whetzel and another teammate who spoke to Outside, the women’s team—all except for the smallest girls—was prescribed five to six hours of cross-training per week on top of running as much as 50 miles a week. The team took to calling it “fat camp.”
Although Whetzel’s weight yo-yoed throughout her college career and she stopped getting her period regularly, she claims she was not given consistent professional nutrition counseling. It wasn’t until her senior year, Whetzel says, that team doctors questioned her about her eating habits and tried to get her to admit she had a disorder. “You feel worthless and start to believe it,” Whetzel says. “You start doing things because you think you deserve the pain or deserve to be hungry. Or, if you’re small enough, maybe you’ll finally be good enough.” (University of Arizona officials denied allegations of improper medical care or treatment and said they were “unable to comment specifically on Whetzel’s claims [because] Whetzel declined to to sign a HIPAA or FERPA release.”)
Hebner, from Wesleyan, sees the dismissal of athlete concerns as a failure on all levels. Part of the problem is there aren’t always clear lines for reporting or protections for athletes, let alone a system of accountability. Athletes may not be educated on what kind of behavior is unacceptable, especially for emotional abuse, when it can be hard to pinpoint a specific offense. Student-athletes are left to protect themselves and those around them.
At Wesleyan, a four-month university investigation found that Crooke didn’t violate any policies. When school officials then put Crooke in charge of addressing athletes’ concerns, current team members protested, refusing to run for him. Crooke eventually retired in August. “We were distressed by the devastating accounts from several alumnae members of the Wesleyan women’s cross-country team reported last year,” Wesleyan officials said in a statement to Outside. Since the allegations surfaced, the university says it has put measures in place to promote the well-being of its athletes: discussions about student health will only occur with qualified professionals, and the university will provide more support services, nutrition resources, and information on reporting protocols to athletes. The university is also considering hiring an additional female-identifying certified trainer with expertise in endurance sports. (Outside was unable to reach Crooke for comment.)
In September, a month after Whetzel and others contacted the Arizona Daily Star, 12 more former University of Arizona athletes came forward with reports of the negligent culture. In November, the University of Arizona announced the retirement of head cross-country coach and associate head track and field coach James Li, but no statement on the reasoning behind the decision was released. (In a statement to Outside, Li denied all allegations and maintained that his retirement was for personal reasons.) When asked to comment for this story, University of Arizona officials said in a statement that the athletic department has actively reviewed all concerns submitted by student-athletes, and that “privacy considerations might impact our ability to share outcomes with students.”
But personnel changes are only one step toward addressing student-athlete concerns. They don’t root out outdated and unethical coaching practices or contend with the underlying system that can breed abuse. Thea Ramsey, who ran for the University of Arizona and graduated in 2020, says she’s relieved by the news of the coaching changes, but not satisfied. “When coaches are able to quietly fade into the night, there’s no accountability,” she says. “The college athletics system isn’t set up to protect individual athletes like us. It would be so different if coaches prioritized the well-being and success of women.”
Still, Hogshead-Makar sees glimmers of change on the way. She says Cain’s story, along with the wider #MeToo movement and the Larry Nassar gymnastics abuse case, have opened doors and given permission for other athletes to speak out against harmful coaching practices in the running world. Atlanta Track Club coach Amy Begley, who shared her experiences as an NOP athlete shortly after Cain’s op-ed, says more people inside the sport are now willing to question and reflect on coaching practices. “I see people reaching out for help, whereas in the past they wouldn’t have,” she says.
And as more athletes come forward with their stories, there’s increased support and validation for them, allowing others to share and grapple with their own experiences. Whetzel says that since the University of Arizona team went public with the story, other athletes from different schools—and across various sports—have reached out to her privately to share similar experiences. Social media has created an alternate venue for athletes to air their complaints when the official channels don’t work.
These public testimonials are slowly cracking the sport’s culture of silence. In late February, several former members of the University of Alabama at Birmingham cross-country and track and field teams came forward on social media with accounts of psychological abuse, racism, eating disorders, and overtraining by head cross-country coach and associate track and field coach Matthew Esche. The UAB athlete stories spurred other current and former athletes to speak out, including athletes from Bradley University, where Esche previously coached. A week after the accounts first surfaced online, Esche resigned from his position. UAB announced the hiring of a new coach, Maryn Lowry, in May. (Both Esche and the UAB athletic department declined to comment for this story, citing university policy. A Bradley University spokesperson said Esche’s tenure at the university ended several years ago and that there is new leadership in place.) And in March, Pepperdine University announced that it had terminated the contract of head cross-country and track coach Sylvia Mosqueda after athletes complained of a toxic team culture. Later that month, members of the Loyola Marymount University cross-country and track teams made similar allegations of emotional abuse, gaslighting, and sexism during their time as student-athletes. LMU has initiated an investigation. While the official findings have not been released, the university announced in May that they are seeking new leadership for the cross-country and track and field teams.
Cain says the increased dialogue around the sport’s culture is a meaningful first step that creates a chain reaction. These conversations may prompt preventative action and help inoculate future generations of athletes. But to address the situation in the long term, coaches and athletic departments need to evolve. According to LaVoi, that starts with a systematic, policy-driven, mandated coaching education curriculum. Cain believes creating guidelines that clearly delineate roles and responsibilities for coaches will help set a precedent for the future, one in which coaches don’t overstep into areas where they may not be qualified to advise athletes, like nutrition. Athletic staff, including nutritionists and trainers, also need to be well versed in and up to date on issues like RED-S, the female athlete triad, eating disorders, and overtraining syndrome.
In a sign of progress, some new coaching models are beginning to emerge. Begley says she’s trying to create a culture of trust and communication with her athletes and draws on a network of qualified experts to support them. “For me, nutrition is one of the last things we really dial in,” she says. If fueling becomes an issue, she’ll defer to a nutrition professional. Former professional runner Lauren Fleshman has taken lessons from her own career to put forth a new way of supporting female athletes and stopping what she calls the “talent leak in running.” Now the coach of the elite running group Littlewing Athletics, Fleshman doesn’t talk about weight with her athletes (unless there’s an unexpected swing that could be indicative of a larger health problem), and instead prioritizes their physical, mental, and emotional health and their long-term career.
It’s no secret that male coaches far outnumber women at elite and collegiate levels, where candidates are often vetted through personal connections. To adequately support female athletes, the sport also needs a viable pipeline for women who want to coach—and a support network for them once they get there. In recent years, coaches have begun to band together to bring a more diverse group of women into the profession and help them move up the ladder. “It’s never really been done before, the way people are networking, helping, and putting resources out there,” Begley says. For example, veteran coaches Charlotte Lettis Richardson and Melissa Hill created the Women’s Running Coaches Collective in 2018. The WRCC promotes coaching as a viable career path for women, and it empowers those already coaching through networking and education. “There’s a thirst out there from young coaches for knowledge and to learn from each other’s experiences,” Hill says. Last year, Robyn McGillis and Marie Davis Markham, two high school coaches from Oregon who are WRCC members, joined forces to create Wildwood Running to champion the physiological and emotional needs of young female runners. Through a coaching clinic, virtual running camp, and mentorship, they provide a forum to help runners navigate topics like puberty, mental health, nutrition, menstrual health, and athletic identity. These new initiatives have the potential to transform entrenched practices in the sport so that all coaches focus on nurturing and supporting athletes holistically, Richardson says.
There’s no easy fix for these systemic issues. But athletes today, particularly younger ones, are standing up for themselves and demanding fair treatment. And they shouldn’t carry the full burden of changing the underlying culture and holding their coaches and institutions accountable. The way Cain sees it, there needs to be real reform on the coaching side. “You have to look at it not from the athlete-as-a-product perspective,” she says. “There has to be more to it. When you have coaches really think about an athlete’s longevity, their personhood as a whole, that’s where you’re going to see breakthroughs and opportunities.”
Update 5/27/21: This story has been updated with a more specific comment from The University of Arizona in response to Hannah Whetzel’s allegations.