Two Elite Runners Wrote the Book on Longevity in Women’s Distance Running
In their recent release, Molly Huddle and Sara Slattery push back against conditions that curtail the running careers of young women, with stories from 50 who’ve made it
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In their new release, How She Did It, elite runners Molly Huddle and Sara Slattery share the stories of 50 successful runners to highlight women’s experiences in the sport. The book serves as an inspirational how-to guide for the next generation of female distance runners, with the goal of promoting athletic longevity.
Huddle, a two-time Olympian and the American record holder in the 10K, and Slattery, a retired professional runner who is now the head cross-country coach at Grand Canyon University, in Phoenix, bring their personal experiences and a scientific curiosity to the project. The first section of the book offers expertise from bone specialists, nutritionists, and sports psychologists on how girls and young women can maximize their athletic potential while staying healthy. The second half consists of the 50 interviews—from 1960s stars to current pros—that distills the lessons they’ve learned and how they found long-term success in their careers.
We spoke with Huddle and Slattery about how women’s distance running has changed over the past 60 years, who their role models are in the sport, and the power of stories to change culture.
Outside: What are the major points you hope readers take away from How She Did It?
Slattery: The biggest takeaway is that your progression is not always a straight line, and that you’ll face different challenges, whether they’re injuries or mental health issues. There are going to be different bumps in the road along the way, but if you set yourself up with tools to handle those things, you can come out the other side with a healthy, long, successful career.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing women runners early in their careers today? And what are some potential solutions?
Huddle: We both competed at a high level in high school and went to national-level meets. We were aware that so many of the girls we competed against didn’t make it to that equivalent performance level in college and beyond. It’s not just in the U.S.—only 50 percent of IAAF [International Amateur Athletic Federation] world junior medalists make it to the senior ranks. There’s a lot of low energy availability and eating disorders. We see a lot of girls derailed because of puberty, just not recognizing that they need to stick it out a little longer, that their trajectory isn’t like the guys. All the world records in track and field are set by women, not girls. So hammering that messaging home is important. The third thing we saw is performance-anxiety issues that we wanted to normalize and give some tips around.
Slattery: We felt it was really important to have that expert knowledge but also understand how it’s played out for successful women in the sport. They could have drilled that expert advice into me every day, but I wasn’t going to listen to it unless I saw someone else do it successfully. That’s why stories are really powerful, to know that what you’re doing can actually work.
How has the experience of women runners changed over the years, for better or worse?
Huddle: We wanted to talk to some of the pioneers of women’s running, to give the perspective that it hasn’t been that long that women have been in the sport. That probably is part of the reason some of these issues exist in girls’ and women’s sports. Women couldn’t even get spots on the starting line or equal events in the Olympics until pretty late. Young readers might not know that history. It shows how far women have come in a short amount of time.
We loved the stories of the mother-daughter duos. Like Eilish McColgan and her mom, Liz, and Shalane Flanagan and her mom, Cheryl. The moms ran phenomenally well, but imagine if they didn’t have to make their own opportunities, make their own gear, fight for their events while they’re racing them. Their daughters are really benefiting from the paths they made.
Which women did you two look to for inspiration when you were younger?
Slattery: Lynn Jennings was a name that I knew, she was someone I had a poster of in my bedroom as a young runner. It was really exciting to interview her for the book, because when Molly and I grew up in the sport, there wasn’t social media, there weren’t a lot of articles on women running. We were always trying to find more information on these amazing athletes. We didn’t understand their side of the story and what got them there. We wanted this book to show that a lot of these women were just normal high school runners as well. We really wanted the book to show a high school, a college, and then a professional photo of each athlete, to show it took the athletes time to progress to where they were and that they started out like most girls do.
Huddle: Deena Kastor, Shayne Culpepper, Amy Rudolph. They were the ones winning nationals, and I just wanted more information on them at the time, in the early 2000s. I was reading running books and articles, but when I would go to meets I would be following them around, watching what they were doing. I definitely wanted that advice from them so badly, so that was part of the motivation.
Who do you look to now?
Slattery: It’s hard to name any one person. Just last week, Elise Cranny just missed Molly’s American record in the 10K. She had a great high school career and struggled in college to stay healthy. She had injuries but also dealt with a little bit of RED-S. She’s really tried to take care of her body and is coming back from learning those things and now taking off as an athlete. She’s very vocal about it, too. She’s letting other girls understand her journey. I think the way she’s handling her story and her career is so powerful for the next generation.
Huddle: I tend to look toward the women athletes who are more my age in other sports, even beyond running. I love watching Edna Kiplagat come back to Boston every year and finish in the top three, and I love watching Megan Rapinoe out on the field, and I love watching Serena Williams and Allyson Felix and just seeing how they’re expanding as they get older and mature into other areas but are still very much dedicated to their sport.
How did you decide who to profile?
Slattery: That was the hardest thing about writing this book. Molly and I wanted it to be two or three times as big, because there were so many stories that we felt were powerful and unique and that women could get a lot out of. We really wanted to showcase a diverse age range, from the pioneers to current athletes. We felt a lot of the young girls are going to connect with those current athletes, but it’s really important for them to understand the history of how we’ve gotten to where we are. We also wanted to have a mix of different events, from 800 meters to the marathon. Also, we wanted to show some different countries, not just Americans and their experiences. We wanted it to be women who have had longevity in their careers—so throughout high school, college, and the professional ranks—and have done it at the highest level. It will never be a fair list.
The book was inspired by stories of girls who struggled in the sport or had been treated poorly by their coaches. And there’s a big section about body image and disordered eating. Over the course of your careers, how have you noticed that attitudes about body image and nutrition have changed in distance running?
Huddle: I feel like it’s changed a lot. When I went to Foot Locker as a high school girl, so many of the girls did have low energy availability or an eating disorder. When Sara and I went this year to help with the Eastbay Cross Country Championships meet, we thought that the girls seemed to have a much healthier attitude around fueling. They seemed like strong, healthy athletes. So we think that that messaging is getting out there, which is great. It’s just talked about more. It’s less taboo. When we were in high school and college, it was still weird to talk about your period, which is such a big marker of those issues. Now there’s much more information out there. Coaches seem much more comfortable talking about it, even male coaches. It’s definitely trending in the right direction, but it’s still a really big issue.
Molly, you have an anecdote in the book about dealing with multiple injuries during your college career. I think that’s something many college athletes go through, and it can leave them feeling isolated. How did you cope with that, and do you have any tips?
Huddle: My first real long injury that I dealt with came in my second year of college. I had to deal with the disappointment of being really fit, and I had to give up that opportunity to perform well at nationals. I think it was good to have to face that kind of disappointment and think ahead to your comeback. That’s something you’re going to see a lot of in life as well as sports.
So the first time, dealing with injury was really upsetting. It’s a challenge. I talked to some of my teammates about it. I made plans for cross-training. Then, the second and third injuries, I was like, This wasn’t supposed to happen again—I learned my lesson. Those were the harder times.
The third time I got hurt, I thought, Maybe I can’t run anymore. Maybe this isn’t something I’m going to be good at. But eventually, you decide that’s something that you take control over. I stopped focusing on performance and was like, I just like doing it. It highlighted that for me, the intrinsic love for running. That was important fuel going forward, because that’s kind of what you’re left with when you’re injured. The performance part isn’t really something that can give you that boost of excitement and energy and reward. That’s something good that came out of it.
In many ways, the book is a tribute to how far women have come in distance running. Do you think sexism still exists in the sport?
Slattery: There was a good stat, when we were looking at the coverage of women athletics in general, that cited the amount of coverage that men get versus women—women’s sports stories make up only about four percent of U.S. media coverage. Seeing examples of athletic achievement by people that you can relate to is important for you to know you can do that, too. I think we’re seeing that now, and that’s what’s really helping women’s running progress the way it has in the past ten years. I think the more exposure that we have with that, the better, so that our women are equipped with that belief.
Huddle: I think the leadership, too—in most sports, including running—is mostly men. The coaches, athletic directors, and heads of federations are still largely male. That’s probably why it took so long to get some of the women’s events added. If you had had women in those higher-up positions, it probably would have been easier. I think women coaches are probably going to be more tuned in to some of the issues girls and women have as they go through the sport. So we need more of that.
In the media, we hear a lot in about how the running world can be toxic for young women especially. But in what ways do you think the sport also empowers women?
Huddle: We didn’t have perfect experiences in the sport, but Sara and I talked about how, at the end of the day, it was an empowering journey for both of us to do sports and learn those lessons in that way. It’s a safe place to learn to fail and make mistakes, and you take that into the world with you. I think it’s a really empowering part of sports, and it gives you a good relationship with your body as a girl. It’s more about strength and what you can do with your body than what it looks like or what someone else thinks of it. I think that’s a lesson that, if you learn it early, really makes you a confident person going forward.