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
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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.