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Want a Healthier Running Culture for Women? Start With Girls

Two organizations are working to fix problems in women's running before they start: By doing the work to support girl runners.

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The Nike Oregon Project, University of Arizona, Wesleyan University, Loyola Marymount University, University of Oregon: All of these professional and collegiate programs have faced allegations of widespread disordered eating and female athlete abuse. The list seems to grow longer every year. With each allegation, runners ask—will this program be the last example? Might this allegation, finally, push the sport toward lasting change?

Each time, there are calls for systemic change to create a healthier women’s running culture, especially on the NCAA and professional levels. These calls have taken the form of open letters to the NCAA (such as this letter, written by former Loyola Marymount University athlete Rosie Cruz); and petitions to specific universities and athletic departments (such as this one by alumni of Wesleyan University). These athletes beg us to zoom out, to look at the structures and governing bodies that have created such unhealthy practices.

But some organizations want to take a complementary, preventive approach instead of treating the problems as they arise. How do you create a healthier women’s running culture? These organizations say: Start with girls.

RELATED: This is How You Raise Healthy Female Athletes

Wildwood Running

When Robyn McGillis and Marie Davis Markham think of Wildwood Running events, they think of talking. The girls would not stop talking. Not in their Zoom breakout rooms during virtual camp, and not in small groups at summer camp. Certainly not when meeting professional runners at the clinic in Portland, Oregon. It was this very verbosity that struck McGillis and Davis Markham, co-founders of Wildwood Running. Launched in 2020, Wildwood hosts a series of camps, clinics, and virtual programming to educate young, female runners on mental health, nutrition, puberty, menstrual health, and positive team cultures.

“Girls really want to process, talk about, and navigate these issues,” says McGillis, who also serves as the head girls’ cross-country coach at Central Catholic High School in Portland. Still, Wildwood is unique.

“A lot of coaches are afraid to talk about the performance plateau or regression that happens for many girls during puberty,” explains Davis Markham, University of Oregon alumna, six-time All American, and coach at Lincoln High School in Portland. “They are afraid of scaring their girls. But Robyn and I believe knowledge is power.”

Coaches might fear educating their athletes on puberty, but the alternative to education is far scarier. When girls attempt to interfere with the processes of puberty by restricting food intake, the impacts are stark. They risk developing RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports Syndrome), characterized by insufficient input to match output energy, a missed period, low estrogen, and decreased bone health. The impacts are widespread, too: A 2007 study found that, in running and other sports that emphasize leanness, 47 percent of elite female athletes had clinically diagnosed eating disorders.

RELATED: How Coaches and Parents Can Keep Girls Running

Brian MacDonald was all too aware of the prevalence of disorder and abuse in women’s distance running. He knew of the allegations, the news stories, the coaching replacements, and calls for systemic change. After all, he had followed the sport since his own days as a high school runner in Oregon. Yet, his attention to these cases took on a new intensity when they gained personal resonance: His daughter, Marley, was recovering from an eating disorder when she expressed interest in running cross-country at her Seattle-area middle school. Marley was cleared to run by her pediatrician, and maintained a strong support system, including a therapist and a coach passionate about athletes’ well-being. Still, MacDonald knew that a love for running could easily turn into an unhealthy obsession, just another manifestation of disorder.

“I didn’t want her to run until I knew we were in hands that could accommodate her wish to run, without [disorder] being triggered. Wildwood was key to that,” MacDonald says. Now in ninth grade, Marley has attended most Wildwood events, including the in-person summer camp. “When I picked her up from [Wildwood Running] camp, she was beaming. She couldn’t stop telling me about all the things she learned,” he says. “The confidence she gained, inward and outward, was noticeable.”

Running as a breeding ground for eating disorders—that’s a narrative competitive runners know well. But, if girls are empowered with adequate resources and support systems, could we flip this narrative? Could all girls, even those predisposed to disordered eating, experience positive relationships with the sport? Marley’s experience with Wildwood exemplifies what is possible.

Voice in Sport

A handful of organizations share Wildwood’s focus on educating young female runners. After speaking out about the abuse she faced on Nike’s Oregon Project team, Mary Cain founded Atalanta NYC, a nonprofit that employs pro female runners to help create and execute youth mentoring programs. Cain recently spoke to Women’s Running about Atalanta NYC, and its goal to expose girls in underserved communities to the benefits of movement and exercise. In 2019, Stef Strack, a former Nike executive and CEO of Rag & Bone, founded Voice in Sport (VIS), an online community where girls receive advice from top athletes and experts in their sports.

Strack knew that girls’ sports were under-resourced and underfunded. She knew that, by age 14, girls were dropping out of sports at two times the rate of their male peers. To fully address these issues, she wanted to hear directly from girls. So, Strack took to the road, holding focus groups and speaking with over 500 girls and women at high schools and colleges across the country.

“They repeated constantly, ‘I’m struggling with nutrition,’ and ‘I’m struggling with confidence,’” Strack recalls. “As I listened, I started to form buckets of content and services that I wanted to create for these girls.”

One of these services is the VIS mentorship program, through which professional and collegiate athletes mentor girls. Elise Cranny, Bowerman Track Club athlete and Olympian, has served as a mentor for over a year. Cranny is invigorated by the one-on-one connections formed with her mentees. Together, they discuss injuries, RED-S, and how to navigate the successes and disappointments of competitive running. Still, as Cranny speaks of mentorship, an underlying tone of frustration begins to surface in her voice—not with VIS, but with the larger culture.

Elise Cranny, athlete mentor for Voice in Sport, supporting girl runners, poses with hands on hips
Elise Cranny is an athlete mentor for Voice in Sport. (Photo: Voice In Sport)

“I don’t think these conversations are happening early enough,” Cranny says. “Through Voice in Sport, I’ve learned that young, high school girls still believe it’s normal to not get a period when you’re training hard. I feel like there’s so much information out there, but it’s not getting where it needs to go.” Cranny considers VIS crucial in getting this information to the minds that need it most.

Where Girls and Systems Intersect

Cranny, Strack, McGillis, and Davis Markham agree: Systemic change can only go so far if girls are not educated on their mental and physical needs. To this end, Strack and the VIS team move beyond mentorship, exploring the intersection of girls’ empowerment and systemic change. Through the VIS Advocate program, Strack works with high school girls on grassroots initiatives to create more equitable sport structures. Currently, the Advocates are working to draft a federal bill, sponsored by congresswoman Alma Adams, to educate on, enforce, and expand Title IX. Strack hopes that large-scale efforts (like policy) can work in tandem with smaller-scale mentorship and education.

“It has got to be both,” McGillis says, without hesitation. Girls need resources to understand body changes and mental health. At the same time, sports structures and policies need to better support girls’ and women’s needs. With proper education, she believes, girls will be more inclined to advocate for these needs.

“We want girls to feel empowered to ask the questions that will inspire larger-scale change,” says Davis Markham.

You can learn more about Wildwood Running, their programing, and their upcoming virtual camp here. You can learn more about the mentorship and advocacy opportunities at Voice in Sport here.