One of my closest friends asked me a couple of weeks ago if I would ever let my daughter be a distance runner. This friend knew how soul-wrenching some of my last six years as a cross country and track athlete were. In essence, she really wanted to know: Was it worth it?
I was a freshman in high school when the coach of my new club track team told us how important weight loss was to our sport. He had a detailed PowerPoint presentation with elaborate graphs that demonstrated just how much faster we could be if we had less weight to carry around the track.
The numbers were astonishing. By losing five to 10 pounds, I could cut 30 seconds off my time and take my competition to the next level.
This poorly thought-out object lesson might have been innocent in nature and intended to inspire hard work.
However, it began a cycle of shame for me that I still wonder if I will ever beat.
My sole focus as a distance runner was to be as fast as possible, whatever the cost. Today, saying that sentence out loud just sounds wrong, but at the time, I told myself I was in pursuit of excellence. I knew that my God-given physique was entirely incompatible with the 100-pound frame of an Olympic marathoner, and that fact alone was so embarrassing to me.
I became hyper-aware of people’s reactions to my body when they learned I was a distance runner, and grew altogether exhausted by “Wow, you don’t look like most cross country girls!” By the time I was 16, I had plenty of medals on the shelf, low numbers on the scale and a tumultuous relationship with food.
Three years later, as a freshman at Wheaton, I considered re-entering the competition. In those three years I had gone from being the best at my thinnest as a high school sophomore, to being pretty good but not incredible by the end of my senior of high school. At the time, I had no idea just how much momentum I would lose by gaining a healthy amount of weight and taking a year off of competing. Praise God for the physical healing he allowed to happen in the two short seasons I had with my high school coach who believed that I was much more than my failures and my victories. Emotionally, I still found myself hating food and my body type, even if I wasn’t still trapped in a cycle of starvation. Perhaps I should have walked away from running entirely and allowed myself to reform my identity apart from collegiate athletics, but instead I chose to keep going.
Honoring God in being slow was the most brutal lesson I could have learned after recovering from an eating disorder. Every inordinately tiring practice, every meet I blew, I kept hoping it was all a fluke. Trying to accept that this pace was now my new normal wreaked havoc on my soul. Up until my final season of cross country this last fall, I spent more hours than I can count trying to calculate what it would take to get back to my high school self.
Whether an athlete or fan, we all glorify past victories and forget just how unsatisfying they are the day after the confetti settles. My time running for Wheaton taught me just how little God cares about how fast I can run in a circle. Sure, he cares for me, delights in my faithfulness to him and loves the things I am passionate about. Yet somehow he is not any more pleased with me when I destroy the competition than when my body can barely finish a race that would have been easy for younger, slimmer me. In fact, I believe God looked at me in the agony of being a “has-been” and took great joy in seeing me learn to let it go.
The grief that poor body image produces is nothing new to the sport of cross country. When you combine an anorexic beauty standard for women portrayed in the media with the reality that lighter is faster, the results are toxic. I am grateful for Wally, Parker and Coach Bradley for choosing to run a distance program at Wheaton that affirms the value of the individual in Jesus, instead of praising superficial success the way the world so often does. I have no doubt their vigilance to honor God has prevented incentivizing unhealthiness in so many of my friends and teammates.
Would I let my daughter run cross country? I think I’ll leave that up to her, but I know with certainty that I will not be a fair weather fan. Over Christmas break, I listened to my 14-year-old sister say over and over that her body wasn’t thin enough for our sport. Even though she’s destroying the competition every weekend, she looks in the mirror and sees a body that hinders her dreams. As a female who felt that exact sentiment, and as her sister, I want to celebrate healthiness with the kind of enthusiasm with which stadiums of fans cheer for national champions. I hope we all can.
I have been ever so strongly convicted that my job as a teammate, a sister and perhaps one day a mother, is to cheer hard for the women in my life, and hope they embrace who God has made them to be. As backwards as it seems, I know the struggle to see my God-given body as beautiful has been a gift intended to aim my focus towards my creator. For this, I have no option but to take a posture of thankfulness. God loved me so fiercely, that the only truth he allowed me to know with certainty is that he looks at me and says, “It is good.”