Race Weight

Millrose Games-69.jpg

With indoor track season underway, I’m reminded of one of my favorite peeves with running culture: race weight.

This is a term used to describe the weight loss that sometimes accompanies a runner’s peak season. It’s not that the concept is inaccurate, training cycles tend to result in a leaning out effect in runners during race season. It’s the term itself. It implies a static number, one ideal running weight that sticks with you throughout life (or your life as an elite runner), not a shifting, adapting body. And by placing the emphasis on weight, it can make weight the goal, the marker of race readiness, as opposed to a side effect of athletic development. 

At least, that’s what it did for me. It’s that shift in perspective, making the weight the goal and indicator of fitness to which I object most. Because it seduced me and sidetracked my development for years. 

 


The trouble started my first week as an aspiring pro athlete. I drove the U-Haul to New Jersey in January 2012. I was joining the New Jersey New York Track Club, going after a big dream – professional running, and the coming summer Olympic cycle. 

This wasn’t common path for my classmates out of college. I was without a sponsor or significant means of income. And while I was a good collegiate runner, my would-be competitors had been excelling at the collegiate and pro levels for years. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t crazy, that I could make something of this. I needed to go from good to great, fast, and with no room for error.

The first thing I did after moving into my apartment was put a calendar on the wall. Six months, each framed, counting down the days until the Olympic Trials. The next thing was to take a picture. I’m wearing a sports bra standing in front of the calendar, it’s the only decoration in my room. This was going to be my personal before and after challenge. I imagined a weekly catalog, charting my physical transformation. I was starting a boot camp and by June I’d be ripped and look the part of an Olympian. It was this focus on aesthetic over substance that almost kept me from being an Olympian, from being a factor, from being my best.

The second thing I did was google. Bios of the best American runners. What do they look like? How much do they weigh? I realize now that those numbers come from USATF forms we fill out when we make a US team, it’s self-reported, and usually from one year over what could be a 10+ year pro career. But I didn’t know that at the time. All I saw were numbers smaller than mine. And I literally typed “How do I lose weight?” I didn’t think too hard about all the false and potentially dangerous information I could find. For my first major training cycle as a “serious” runner, I based my nutrition on online weight loss forums.

I started this process of independent-learning in other areas of training: aerobic development, strength work, physical therapy and injury mitigation. And I started training, hard. I like to think that I’ve kept my passion for self improvement and education, but become better at checking my sources. Still, those initial missteps in nutrition caused me to falter. I set about a six month bender of restricted eating. High vegetable volume (now that I can laugh about this, we can call it the era of cabbage), low-carb, low-fat, gluten-free, all the fads. I kept track of everything I ate, and if I went over my self-imposed daily limit, I’d dock that amount from the next day.

I started seeing the positive results of my new training, I set big PRs in both the 800 and 1500, and qualified for the 2012 Trials. But the results of these new eating habits swiftly followed, hitting me like a freight train. I stumbled into the 2012 Olympic Trials, underfed, with no energy, and miserable. I placed last in my events, and I limped home to my mom’s house for the remainder of the summer.

In a way, I was lucky. The results of my nutrition experiment were so disastrous, it was obvious that I had to change course if I were to reach my goals.

The scarier part was the emotional effects, which lasted beyond that summer. I started associating stress with food. And there is no lack of stress in the post-college years… job, money, relationships, family. When anxious, I would feel nauseous and lose my appetite. I would eat secretly at night after overly restricting during the day. A running career has added body-image pressure. Sponsorships involve racing in skimpy uniforms, as well as photoshoots and other sports modeling. While it’s billed as empowering, and it can be, it didn’t feel that way during that period. I more than once burst into tears from the idea of having photos taken, I was so uncomfortable in my skin. 

Describing those instances makes it sound so serious, maybe not relatable. In truth, those episodes during the first two years were jarring enough to make me realize that something was off, to stop me from continuing down a destructive spiral. It was the more subtle forms of body dysmorphia that were harder to define and defend against. Because they aren’t uncommon. Diet culture, fear of certain “bad” foods, fat phobia, self-worth linked to scale number. In a modern western culture those seem to be the norm, not the exception.

Like my belief that my body and image determined my value, my belief in race weight persisted. I would ask coaches and experts about it. When they didn’t give me an answer, I would think they were just avoiding a nuanced topic, and I would go about making my own calculations.  I knew I couldn’t starve myself to get there, that had clearly failed. But I still believed that I could diet my way to being a good runner, if I could get my body to race weight, to look like my idols, then I would be ready.

 


This is where I’m supposed to say, “if I could look forward in time, I would see how wrong I was.” But that’s not true. If I had been given a looking glass, and the ability to jump three to four years in the future, I would have seen me during the 2016 Olympic summer. I would have seen a runner at the top of the US, competing with the best in the world. And everything would have been exact proof of my theory. This is a strong and lean athlete, in her prime, and at her racing weight. 

What I looked like in 2016 trials, and the following summer seasons, is what caused 23 year old me to restrict and binge and worry. But photos lie. Or at least they do not tell all.

I compete in an event according to artificially constructed rules. My life is singularly focused on being my fastest. I spend a great deal of time working out and thinking about my physical development, to a level that would probably be maladaptive if I weren’t a professional athlete. Even in this specific and competitive world, I’ve only hindered myself when I focus too much on how my body looks, as opposed to what it can do.

If 23 year me only knew that 27 (or 29) year old me wasn’t thinking about how she looked. She was thinking about how good she felt. About all the work she had done for that moment. If 23 year old me know that I eat full fats and carbs, I don’t binge secretly because of a deficit during the day. If 23 year old me knew that it was that kind of behavior that made it take so long.

I had to relearn athletic nutrition (HT Clyde Wilson! Plus other nutritionists I’ve worked with throughout the years). I had to do the work of regaining a trusting relationship with food. I had to do the work of divorcing my self esteem from my aesthetic. And I had to reframe race weight. 

 


So where does that leave me? How do I now understand this concept? How do I use it in my training? 

My body did change over the years, as the training accumulated and I ate well and allowed for enough recovery. But it did not happen in six months. There is no shortcutting, there is no dieting. Maybe that experiment got me to look the part, but it just hurt me in my goals of reaching my potential, and took years of undoing.

Yes, I do go through a race weight cycle during the year. But this is more a function of adaptations to training. I drop a few pounds as I professionally workout over months, and I gain some when I take a break in the fall. I’ve learned that macro and micro cycles of stress/rest are necessary, more for the rebuilding than the shedding. This allows a sustained career.

And while I used to think that there was one weight, the perfect runner body, that would be my goal in the final races, that hasn’t proven true. While I do have a lower weight during the race season of my training cycle, the exact number has varied.

I’ve been running at an elite level (DI or pro) for 12 years. The race season weights at 18, 24, 28 have all been a bit different.  I suspect this is a factor of age, types of workouts and lifting regimens, and accumulated years of training. I’ve raced well throughout those years, and throughout each training cycle. I’ve learned that my body composition does not determine my performance. I’ve learned that women go through hormonal changes through their late teens and early twenties, which contribute to changing body composition (a higher body fat percentage in early vs late twenties, all else being equal). At least anecdotally this seems true for me and other American runners. But I didn’t know this when I innocently googled photos of my running idols. I didn’t think to check their ages, how far along they were in their careers, their injury history.

 


I hope that if I had started my career now, I would have been better informed. It seems that there are more well-known athletes talking about their nourishing, sane eating habits. Runners I follow seem to spread good nutrition practices and positive body images. But that could have also been the case a few years ago. I didn’t think it applied to me. I thought I had to make more drastic changes, because I was starting from scratch, already behind.

More social media also means more wordless pictures, of fit humans running around fast tracks. Pictures that now sometimes include me. Which is why I wanted to write something. I’m only in these photos because I overcame my obsession with race weight. When weight is the goal, or even seen as a primary indicator of the goal, you sidetrack performance. Make performance the indicator, and performance goal.

Photo by Justin Britton

Székesfehérvár

IMG_1578

My first race is a mile in Budapest. Or, I thought it was Budapest. It’s actually in a town called Székesfehérvár. I learn this the day before I arrive. My mom is meeting me in Hungary. This will be the only  race she has seen me run on non-US soil, aside from Olympics and World Champs. The plan was to spend time in Budapest, but instead we find ourselves renting a car to drive an hour into the countryside. The Diamond League is the world’s premiere track circuit, but there are other meets in Europe throughout the summer, and this is one of them. Luckily she loves me, and doesn’t care where I take her (she says). I think she even found a cross fit gym near the hotel.

This was supposed to be a “rust buster”. That means a low-key race that allows for practice with tactics, and flushing the legs after long travel and time change. I didn’t know that a world record holder and Olympic medalist would be in the race. But when I see the heat sheet with the list of competitors, there is Genzebe Dibaba.

The plan was to stay in the back because we thought she would chart a crazy-fast pace. But her pace was just normal-fast, and our chase pack was 4-5 seconds behind that. In the middle of the race, I see the clock and realize that I should be closer to the front. But this girl next to me is messing with my juju. She’s jerky in her running, and keeps pulling wide when I try to go around. She starts but then slows as I come next to her, and then tuck in behind. In that situation, the last thing I want is to expend energy with every acceleration as we vie for position. One option is to make a decisive move past her. Instead, I stay back and wait for the break. But shit, she gets there first! I respond and we both kick down the home stretch, I end up following her to the finish. I’m pissed that I wasn’t more assertive earlier in the race. We were battling for second and third, while Dibaba won in a time that’s slower than my PB.

It’s a good lesson to not be too intimidated by the accolades of other racers. I could have gone out with Dibaba and been just fine. You never know what’s going on behind the scenes. Race the athlete in front of you, not their past self.

We made it to St Moritz!!!

IMG_3004

This is my first time in the Swiss mountain town. St Moritz has a reputation as a ritzy resort destination with stunning natural beauty. I learn that town is split between upper and lower sections. All of the resorts and nice shops are along the hillside. Family-friendly houses dot the river valley.

Our apartment is across from a track. Athletes from all over Europe base here during the summer. I’ll look out my window and regardless of time of day or evening there always seems to be someone doing a workout.

The training setup is pretty perfect. Trails start out our backdoor, and go for miles in either direction. The town is small enough that we can walk to whatever we need. We live at 6000 ft but can drive one hour down the mountain to the town of Chiavenna (Italy!) for a track session at lower elevation.

Space is tight, so I share a room with Marielle. I don’t mind a bunk mate, after years of pairing with my sister, I find it comforting.

The routine here is no different from the other altitude camps, except with espresso instead of coffee. We run, we lift, we workout on the track, and we wait for races.

IMG_5553

I finished third

IMG_0754

Third place is not a win, but it is a podium, and in our sport, podiums matter. That is the difference between making the team and not, between Olympian and not, between medalist and not.

I took the lead in the race with a lap to go. It wasn’t something I had planned, but no one was making a move and we kept stutter-stepping the pace. By going with a hard acceleration, I forced my competitors to respond. Shelby and Jenny passed me in the end, but at this moment they are ranked top of the world, and that is not the level at which I have been performing. Yes, I probably should be looking to win, but I also want to be realistic with my goals and season progression. Today, a podium is a win.

I went into this Championship with the shakiest confidence of the last three years. Training has been hard, I haven’t been racing that well, and I don’t feel like I’m thriving yet in the program. Even with all that background noise, I was able to perform under pressure. 

This marks three years in a row that I’ve finished top three at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, three years ever. I’m proud of the consistency I’ve been able to maintain since my breakthrough year in 2016. Since starting my post-collegiate/professional running career in 2012, I have aimed to learn and grow as an athlete. With the help of coaches, training partners, and other experts, I’ve tried to develop and apply systems and knowledge to the goal of bettering myself and my performances. I’m proud of the developments.

That’s not to say I feel finished. I continue to understand different interventions I can implement based on feedback from my training. But I leave Des Moines at least knowing that I can still put up a fight.

 

Courage over comfort

IMG_3090

I want to stay in bed. And cuddle with my boyfriend and dog.
I want to stay in Portland and cook with my friends and walk to the park late with the sun still shining.

I want to stay in Mammoth, and giggle and bond with teammates, and play great mouse detective and trivia on Tuesdays.

I want to not change, not move,
Never leave friends, disappoint anyone, disagree or argue.
I don’t want to risk losing the things that I love.

I have to want this more.

 

I wrote that in my notebook on the plane to the US champs, after spending two weeks at home. This was a follow-up:

Sometimes I wish I could just hide in the mountains and stay preparing forever. There are always more workouts to do, more miles to get in. But that’s not how this works. We have to race, even without a perfect buildup (usually without a perfect buildup). The perfectionist part of me hates it, and that’s usually a good thing. If I weren’t forced with a race deadline, nothing would ever come of the months of work.

My friend @nic.antoinette says courage isn’t the opposite of fear, but of comfort. I feel like I’m constantly seduced by the desire to stay home. No matter how many times I show up, overcome my urge to flake, it will come time to travel, or have a hard conversation, and for a moment I’ll just want to …not. To go back to bed and watch TV. I don’t know if this is my special struggle, or more universal, but it surprises me that even after years of working against it, the little fearful voice still appears in my head. (You can just keep sleeping, call in sick, miss the flight).

Nicole also has a quote about only needed 20 seconds of bravery. You only need 20 seconds of insane courage to start the act. And once it’s started, inertia takes over. Usually for me, it’s even less than that. Just a moment to focus straight on that lounging, luring voice, and think, “YO! snap out of it.” And then stand up, and do the thing.