When An Athlete’s Dream Turned Into Her Worst Nightmare: The Crisis In Women’s Running

Daisy Koffler

Running is a challenging sport both mentally and physically that men and women all over the world compete in. This addicting sport portrays the male dominance in fitness as well as solidifies the stereotype that ‘boys are faster than girls.’ However, that statement can be backed up by the anatomical differences of male and female bodies and the physical toll running takes. 

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt holds the world record time of 9.58 seconds for the 100 meter dash, while the female world record is 10.49 seconds, set by American runner Florence Griffith Joyner. An understanding of the human body reveals why Florence Griffith Joyner was over a second slower than Usain Bolt. According to Live Science, a woman’s leg is about 60 percent muscle, while a man’s leg is about 80 percent, allowing men to run faster. Furthermore, men have larger lungs and male blood cells can hold ten percent more oxygen than the female blood cell. These statistics, however, do not properly tell the story of Mary Cain and reason why her professional running career transpired the way it did. 

Mary Cain is a former athlete of the Nike Oregon Project, an elite team of runners in America. The project was recently shut down after a doping scandal, meaning regulations around the use of performance enhancing drugs were broken, involving Nike runners and Alberto Salazar (Financial Times). Around the same time, Cain courageously shared her experience there as a female runner, working with Alberto Salazar, a renowned coach.

Setting numerous records in her high school running career, Mary Cain was the “fastest girl in America” (NY Times). After high school, she bypassed college and went straight to running with Nike Oregon, training with Alberto Salazar. In 2013, Cain became the youngest track and field runner to get on a world champion team. While this is a grand achievement for any high school athlete, the future did not turn out the way Cain had expected. She would go on to endure mental and physical abuse from Alberto Salazar as she was pressured to run faster and faster.  

In a NY Times opinion piece, Cain shared her story in a video describing her experience working with Salazar. The Nike Oregon Project was the top running program in the country, yet Cain recounts its striking faults. When talking to the NY Times, Cain said the runners were coached by an all male staff, consisting of Salazar and his friends. Cain reports that there was no certified sport psychologist or certified sports nutritionist. This revelation is astounding considering the Nike Oregon Project was an A-list team endorsed by a corporation esteemed in athletics. 

Salazar and the other coaches training Cain were certain that in order for her to get faster, she needed to lose weight. Cain got to a scant weight of 114 pounds during her time with Salazar. It would be innocent to believe that weight is not rudimentary in sports and it is a commonly recited fact that the thinner one is, the faster they run. Despite that, there is another crucial element for the health of female runners impacted by weight loss. Cain and many other young female athletes who exhaust their bodies develop RED-S syndrome, relative energy deficiency syndrome. The impacts of this ailment caused Cain and many other women to lose their menstrual cycles where their bodies no longer produce sufficient amounts of estrogen (UW Health). When Cain experienced this, she ended up breaking five bones. The pressure of losing weight not only depleted Cain physically, but also emotionally. 

In her video, Cain details the emotional abuse inflicted upon her while running with Salazar. Salazar mentally degraded Cain by weighing her in front of teammates and yelling at her when the scale went up. She reports that she got to a point where she was cutting herself and had suicidal thoughts. Despite notifying Salazar and the sports psychologist, they did nothing to help her. When Nike’s staff declined to assist Cain, she made the decision to go home and leave the Oregon Project. 

Mary Cain is not alone in what happened to her. After sharing her story, Cain’s movement started a #metoo for women’s sports and inspired other athletes to share their experiences. Kara Goucher, an American long distance runner, trained with Salazar and attested to the toxic environment of weighing teammates in front of each other. 

Alexandra Capello, the WESS cross country/track and field coach, shared her insight on the issues in women’s running. Capello was a cross country and track runner during both high school and college. She ran Division I at Manhattan College and says she was lucky to have had both a male and female coach. Additionally, she added that the workouts were often tailored to each gender.   

When asked what changes she believed coaches could make to prioritize the health of their female runners, Capello said all teams should have the presence of a female coach, or at least someone who understands the development and changes in girls’ bodies between high school and college. There are many NCAA and other college teams that do not have female coaches.

In addition to her knowledge of the Cain scandal, Capello had seen her best friend from high school encountered similar treatments when she ran for a Division III school in Connecticut. Capello recounted that her friend fell into a dangerous pattern of running more than is safe to lose weight and became anemic. Later, she went on to develop depression as well. Capello says, “her coach put a strong emphasis on weight loss with the female running team.” Capello’s friend was inspired by Cain’s bravery and spoke out about her story. She has spoken directly to the athletic administration at her school and continues to fight for change.  

If it isn’t clear yet, the women’s running industry is in a crisis and members of the community are crying out for help.  Mary Cain has already made a huge impact. People like Mary Cain, Kara Goucher, and Alexandra Capello’s friend continue to fight for the future of female athletes which can hopefully save the next innocent female athlete from enduring physical or emotional trauma.


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