For as long as I can remember, running has been a huge part of my family’s life, and mine, too. I was 4 years old when I attended my first cross country meet, a middle school dual meet in the late August heat when my brother Josiah competed for the first time. Josiah would go on to be one the best runners his high school had ever seen, and his college, too. He still holds the record for the 5K at Grove City College, a record I saw several of my peers attempt to break. Admittedly, given my family pride, I’m pleased it still stands. Him and my brother Andy ran on cross country and track teams together for their teenage years and through college. Sam and I also overlapped years on our high school teams, riding musty school buses to meets all over the hills and valleys of Mercer County and beyond every Tuesday afternoon and Saturday morning.
For many of those years I was competing, I had a complicated relationship with running. I didn’t hate it, but it was a bit of a source of dread more often than not. There were years on teams that I loved, and years on teams where we never had enough girls to earn points in meets and when the attitude of my peers made the activity something to endure, not something to enjoy. By my senior year of high school, I chose to not go out for the cross country team, knowing that another year of competing would mean risking myself to growing even more bitter and giving up running all together. So I joined marching band and JV soccer, two activities I was dreadfully uncoordinated and bad at, but two activities that saved my love for running. I had to quit running to realize I never wanted to give it up.
This week, an athlete named Mary Cain came out to share her story of emotional abuse and the physical toll it left on her as she trained as the youngest member of The Oregon Project, a training group under Nike and coached by Alberto Salazar, one of the most famous and now-scrutinized names in running. As I read Mary’s story and others’ that followed, I can’t say I was surprised, but I certainly was heartbroken. Mary’s story is just one of thousands of women who are caused harm by the the often toxic culture of distance running, a sport that demands much of a person’s body, but much more of their mind, too. Mary’s weight was consistently scrutinized by her coach, but the more pounds she lost, the more she faced injury and defeat. Mary loved running, but it would be running culture that would lead to a downward spiral that left her mentally, physically, and emotionally unwell.
When I was around 11 or 12, my dad spent a few years coaching a team of college distance runners. I will never forget overhearing the conversation my dad had one night with my mom about the concerns he felt for, in particular, some of his female runners. He was talking about how they seemed obsessed with what they were or weren’t eating, how their health seemed to be teetering in an unhealthy and horribly risky place. I probably wasn’t supposed to be listening (no, I definitely wasn’t), but I heard him as he expressed a realization that these girls needed real help, and as their coach, so did he. My dad sought support of a female coach to help him address concerns with these young women, and these conversations ultimately led to those women seeking help and treatment for eating disorders. What I didn’t realize at the time, but do now, was just how important and formative overhearing that conversation was.
As I said, for as long as I can remember, running has been a huge part of my life. In the same vein, I’ve always been aware of how much I didn’t look like my fellow female runners. I always stood much taller and bigger than my peers, sometimes comically so if you look back at a few photographs my mom took of the starting line at some of my track meets. I was the only girl on the cross country team who needed the size large uniform, and I remember being embarrassed to even ask for the size large. When a few girls on the team asked if we could switch to shorter spandex bottoms for our uniforms, I remember being relieved beyond belief when my coach said it wasn’t in the budget for the year to get the new uniforms. You see, even with a father who supported having healthy bodies for running, distance running is still a sport where the tall girls, the bigger girls, don’t really fit in. Or, at least, we don’t feel that we do.
As the years have gone on, I have, by the grace of God, continued to love and pursue running. A broken ankle and a bike accident both tried their best to put me out of the competition, but thanks to physical therapy and a spirit of determination that only comes because I am a Leuenberger, I have kept running. And as the years gone on, very much by the grace of God, I have learned to love and respect the body I have and how it can run.
Mary’s story struck a chord with me because it made me realize how thankful I am to have men and coaches in my life who didn’t tell me what Mary’s coaches told her. The men in my life, particularly my dad, never made me feel that I needed to lose weight to keep running, or that I should be ashamed for how I was built. No – the men in my life – my dad, my brothers, the other male coaches I had – encouraged me to just keep running. The pressure I felt in competing was never from my coaches, but usually either by myself or by the pressures I felt from being around my less-gracious peers. When I expressed doubt about what I was or wasn’t capable of, I can only recall encouragement from the coaches in my life. When I looked at myself in the mirror in high school and felt all the insecurities one feels when they are 16, I only heard back words of encouragement, reminders of what I could do with those legs, how they had carried me in the past, how they could even run fast.
All these years later, I’d love to say my insecurities at being a 5’10” runner who probably weighs 40 pounds more than what most distance runners do are no longer an issue on my mind, but admittedly that’s not always the truth. I’ve heard comments of disbelief and doubt even in the last year from folks when I’ve shared my goal times. “Can she really run that fast?” Sometimes I have listened. Sometimes I have doubted. But more often than not, I am able to hold my chin up and say back, “Yes I can, and watch me go.” But with stories like Mary’s coming out, it’s my hope that the running community can continue to uplift women, no matter how they are built, to love this sport and love the bodies that get to participate in it.
This fall, I ran my first marathon. When I crossed the finish line, I broke down in tears, somewhat from the pain, but also from the pure joy of completing a race I never thought I could. To see what my body could do, to remember the training I had done, to realize how grateful I was that I still loved running, filled me with such emotion that I could only cry at that moment. I am so grateful that all these years later, 14 to be exact, I never stopped running. I am so grateful for coaches that didn’t put harmful words in my brain, but words of encouragement. I’m grateful for modern medicine that healed my broken body. I’m grateful for supportive friends and siblings who modeled for me what a healthy runner looks like and what a healthy runner does.
The day after my marathon, I returned to the town of St Andrews to a beach called West Sands. West Sands is where that iconic Chariots of Fire running beach scene was filmed. I had watched the film right before my trip, a move fueled by sentimentality and hype. As I walked that beach, my legs sore beyond-belief from yesterday’s marathon, I teared up once again. I teared up because I thought of that scene, and how amazing it was to walk in such an inspired place after such a physical accomplishment. But I teared up because I thought of what Eric Liddell tells his sister on the hills above that beach as he shares that he is going to focus his efforts on his running. He tells her with a big smile, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
And when I run I feel His pleasure.
Today is my off day from running, but tomorrow I will set out again. This year I have run over 1, 300 miles. But when I think about all those miles, I also think about all the ones that came before them. Miles filled with doubt, with insecurity. But I think of all the miles that were filled with encouragement, with healthy words and people who lifted me up to see that running just isn’t about being fast, it’s about joy, too. What a joy it is to run. I pray that Mary and all the other women out there who have had their joy stolen will recover it. I hope for their Chariots of Fire moment, for a walk on a beach when you realize how far you’ve come, and how far you can still go.