Breaking the Glass Ceiling: the rise of young American female distance runners, by Cait Chock

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Efraimson_AlexaQ-USAout15.JPgAlexi Effraimson, photo by PhotoRun.net

The number of young Ameican athletes who are excelling, going from high school to the pro ranks is slowly expanding in athletics. You have seen the success of Alan Webb, and Allyson Felix. But, the real new story is how young women distance runners, from Mary Cain to Alexi Effraimson, and all of those in between are excelling. Cait Chock, in the following piece, notes the growth among young women athletes and their level of prowess, as she speaks with Nicole Blood. Nicole, who is in her most recent comeback, has seen the success of young American women distance runners in her career.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling: The rise of young American female distance runners

By: Cait Chock

As much as I hate clichés, to say the state of US distance running has made a giant leap forward the past decade and a half would be an understatement. On the International scope, the level of competitiveness and depth right here on our soil has soared, and is trickling down to the high school level.

Ten years ago a high school girl could make headlines for cracking five minutes in the mile. Today, there are high school girls beating some of the professionals. What happened? "We broke through the glass ceiling!" exclaims Nicole Blood.

Blood was leading the charge for high school level competition before even being in high school in the early 2000's. "I remember the struggles I had as an eighth-grader, being denied to run Championship races that I qualified for just because of my age. Rules were in place that people were refusing to make exceptions for." By the time she was in high school, she was setting State and National records, eventually leading her to the University of Oregon, a pinnacle player in bringing the Lady Ducks back up to their dominative presence of years past. She went on to run professionally for Nike, took a bit of a break from competition, but has resurged on the scene with a qualification for the 2016 USATF Indoor Championships.

But Blood is no stranger to having to break through rules, not just records, in order to achieve what she did. Exemplifying just one of the reasons we've seen such a dramatic rise from the youths in our sport.

For some of these kids, just being ALLOWED to run has raised their level of competitiveness. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell you that if you want to race faster, throw your nose in there with faster people. The way our culture has evolved over the past decade and a half has helped too: connectivity.

There were maybe one or two websites covering high school competition as we entered the 2000's. Today there aren't just more, but the extensiveness of each site is vastly deeper...and faster. Between live results, video training diaries, more training apps than you can name, runners are both more informed and for the ones that need it, held more accountable. It's clear, if you want to keep up, this is the level of work and dedication required. The kids know what their competition is doing and thanks to now more running companies willing to offer up the resources, there are many more opportunities for the best of the best to race each other. Physical distance is much less of an issue.

At this point I must back up and address the 'level of work and dedication required.' One of the biggest issues that people bring up when scrutinizing young, burgeoning talent is that they will 'burn out'. Distance running is a grueling sport, yes it can be punishing on the body, it's one of the most demanding sports...BUT, 'burning out' is a little vague and acts too much like a blanket statement. It's like the knee jerk reaction to every youngish running who suddenly bursts on the scene, the second they have an off race you get, "Welp...there ya go, they're starting to burn out."

I sort of feel that the FEAR of this ambiguous 'burning out' is one of the things that had held us back for so long, and not just at the high school level either. Today, science has progressed, people better UNDERSTAND training alongside that enhanced physiological knowledge, we have many more tools to facilitate and guide our training, and coaches and athletes are (for the most part) more willing to share what has worked for them. Ultimately though, we are all seeing that the body CAN take a whole heck of a lot of beating down and work IF this work is done in a strategic method and with adequate recovery. You don't have to FEAR hard work. I'll take a moment to emphasize you SHOULD fear a lack of recovery. You SHOULD also fear when an individual starts taking things too seriously and sucks the fun and passion right out of their running.

But getting back on topic, there were times when girls were discouraged from running alongside the boys. There were once strict rules keeping individuals out of races based not at all on times but simply their age. Much of that has changed, though I must bring up an exception in the case of Alana Hadley and the 2016 US Olympic Marathon Trials. Eventually Hadley, who was below the minimum age for an Olympic Marathon berth, was allowed to run in the race but, had she finished in the top three, she wouldn't have been allowed to run in Rio.

I did a piece on Hadley which addresses some of the fears people have of 'burning out' and the criticism she has received as a high school marathoner turned pro. Hadley had a couple setbacks after the first major injury of her career, a few races below what she was capable of and even a DNF. What those who criticize wrongly cite as 'burning out' for some young runners, is actually a runner's inability to cope with their first setback. When one is used to easily winning all the time, HOW they react when they aren't on top or when they experience major setbacks can decide the course of their career. Hadley is demonstrative of what you SHOULD do: take a cold hard look at yourself, be 'man' enough to admit there is an issue, then address it.

'Burning out' is much more mental and it's also stemming from a myriad of different reasons: stress, pressure, sore loser syndrome, a pessimistic attitude, the list goes on. One more reason I believe distance running has experienced this surge is that overall, the mainstream public is breaking down the stigmas attached to the 'mental' sciences. Runners experiencing these 'mental blocks' are actually TALKING about them, working on their issues, and fixing the way they think. There isn't shame in seeing a sports psychologist; you don't feel shame seeing a specialist in biomechanics or physical therapy, the mental side of training is no different.

There are plenty of professional athletes that have shared how much sports psychology has helped them get over setbacks or blocks in their careers, and high schoolers are able to openly have dialogues with their coaches or doctors about the feelings they are having during training and related to performance.

Blood sums up perfectly the yin and yang to the 'grind' that is being an elite distance runner, "The best athletes are willing to work hard and 'master the fundamentals' as we say at Nike. BUT, the biggest two challenges for elites are: one, knowing when to pump the brakes and, two, forgetting how to have fun. It's easy to start taking yourself too seriously when you're trying to make a living in this sport after college. It can be stressful! But it's a sport, and your body can only handle so much. Balance is key."

Balance. Balance will carry you through the downs that invariably EVERY single athlete will face. "Have a life outside of running! Everyone will go through ups and downs, and you need something to fall back on. It's foolish to think you'll keep rising without any falls," shares Blood.

There's been an incredible amount of progress forward for our sport this past decade. Though, what is sad is a glaring issue that hasn't changed: the human instinct to tear people down. We have our Alana Hadleys, Alexa Efraimsons, and Mary Cains who have turned professional runner while still in high school, and while they are phenomenal, they are still human after all. They will never be immune to setbacks, 'bad' races, or maybe even a string of bad races. The thing though, is that is normal...something every single elite athlete has experienced regardless of age. The only difference is that they are facing things on a much more magnified basis and earlier than most of their professional counterparts.

May we instead back the h*ll off and let the rest of any runners' story play out before raising an eye brow? You're not only as good as your last race, your last season, or how long ago your last record was. If we must denote an 'as good as' statement, perhaps this: you are as good as you are able to overcome your last obstacle and get to the next starting line.

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Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004 and previously ran for Nike. A freelance writer and artist, you can see more of her work on her website and Instagram @caitchock.

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