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[dupe] I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike (nytimes.com)
146 points by aloukissas 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 87 comments

This article was discussed last week:


Dupe: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21476304

23 comments, 65 points

I remember Mary Cain’s amazing promise. It’s sad to see how this turned out.

One of the things that most turned me off of competitive running in my personal life is when I realized that the lighter you are the faster you can run long distance. It just turns into an unhealthy feedback loop where all your training can be superseded by someone that just weighs less. I don’t want to do a sport that rewards anorexia and unhealthy body weights. Better to just run for fun and the health benefits.

This is an oversimplification, in reality you looking for a certain ratio of weight, muscle mass, lactic acid buildup and other blood markers. This ratio can only be sustained for a short period of time, which is why you ramp up to competitions and peak during competition week. I dont see why experienced coaches would keep an athlete in this peak state since they know its not possible. In another sport, cyclist get so low in weight that they become very susceptible to illness but once again, it's only maintained for a very short period of time.

It's also a combination of drug management. Almost all competitive athletes at a high level use some type of steroids in off seasons.

It's not even competitive athletes. It's folks doing the local race.

Years ago, when I was an avid cyclist, I was turned off my first local race, a meaningless city race. Three guys, and two girls were doping in the parking lot. To this day I have yet to be at a single race where people aren't doping prior.

What does “doping in the parking lot” mean exactly?

I believe the parent meant people literally doping in the parking lot space.

Using performance enhancing drugs in the parking lot prior to the race.

I do not understand the mindset where you would cheat for essentially no payoff.

What do you mean by, "no payoff?"

Are you aware that winning is itself a payoff for certain people? And they want to win at everything, at every level?

You may not sympathize with these people, or agree with them, but they are not difficult to understand. In fact, they are easy to understand.

When people ask me why there is doping in masters bicycle racing, I quote: "Why are University Politics so vicious? Because the stakes are so small."

People's desire to "win," and the lengths they will go to "win," are not tied to economic or power rewards.

I think the university politics part is different because there is at least some "power" or "influence" that you get to field no matter how small. I look at individual sports like running / cycling in an amateur setting as a pure outlet for self improvement. If the only person who is looking at my time is me, then whom am I really cheating by improving it using steroids?

"I look at individual sports like running / cycling in an amateur setting as a pure outlet for self improvement."

Well, naturally if you look at it like that, then why cheat except possibly because you are curious about how far you can take your body with assistance?

But we are not the ones cheating, and the people who cheat do not look at amateur sports they way we do. To them, there is a top dog in everything, And it's meaningful to them to be the top dog.

No matter how small the pond, there's always somebody who cares very deeply about being the biggest fish.

Thanks for explaining patiently.

Used to compete in very high level amateur races in another sport. Winning for the sake of winning alone is addictive, though not always in a bad way. Some just become more obsessed than others.

I should add, not everyone dopes though. My sport was relatively clean due to the amateur nature and the limited efficacy. Those of us who leaned toward technical competency were usually able to take on the roid-dudes without too much difficulty.

But could you take on roid-dudes who also leaned toward technical competency?

Sure, but it's really complex. They existed but were somewhat rare because there just wasn't that much incentive because there wasn't any money. The ones who went that direction tended to either be in a different part of the sport that favored technical competency less (sorry US mens 8+...) or were just extremely frustrated with their performance because they didn't understand the multifaceted nature of the competition.

What sport, if you don't mind the question?

Rowing. Used to race the 1x/2x at the 'elite' level.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is also very niche, very little money in competing, yet there are hundreds of professionals who build their schools (with paying students) based on their competition record. There is no way to compete at the top (and even sub top) without juicing, because the top guys are extremely technical and very strong (and they can train 6 days a week, 2 times a day, plus s&c, which no normal human can sustain for months or years).

there is plenty of payoff, and I'm not just talking about the social aspect of it. contrived example: they could do a youtube channel and winning those races gets them the cred from viewers to bring them thousands a month.

Since everything is monitizible, we'll probably see cheating in many places we dont traditionally see it. It reminds me of the movie limitless, everyone successful was doing the drug

This is basically the fitness industry as it exists today.

>Almost all competitive athletes at a high level use some type of steroids

Wow. Surprised someone's willing to "go there" so to speak.

Yeah, a lot of these athletes are doping. And, well, let's just say that I think Mary is putting forth a narrative that renders herself in the best light possible. Everyone knows what NOP is about vis-a-vis drug use. Mary knew too, which tells you a lot about her.

But I also think this can be a cautionary tale for young athletes. (Though I'm not naive. I realize that very few will pay it any heed in the run up to Olympic trials.)

Everybody knows now that the NOP was about managed doping.

That wasn't known back then when she started the program in 2012. Per the NYT article on the NOP, Salazar didn't actually begin the illegally doping NOP athletes until late 2010 or 2011 (though he had begun experimenting on himself and his son by then). [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/sports/nike-oregon-projec...]

Is this speculation, an accusation, an inference or what?

I guess I'm saying: you need a source for this or at least a cogent argument or STFU.

When you get to the very pinnacle of athletic performance, freak genetics plays an outsized role. Michael Phelps is one obvious example to point at, or Usain Bolt, but another is Eero Mantryranta[1], who had a natural gene variant that was equivalent in effect on red blood cell effectiveness to massive EPO doping.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eero_M%C3%A4ntyranta#Genetics_...

This is one of the areas where the system is heavily weighted against some female athletes. Phelps has a genetic thing that means his blood is more efficient at carrying oxygen and he is called lucky and lauded for his (still impressive) efforts anyway. A woman who naturally produces more testosterone than the normal range is either not permitted to compete or has to be "drugged down" to do so.

source? I don't recall any sports that limit the amount of testosterone women can have. By women I mean people with XX chromosomes.

Paywall bypass: http://archive.is/oEC0q

Track & field (governed the IAAF):


And this has, in fact, affected actual (not merely theoretical) XX females:


Caster Semenya is an XY female, she wasn't lucky she just got male genes.

wow, that's crazy

Maybe this is part of why adventure races became popular. It's part of why I'm drawn to trail running, where big elevation changes & rough footing seem like they would favor a balanced physique.

I would argue that a lot of sports, partly based on the structure of rules and partly inherent to the sport itself, are biased toward some kind of body type -- assuming we're talking about elite competition, which is the context of the article.

And while some rules (such as those governing the size of a basketball or the height of a volleyball net) could be adjusted to include some groups, other groups will be likewise disadvantaged.

I would also argue that notwithstanding your values, there are probably different optimums to achieve between the peak pro level and the community and youth level, but unfortunately people worship pros so much that at some point they would likely feel insulted if they had to continue with metaphorically shorter basketball hoops.

Professional sports today are the more result of artificial selection of people that have specialized bodies for their sport.

Relevant TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8COaMKbNrX0

> the lighter you are the faster you can run long distance

Is there a running-related sport that doesn't care about who gets there first, but instead measures success like a gauntlet, where the last person to drop out of the race for just not being able to run anymore, wins?

Not quite like a multi-day ultramarathon, where the running is segmented. I'm talking more about something that measures who can muster the longest single-segment run, with most people being expected and encouraged by their trainers to drop out once their muscles start to fail them, lest they incur permanent damage.

I imagine light weight would serve no advantage in this kind of "race."

This sounds a lot like the last-person-standing format that is becoming more popular. The most well known is probably Big's Backyard Ultra: https://trailrunnermag.com/races/bigs-backyard-ultra-gets-bi...

> The format is simple: Runners must complete a 4.16667-mile loop every hour until only one hardy soul is left. Whatever time they bank before the next hour begins is theirs. So it’s not a race of speed but rather a war of attrition where all but the winner DNF. Last year, a duel between Guillaume Calmettes and Harvey Lewis ended with Calmettes running 245.835 miles in 59 hours. The feat drew considerable attention for the race and attracted a highly competitive field for 2018.

There is a gauntlet race somewhere in Appalachian US that only 20 or 30 have ever finished.

It's a 30 hour race through the woods if I recall correctly.

EDIT: I wasn't 100% correct, but this looks like what I was talking about: https://www.outsideonline.com/1924491/60-hours-hell-story-ba...

The actual count is 16 finishers and it is a 60 hour race so I am assuming it is done in legs.

The Barkley Marathons. It's a 60 hour race of 5 laps through an unmarked course in a Tennessee state park: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barkley_Marathons

There is a good documentary about it called "The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young" currently available on Amazon Prime streaming. There are also some smaller pieces on YouTube about some other years.

You're basically describing the Big Dog Backyard Ultramarathon (created by the same person who created the Barkley Marathons, which other comments have mentioned). To get a taste of this year's race (which just happened!), read this thread: https://twitter.com/voraciousbrain/status/118552792918436659...

Not all multi-day ultras are stage races. Have a look at the Tor des Geants (tordesgeants.it). Unlikely the Berkeley, you have a good chance of finishing. But it basically involves almost no sleep for a week. I did it a couple of years back and got 16 1/2 hrs sleep in 138 hrs.

Bonkers but utterly brilliant...

Athletic competition is unhealthy regardless; but maybe they could have competition controlled for bone mass ratio or weight?

Ok, I'll bite. Why is athletic competition unhealthy?

While general fitness is healthy, competing at the peak level (and sometimws far below the peak level, too) in very many (probably most) sports rewards optimizing short-term performance (which aspects vary by sport) over long term health.

I maybe should've specified "at the top level". Your whole body breaks faster: joints, some organs, lungs. There's an amount of exercise that has a positive effect on people who eat more than they absolutely need to, but at some point you are not doing your body any favours.

Note I'm not saying "being fat is okay" or "exercise is bad for you".

If she was the fastest girl in America, though, how come she did better than those who were lighter? Maybe she had stronger legs, more explosive strength and twitch muscle reaction times. Who knows. The fastest male runner (Usain Bolt), the fastest swimmer (Michael Phelps) were all unique. Why make them do the same as all teammates? It just seemed that losing weight was unnecessary in her case — she was already the fastest!

>If she was the fastest girl in America, though, how come she did better than those who were lighter?

NOP is well known for their athletes doping. This woman was basically as close to Salazar as an athlete gets, so I'm about 99.99% sure she was doping. Once PEDS get involved, all of the normal rules go out the window. So being lighter would not really give you any advantage over an athlete with a few pharmaceutical enhancements.

Stop spreading lies about her.

Mary Cain was a teenager when she started running the NOP in 2012. Based on all available reporting, Salazar didn't begin trying to dope the NOP athletes until 2010 or 2011.

Her performance at the NOP demonstrates emphatically that she didn't dope--she was much slower under NOP coaching than she was in high school.

Thank you, was wondering about this.

I suppose it's possible that she was doping, though considering the circumstances, if I was an official, I might be a bit more lenient.

I watched the video on YT last night. I find it rather disgusting. If you ask me there should be weight classes in running, a lot of them. For a company like Nike, not having trained professionals on staff is simply absurd and is completely unacceptable. Obviously, they are wrong about the importance of weight in these competitions considering they killed this poor girls potential with all that nonsense. She was running very fast, then they started starving her and then she started running poorly. Personally, I would have fired the entire staff and started over from first principles after hearing her story.

I think I understand what you're getting at, but I don't think weight classes will help. E.g., consider boxing and wrestling. The competitive pressures will still exist, and athletes will have to go to extremes to make the lowest weight class possible to maximize success.

I never considered weight classes for running but that would definitely make it more competitive I'm always on the lower end and I usually only really compete against about two or three other people.

can this be redirected to the article instead of the video or at least marked as a video?

Article link: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/opinion/nike-running-mary...

In this case the main story is the video, not the article. The article is mostly third-person but in the video Mary Cain speaks out directly.

I happen to prefer video/audio instead of articles, so I just linked this one. It does have a link to the written article right beside the video.

It doesn’t help much when you present the alternative to the video as a paywalled link...

The linked article is behind a paywall

Isn't it well known that you have to be extremely skinny to be competitive in long distance running at the highest level?

This is more or less true but you have to draw the causal diagram carefully.

Everyone has an optimal weight for them (oversimplifying).

The best in the world tend to be very effective at very low weights. E.g. say 114 lbs at 5’7 for the sake of argument.

It does not follow that lowering a 5’7 runner’s weight to 114 will always cause improvement. MC is a counterexample.

Yes, I’m saying Salazar fell to a basic misconception. He’s had success, but he’s obsessed with dumb things. When you have insanely talented and durable athletes who actually do run best at e.g. 114 you start thinking your system works for everybody.

So then why this whole issue related to women? Mary's opinion is that more women on Alberto's team would have been good without any explanation to why. This is an issue with Coaches. In my opinion, if Alberto was a woman, she'd be equally be deluded by her past success, having trained world class athletes and having the prestige of the top program at Nike.

Instead of focusing on the issue at hand, broad strokes across the women's movement do not help (in fact that masks the truth). The issue here is specific knowledge that the coach needs to train a woman. There are male gynecologists and urologists, so this is not an issue with Alberto's sexual orientation or his team mates. This was a good ol' boys club of high profile coaches and teams, when they're given large number of resources (Nike), they'll do anything and everything to be successful.

I don't really see your perspective or premise here -- not sure what you're arguing against. I don't think the interview (or production, or whatever it is) is trying to make broad strokes across the "women's movement" or focus on sexual orientation or other things you mention.

However, I do see it as a chance to raise awareness that women in running (and likely other sports) face more challenges than men in regard to pressures to lose weight, health impacts of the sport (psychiatric and physical), bullying or such treatment by coaches, etc. And much of this can be improved at the coaching level.

Because women react differently to very low weights. When they're underweight for a prolonged time, they will stop having their period, which will cause a change in hormones. The hormonal change leads to weaker bones, which makes injury more likely. This happened to Mary Cain, as she explains in her video.

I agree with you. So, the root cause is the lack of knowledge on the coach's part. Mary in her video wishes that if there were more women on Alberto's team, that would have helped. I don't see how. This is purely an issue about Alberto's incompetence, which you've just highlighted and I agree with that.

Based on the abuse she suffered, I think it's more than "lack of knowledge" and incompetence. But to the point of more women, it's easier to ignore the basic needs of one young girl, but much harder to ignore the basic needs of (say) half of your team. And if a large portion of the coaching staff are women, it's also more likely they will be aware of those basic needs.

This is best observed and proven in medicine. There are men and women as gynecologists who fundamentally understand women's health.

So, I don't see why this is a special case in Sports except for just the lack of competence and perhaps they were deluded, malicious or just fogged by their egos. This can happen to a womens team of coaches as well.

I can totally see a group of competent, well educated and professional men teaching a young girl how to be the best at any sport.

It's not a question of is it possible. It's question of what scenario makes it most likely.

Same with cycling the Grand Tours, so much so that team members get fined for not meeting weight targets from the time they arrive at training camp at the beginning of the season, and then for the rest of the season.

Competitive sports(or anything else) at a high enough level is more about genetic selection than training. The training reveals and reinforces potential and is obviously necessary, but at some point anything that is competitive enough it really just showing you who found the right sport and the right training for their genetic capabilities.

In high school football there were guys who with the same amount of training could squat/bench/deadlift considerably more than everyone else. They were stronger/faster and when applied to the right sports they were on another level.

Sure, those less gifted in those areas could train hard to make up some of the difference, but not as much as you'd imagine. If you are short, no matter how hard you train you will be at a disadvantage playing basketball. If you are tall and bigger/overweight, you aren't going to win at cross country distance running.

Humans tend to overvalue magical training and undervalue the existing potential that training reveals.

You can be naturally strong, but if you don't train, those who do train will beat you anyway. So you need to both train and have good genetics. Sports is not fair, but training usually pays off.

If you'd like a deep dive on the extraordinary lengths professional athletes and their teams will go this is a great read: https://www.tylerhamiltonofficial.com/book

It not only goes into the doping, but also the training and diet necessary to get the athletes weight to a level so they can achieve the necessary power to weight ratio to compete to win. It's crazy. But when you consider the investment teams are making in these athletes, you can see their motivation to cheat the system.

As an avid runner myself women have it the worst during that time in their lives at that age. Their bodies are changing rapidly but they're still trying to make the same times.

Really inspiring for her to come forward knowing how big nike is. Honestly, we need more people like her.

People don't understand the point of competition is virtue, not winning.

Take the 'winning' mentality to its logical extreme of killing all the competition, and the absurdity of it all becomes obvious.

The point of competition is to compete (which is why you need to leave the competition alive,) and sort best to worst. Why you would do that is subjective.

Like I said, if the point is just winning the whole thing is absurd. And yes, people can do something for whatever reason they choose. But, if the reason they choose is at odds with the reason the thing exists, then they undermine the thing's existence. At best they are ignorant. At worst they are actively trying to destroy that in which they are participating.


At this point, the virtuous aspect of sports have taken a nearly complete back seat to power, prestige, and pecuniarum. Universities, for example, ought to be the epitome of pursuing sport for the sake of virtuous self-development.

And yet, what do we see there? A system so corrupt it is a miracle it doesn't collapse under the weight of outrage. Athletes who ruin their bodies for nothing except the hope of being drafted to play as professionals, while their coaches are paid millions of dollars a year,

We can choose to pursue sport for virtue's sake, but we're kidding ourselves if we believe that this is how sport actually works as an industry within capitalism, or as practiced by flag-waving nation-states.

Thanks for exposing me to a (for me) new word.


I don't see the transcript...

In general, Coaches are tough and demanding. In this case, clearly, Alberto has crossed the line with Mary. But, how does one know if the coach is abusive or “that’s just how sports is, it’s hard and coaches are tough”? Wouldn’t this lead to weaker coaches that don’t push the atheletes but now are afraid of abusing and crossing the line? Please don’t take this as anything to do with the what happened with Mary - I am not condoning what Alberto did.

> But, how does one know if the coach is abusive or “that’s just how sports is, it’s hard and no replacement for hard work”?

Two comments -

First, althetes are already tough and demanding to themselves. The kinds of tough coaches that need atent the same kind of tough I'd need to get my unmotivated self moving. Equating these kinds of "tough" is inaccurate. They need coaches that have insight and cover their weaknesses, not assholes.

Second, I completely understand your logical approach - I've done it myself so many times. But I've started realizing that in doing so I'm supporting the status quo without evidence. I'm defending current injustices because of potential, hypothetical problems.

What IF "this lead to weaker coaches that don’t push the atheletes but now are afraid of abusing and crossing the line"? While that's not the ideal, that sounds better than inducing eating disorders that destroy quality of life (and potentially, the lives themselves). I dont think that's a risk - my first point covers that - but if that is a risk, it sounds worth the risk. Certainly better than accepting the status quo because change MIGHT not be better in every measure.

Thanks for a detailed response, I know this is a sensitive topic.

I was more curious from a new athelete's standpoint. Say, I am 14 years old, and say I want to become a world class athelete. Objectively, how does a new young athelete know if they are being abused or just "working hard"? There is literally no way to know if some authoritative figure as Coach is telling me to do something I don't like.

The central question I have is how does a new comer sense and detect abuse so that they can take action?

There is a lot of bullshit in Sports and Nutrition fields of study - partially because the data just isn't there but also because the lack of scientific method employed by people in this industry. Try searching for help on the internet for a sports related topic and you'll get everything and anything from tabloids full of bogus claims to rarely an linked journal from Johns Hopkins.

Furthermore, we need to also think about this from a Coach's perspective. There are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of coaches around the world. What credentials and authority do they have to make their students do something, especially if there is not scientific or objective backing up the claims? On the other side, Coaches that are now in the business would be completely taken aback and question everything that they do to avoid potential unintended abuse.

I have empathy for abused athletes and it has no place in the society. Just that it is important to understand both sides of the coin and not be riled up by emotions.

In general, no.

You said, yourself, that Alberto "clearly has crossed the line". He didn't cross the line by pushing her, as an athlete; he crossed the line by fostering a culture of emotional and psychological abuse, in the name of athletic performance.

On one hand you're saying "clearly, Alberto has crossed the line with Mary" and on the other you're suggesting this is perhaps unknowable. (...how does one know if the coach is abusive or “that’s just how sports is, it’s hard and coaches are tough”?)

So which is it?

Put another way: how did you know that in this case Alberto crossed the line?

Huh!? Mary is testifying for it based on the evidence collected by NyTimes.

In general, I am not answering, but questioning - how does one know if they are being abused if "that's how sports is, it is hard and coaches are tough?" I am postulating that, in general, a new athlete has no idea if they are being abused or this is the way to become a world-class athlete. I hope you can see the question I am asking (not answering).

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