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In case you'd like to be an elite female distance runner!

This sounds like a lot of fun. Perhaps be a cyclist or a recreational runner? What am I saying! Oh god, I'm sorry...I have no business wading into this swamp. Forgive me.

Runner Lauren Fleshman Wants Women to Thrive on the Track

The long-distance champion says the demands of organized athletics are often at odds with the needs of growing young women.

Lauren Fleshman photographed in Bend, Ore., November 2022.

Jan. 13, 2023 12:24 pm ET

Throughout Lauren Fleshman’s career as a long-distance runner, “It just seemed like anything associated with womanhood was an impediment to success,” she says. Although she was a five-time N.C.A.A. champion at Stanford, once she turned professional she learned to see her curves as a liability. She honed her frame by restricting calorie intake, which stopped her monthly periods, too. In her new memoir, “Good for a Girl,” she recalls absorbing the message from coaches and sports officials that menstruation was a threat to her athletic performance, so preventing or reversing it seemed sensible.

At the time she felt liberated from the hormonal swings that had made her resent her female body. “If I had been told how amenorrhea”—the condition of missing periods—“could impact everything from your mental health to your libido to your immune system to your bone density, that would’ve gotten through to me,” Ms. Fleshman, 41, says over the phone from her home in Bend, Ore., which she shares with her husband, entrepreneur and retired triathlete Jesse Thomas, and their two young children.

Ms. Fleshman was an elite runner, winning the U.S. 5,000-meter championship in 2006 and 2010, and finishing seventh in the world championship in 2011. But she now suspects her pursuit of a punishingly light “race weight” made her more prone to the injuries that cost her a spot on the Olympics team in 2004 and 2008. She may be the fastest 5,000-meter runner to never qualify for the Olympics.

Lauren Fleshman crosses the finish line to win the women’s 5,000 meter race at the U.S. Track & Field championships in 2010.


As the coach of a professional running group, the all-female Littlewing Athletics in Bend, she has taken pains to ensure her athletes don’t chase running times at the expense of their health or their love of the sport. “I know women, and I know how poorly our sports systems nurture their talent,” she says.

Running came naturally to Ms. Fleshman. “I loved the feeling of freedom, the feeling of flight,” she recalls. She was an all-star softball player in Little League and her Southern California middle school, but it was more thrilling to be the girl who outran the boys in gym class week after week. The oldest child of working-class parents—her father was a prop-maker in Hollywood, her mother stayed at home, neither went to college until later in life—Ms. Fleshman loved to run but also saw it as her ticket up and out. She notes that running often appeals to poorer kids, as it demands little more than spikes and some grit: “I also liked gymnastics, but once we saw the monthly fees it was quickly a no.”

Recruited to the cross-country team at Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., Ms. Fleshman says her first season was like falling in love. “Running was my portal to a wider world,” she writes. She soon became the fastest freshman in California, but she watched nervously as puberty changed the bodies and slowed the races of her female peers.

At gatherings of top high-school runners from across the country, she noticed how boys wolfed down whatever they wanted while girls often nibbled on salad with dressing on the side. Later she knew of a college coach who told female runners that nothing should jiggle when they jumped.

Yet severe cuts in calories can come at a cost. A 2019 study at the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences found that teenage female athletes with amenorrhea are nearly 13 times more likely to get a stress fracture than those with normal menstruation. Aging female athletes also commonly suffer from bone-density disorders, like osteoporosis. Ms. Fleshman learned of young women who had set national records as teens only to hang up their spikes in college when their bones proved too brittle to race.

“That’s when I had this sick feeling that something was wrong, that the timeline for athletic achievement didn’t seem like it fit women’s bodies,” she recalls. She notes that most scholarships and prizes go to high school athletes who are at their best as juniors and seniors, but this is often when women start to see a performance-related plateau. This phase can stretch into college, when women’s bodies are designed for peak fertility, while men are in their physical prime and can enjoy a trajectory of steady improvement.


Ms. Fleshman retired from professional racing in 2016 but writes that ‘running will always be a home for my body and mind.’


In writing about sex-based differences among athletes, Ms. Fleshman says, “I was nervous that the data and story I tell will be leveraged by people who have a desire to harm the trans community, to exclude trans athletes, which is not something I want. But I came to the conclusion that to meet the needs of a very large group of people who are cisgender female athletes in sport, we have to acknowledge sex-based differences. Erasing their existence is harming a huge group of people.”

After proving her mettle on the track as a college freshman, Ms. Fleshman earned a full scholarship to Stanford, where she was a 15-time All-American. She hoped her successes would buoy her father during hard times: “I would just watch him fall apart emotionally whenever he got laid off and had to beg people for jobs,” she says. “I wanted to show him that everything I was able to do was in him, too.”

Professional track and field athletes train without the kinds of union-negotiated salaries and benefits that come with teams and leagues, so their income depends on prize money and endorsement deals. Ms. Fleshman reckons that as a white blonde with a great track record, she enjoyed better prospects than most, and won the backing of Nike. But her sponsorships earned her a fraction of what her male peers made, and they were conditional on achieving high rankings, making national teams and not getting pregnant. “I started to lose myself,” she says of the pressure to perform.

She assumed she would run faster if she was lighter, so she entered the ‘diet vortex’ herself.

She assumed she would run faster if she was lighter, so she entered the “diet vortex” herself. She suspects that this helps explain the series of injuries that plagued her, including a foot fracture that narrowly cost her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in 2008. As Ms. Fleshman plotted her comeback from a wheelchair in 2009, she began earning a large following online for writing with rare candor about her fears and frustrations.

She remains refreshingly open on social media about everything from her struggles with her postpartum body to her diagnosis of depression in 2020. “I think a lot of the healing work I’ve done in the last few years has been about dismantling perfectionism in myself,” she says. It helps that she has found other sources of income and affirmation. When her husband needed dairy- and gluten-free training fuel, Ms. Fleshman created an energy bar in her kitchen, and in 2010 she, Mr. Thomas and fellow runner Stephanie Bruce launched Picky Bars, an energy-bar business. The company sold to Laird Superfood for $12 million in 2021.

Ms. Fleshman retired from professional racing in 2016, but “running will always be a home for my body and mind,” she writes. As a coach, she wants her runners to feel the same way, which means remembering that female athletes often don’t reach their peak until their 20s, after their bodies have adjusted to all the changes. As she puts it, “The record holders and medal winners are grown-ass women, not girls.”

Appeared in the January 14, 2023, print edition as 'Lauren Fleshman'.

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