“Tell me about that move you made [at] six hundred meters,” an ESPN reporter asked. “Oh God, that was just balls,” Fleshman replied. “All that was was balls.”
I was struck by this apt — if ill-advised — formulation. What made Fleshman’s comments particularly funny was their incongruity. As she spoke, she was dressed in the standard-issue feminine racing uniform: a fitted sports bra crop-top and tiny shorts cut like a bathing suit bottom. The moment captured something about the contradictions that underpin the fiercely competitive world of women’s sports.
Two new books on women’s running describe what it feels like to compete in such an environment. “My place of work was also a pageant where commentary on the female body was its own sport,” Fleshman observes in her memoir, “Good for a Girl: A Woman Running in a Man’s World.” Her rival-turned-teammate Kara Goucher was proud to help boost media exposure for female athletes. But, “in many of the promotional images that Nike produced of me, I felt like I was looking at someone else,” she writes in “The Longest Race: Inside the Secret World of Abuse, Doping, and Deception on Nike’s Elite Running Team.” “The gloss was typically dialed up, the pictures were heavily photoshopped. . . . I looked like Miss America in a crop top.”
Fleshman’s and Goucher’s public triumphs and battles — and those of other star female runners like them — have brought thousands of women and girls into the sport. According to one survey, between 2000 and 2018, American women’s participation in 5-kilometer races increased by a stunning 876 percent. It’s an explosion worth celebrating: Girls and women can benefit profoundly from the sport. But, as both books sharply illuminate, many of the institutions that foster women’s athletics are riddled with systemic failings.
“Most athletes don’t get their happy ending,” Goucher observes, reflecting on her own story. Coming from an Olympian with multiple World Championship and World Marathon Major medals, it’s a bracing perspective. Both books — Goucher’s and Fleshman’s — should be victory laps for two celebrated runners. But that’s not the sort of book either woman set out to write. Each has produced something much grittier: a close-up look at the uncertain and often unhealthy climb toward stardom for women in organized sports.
Fleshman’s 5K championship performance in 2010, and her memorable post-race interview, don’t appear until more than 200 pages into her memoir. But the figure of speech she used features prominently throughout. I counted seven references to the word in the first dozen pages alone, starting on the very first page, where Fleshman’s father entreats his 8-year old daughter to kick the neighborhood boys right in that spot until they let her join their games.
Her father was a volatile but loving alcoholic, “the kind of dad who wanted sons” and refused to adjust his approach to parenting when he got daughters instead. He used to goad his daughter into feats of strength or daring. But he saw something beyond mere prowess in her: “He would tell me I had something better than talent: I had heart,” she writes.
In high school, Fleshman was an obvious standout in her first season of varsity track. It was two decades after the passage of Title IX, and “the girl power revolution of the 1990s was swirling all around.” But she soon worried that talent and heart might be no match for puberty. When a senior on the boys’ team pulled her aside and noted her strong performances, she began to wonder if her success would be short-lived. “I hope you stay encouraged,” he said. “A lot of girls run their fastest as freshmen. But no matter what … I hope you keep having fun.” This, Fleshman realized, was a warning: “I had a creeping sense that my body might change and ruin everything,” she writes.
A central concern of her book is the misunderstanding of puberty’s impact on girls in competitive running. The interplay between endocrine activity, menstrual cycles, caloric intake and bone density is woefully under-researched. Running coaches — often men — generally don’t know how to talk to teen girls about breasts and periods and weight gain. So when their bodies begin to change, many young female runners take their cues from the scale and from external messages about what a runner “should” look like (see: Miss America in a crop top).
The results are grim. In a 2019 study of nearly 300 female collegiate distance runners, nearly half exhibited signs of an eating disorder. Poor nutrition during these crucial years can lead to low bone mineral density and persistent stress fractures in adulthood. “We fold and smash women and girls into a male-based infrastructure,” Fleshman writes, “and then scratch our heads when the same friction points show up again and again.”
Like Fleshman, Goucher grew up in a household where girls were expected to excel in physical pursuits. A pivotal moment came in the sixth grade, when she was set to compete with “the great love of my late elementary school life” — a boy named Scott — in a 440-yard race. When Goucher won, Scott accepted defeat with a gracious smile. “When I think about how we need to raise boys, I think of Scott and how he handled being beaten by his sixth-grade girlfriend,” Goucher writes. “I had the confidence to believe that I could kick a guy’s butt on the track and he would high-five me at the end,” she writes. “All teenagers should be so fortunate.”
In 2004, Goucher and her husband, Adam, also a champion distance runner, were offered spots in a great experiment, the Oregon Project, an elite team of American distance runners sponsored by Nike. Their coach would be the legendary Alberto Salazar, three-time New York City Marathon winner. For the Gouchers, it was the opportunity of a lifetime; for Nike, it was a savvy investment. “If Nike could create distance running’s next Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong, they’d not only be heroes in the running world, but would stand to make huge profits in shoe and apparel sales,” Kara Goucher writes. At the start, she would be the only woman on the team.
Over the next decade, as they both worked closely with Salazar, Kara Goucher’s career skyrocketed, but her husband’s stalled. Then, in 2015, Salazar’s empire came crashing down amid allegations of doping published by ProPublica and the BBC. Salazar was subsequently banned from athletics, first by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in 2019 and then, in response to allegations of sexual misconduct, by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, in 2021. Salazar disputed the doping claims, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the Anti-Doping Agency’s decision; he also denied the misconduct allegations.
Salazar’s abuses, as Goucher recounts, were wide-ranging: sexualized “locker room talk,” fat shaming, a drunken attempt at a kiss. Some were just strange — like when Salazar had Goucher smear crushed aspirin mixed with a topical cream on her legs as an ad hoc remedy for shin splints, leaving her with bloody, blistering second-degree burns. There was the time Goucher realized her coach had been spying on her when she was topless. And it got worse: She describes for the first time how Salazar twice sexually assaulted her during sports massages. Following the book’s release on Tuesday, Salazar told ABC News in a statement, “Any claim that Ms. Goucher was sexually assaulted by me is categorically untrue.”
From the moment Salazar was implicated in doping, Goucher’s own reputation was on the line: “People would assume that Adam and I had been dopers since we had our best years at Nike,” she writes. (Nike, by the way, comes across as the real villain in both this story and in Fleshman’s for what the authors describe as its dehumanizing treatment of female athletes — docking their pay during pregnancy, among other things.) Given the stakes, it’s unsurprising that Goucher’s book reads like legal testimony as much as a memoir. Written with former New York Times sports reporter Mary Pilon, “The Longest Run” unfolds very carefully. Specific dates are cited; specific incidents are recounted at length.
Goucher and Fleshman have retired from racing. The rawness of their stories serves as a push to demand that the next crop of female athletes has it better. As Fleshman writes of the final leg of that 2010 5K championship race: “Any fear I had about exposing myself out front was replaced by the rush of declaring my hand, of knowing I’d just committed to pouring every single bit of myself out onto the track. I didn’t know if I’d pull off the win, but I knew I would cross the line with nothing left.”
Mythili G. Rao is an audio journalist and book critic in London.
A Woman Running in a Man’s World
Inside the Secret World of Abuse, Doping, and Deception on Nike’s Elite Running Team
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