In Prep Cross-Country, Girls Often Face an Uphill Battle

Kay Comer
Kay Comer, far right, has gone through the same struggles to maintain her times as many female cross country runners endure as they go through high school. (Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 16, 2006

Kay Comer sometimes felt stuck in a stranger's body. She looked in the mirror last summer and saw few remnants of the scrawny high school freshman whom cross-country coaches had once referred to as "lungs with legs." Comer's hips had expanded. Her shoulders had broadened. Her thighs had developed more muscle.

Only a year earlier, Comer won a district championship at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford and earned a reputation as Virginia's up-and-coming distance runner. Now, even her shortest jogs ended in a hobbled limp.

"I went through a stage where running was hard and it hurt everywhere," Comer said. "I just didn't want to do it."

Like most female cross-country runners, Comer has faced much greater hardship than the typical high school athlete who grows up, builds muscle and improves each season. In girls' cross-country, runners are more likely to regress than progress. Forty high school sophomores earned All-Met honors -- either first team, second team or honorable mention -- between 2000 and 2003. Only 15 of those girls, or 38 percent, earned an equal or better distinction as seniors.

Coaches, doctors and athletes blame that decline on a degenerative cycle that threatens many young female athletes, particularly distance runners. Physiological changes during puberty temporarily make running less natural, and rebelling against those changes results in injuries and eating disorders. The ailing athlete then loses confidence and, ultimately, interest in the sport.

"It's kind of heartbreaking for the girls to realize that they can try as hard as ever and the performance still isn't there," said Severna Park cross-country coach Ed Purpura, whose girls' team won the 2005 Maryland 3A title. "It's always the elephant in the room in our sport. Nobody likes to talk about it, but everybody knows that's often how it works."

College and high school coaches estimate that about 80 percent of female runners will level off, at least temporarily, because of physiological changes. The average girl gains about 10 or 20 pounds during high school, doctors said, and much of the added weight consists of natural fat. Nutritionists suggest women must maintain at least 17 percent body fat to menstruate; top male athletes, meanwhile, often thrive on less than 10 percent.

For female runners, that extra weight can create uncomfortable pressure on knees, ankles and shins during high-impact activities. That discomfort is compounded by widened hips, which can change a runner's stride and add to the stress on her knees.

In the early 1990s, the University of Washington studied 60,000 teenage athletes and concluded that girls' cross-country had the highest injury rate of any sport, with more than 60 injuries for every 100 runners each season. Typically, women become strong runners again early in college, coaches said, when tendons and muscles adjust to the added weight and compensate for the altered stride.

All female athletes must adjust to these body changes, doctors said. But the transition is hardest in cross-country, diving, gymnastics and ice skating -- activities where small size often is considered advantageous.

Comer, now a junior at Colonial Forge, remains an elite runner, but even the best athletes hardly are immune to the trend -- start fast and finish slower -- that defines girls' cross-country. While male runners gain height and muscle mass during puberty and quickly lower their times, girls struggle to maintain early success.

Marissa McPhail, a freshman on a running scholarship at Fresno State, said she still hasn't been able to equal the times she ran as a 14-year-old freshman at Arundel High School. Comer's times slowed between her freshman and sophomore years. "It's kind of like you just had to start running in winter clothes," she said.

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