I was doing the write-up for the Undeberg Invitational this past April when it dawned on me - of the top ten finishers in the women's 1600m, seven were freshmen. One was a sophomore.
The opposite held true in the men's 1600m which was dominated by the upperclassmen.
I was standing next to one of the coaches at the end of the women's race and complimented him on the way his runner finished. She ran hard and shows tremendous upside. I commented on this, too.
He shrugged, almost apologetically. "She's running great . . . but she's a freshman. We'll have to see . . . "
And there lies a big question that confronts every young female runner, one that the guys will never need to deal with to the same extent. My youngest daughter had her fastest season and showed the most progress as a freshman. That partly was due to injuries that she got in the weight room, but also because she grew. Already 5'9" as a freshman, she kept growing to a slender 6' woman. Along the way, she put on about 25 extra pounds. Some of it was muscle, but most of it was necessary fat for a healthy female.
And there lays the issue for young female runners. In many cases, their bodies haven't yet finished developing. Until they do, there is no way to definitively determine their ceiling in racing (not running!) a given distance. Hence the uncertainty from the coach.
It's not just a series of physiological changes that take place. Many of these women have invested enormous effort and emotion in getting to the upper ranks of the running hierarchy. To them, the weight gains, the widening of the hips, and other changes can almost seem a betrayal of their bodies against them.
Runners are consistent. I constantly reminder the youngsters that I coach that most runner's injuries come from three primary causes - too much distance, too much speed, too much stretching. To the list for women, you can add too much diet modification. The psychological need to perform well can trigger behavior issues that parents and coaches can be slow to catch but should be alert to, among them, eating disorders and amenorrhea (a lack of a regular period, often due to low body fat.)
As parents and coaches, we fight a battle to let our kids know that the effort is more important than the finish order. One thing I insisted on with my daughters was that they give me their best effort and support their teammates. I ask the same of the junior high kids I help coach.
I exchanged emails with one young lady I know who has the potential to be a very good runner except . . . yeah, she's young and we simply don't know how things will work out. In the conversation we had, I pointed out that she and her friend would have done well in that group of freshmen girls. Then I add this advice:
". . . things change over time and both of you ladies may as well. It may make you faster, it may make you slower. Ya do the best ya can with what ya got. So, focus on the process, have as much fun as you can squeeze out of the running, and let the results take care of themselves."
We can't change biology - if we could, I'd be six inches shorter and a heck of a lot faster. It's more pronounced with the women. There is some resignation there. I recall listening to one girl who just got beat by a freshman at the State Championship during her junior campaign state, "Yeah, just wait 'til you grow some boobs."
The girls around her nodded. They're not stupid - they know the score even if they can't change it. Most of them accept it, even if it's a bit reluctantly.
I would love to watch all these ladies go on to be top-notch runners but here is a truth - I'll be cheering for them, and their teammates, and the young men regardless of how fast they are or where they finish. So will their parents and their friends.
I also have a perspective that these young women don't have, not yet. They see themselves getting slower instead of faster, at the same time the sport is getting faster at the top end. The perspective I have is watching these young ladies come back to running, post-high school, and running as well as ever, and with the stress of competition gone, enjoying it more than ever, too.
I know that their best years are almost certainly ahead of them if they will just trust the process. Now we have to make them believe that.