Megan Flanagan always loved to run. As a teenager, running brought her joy and close friendships with her high school teammates. They often shared pasta dinners before races and focused on being strong, fast, and having fun together.
Her experience in college was a bit different. She ran for NCAA Division I schools Lamar University and then the University of Minnesota and immediately noticed how much more competitive that environment was. While Flanagan quickly bonded with her teammates, she noticed that at meets, the competition wasn't just about who was fastest - it was also about who was the thinnest.
"At the NCAA Championship races, I noticed that the top finishers in the distance events were so thin, they looked frail," said Flanagan. "It didn't look healthy and I was concerned not only for them but for the 12 and 13-year old girls who were looking up to them as role models."
Flanagan admits that she too fell into what she calls the "comparison trap" and made an effort to drop a few pounds her freshman year, despite that she was already at a healthy racing weight.
"It's so easy to be on the starting line and look to the left and right of you and wonder if you measure up and if you deserve to be there. It's so easy to feel like the elephant in the race when you are up against really thin runners."
At first, losing weight can boost performance, because having more lean body mass can increase efficiency. However, studies have shown that at a certain point, a body weight that is too low can lead to decreased immune function, low energy, muscle loss, decreased efficiency, injuries, and organ damage. Because the body has certain emergency reserves, an athlete can be at a low body weight for a few months and see increased performance. But once these energy stores are depleted, performance is likely to decrease and stress fractures may occur. Unfortunately, many athletes assume that they need to lose even more weight to get back to where they were.
"What's interesting is that my mile PR from high school is still my mile PR," said Flanagan. "And I was probably heavier in high school than in college. But I was running faster and I was happier because I was focused more on how I was performing than what was going into my mouth."
After Flanagan graduated from the University of Minnesota, she began competing in obstacle races and endurance events, where strength was more important than speed. While she excelled in these races, Flanagan missed having a team. So she decided to create her own.
"I started Strong Runner Chicks with Minttu Hukka as a way to bring female distance runners together and to combat the sometimes competitive nature of our sport," said Flanagan. "After college, you don't always have a team, so I wanted to find a way to bring people together and provide resources and role models."
What started as a contributor-based website has now grown into a full-on community.
"Now we have a Facebook group, a new podcast with Kelsey Varzeas, and a retreat this summer in Boulder, Colorado where professional runners Melody Fairchild and Neely Spencer Gracey will be guest speakers."
Strong Runner Chicks is also becoming a community in real life as well. Flanagan, who was the fifth women finisher at the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship in Ogden Utah last September, was contacted by Teyler Adelsberger (photographed below), who ran for the University of Missouri.
"We were both former collegiate runners looking for the next step," said Flanagan. "Now Teyler is one of our ambassadors."
The two recently met at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship on Oahu. Adelsberger finished third and Flanagan finished twelfth.
Strong Runner Chicks now has over 700 subscribers, in addition to several professional runners who are supporting the movement. This keeps Flanagan busy, as she is also pursuing her Master's in Public Health at Utah State, but she couldn't be happier.
"Strong Runner Chicks is a very positive community but it's also a place where people can share their struggles. We aim to bring to light the stories that aren't being told, because I think everyone should be able to tell their story."