Growing Pains -- For Many Female High-School Distance Runners, Puberty And The Changes It Brings To Their Bodies Is Their Most Difficult Opponent

The lowest point was last spring, when Kate Bradshaw quit for the first time in her life.

She was sick of crying after every race. Sick of the stares at the starting line. And sicker still of the pity from her peers at the finish line. All because a stopwatch told her she was getting slower.

So during the last lap of the district 3,200-meter race, the senior at Issaquah High School stopped trying to catch the girl in front of her. She missed qualifying for the state track meet by one spot.

Quitting had never been an option for Bradshaw, once Western Washington's dominant distance runner. But after a year of frustrating finishes, she was ready for the season to end.

"If I couldn't run competitively and do well, I didn't really want to run," said Bradshaw, who placed third in the 3,200 at the Class AAA state meet the previous two years. "You have to go from accepting first place to accepting 10th place, and that's really hard to do."

And that's the toughest part about puberty for female athletes.

It can interrupt improvement, particularly in sports such as diving, distance running and gymnastics, where body type is critical.

It can cause regression that is out of their control.

It's like being forced to ride a roller coaster at night, hurtling through the darkness, being yanked side to side, up and down, and all you can do is scream and close your eyes and hang on until it's over.

Except you never know when the ride through puberty will stop, or whether you will be as good once it does.

The truth is, many aren't. And of those who are, many don't regain their early excellence until after high school.

Since the state cross-country championships moved to Pasco in 1988, freshman or sophomore girls have won 10 of 34 races, while boys in those classes have won five of 35. Freshman or sophomore girls have 133 top-10 finishes, compared to 43 for freshman or sophomore boys.

While many female athletes might not openly discuss puberty with their coaches or parents, its impact is loud and undeniable.

"Most girls before they go through puberty are lean and mean, muscle-and-bone machines," said Barbara Drinkwater, Ph.D, a research physiologist at Seattle's Pacific Medical Center and a former president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

"When they go through puberty, they start to deposit fat in the female places. The hips. They start to develop breasts.

"Their development runs counter-productive to the sport. But if they can just hang on, there are beautiful runners in their 20s. It's just a matter of letting their maturity catch up."

The physical explanation is simple.

The mental adjustment that must be made, however, is not.

Bradshaw goes to sleep next to a wall plastered with numbers and trophies and ribbons won during her running career. Like her high expectations, her past success hovers over her whenever she races.

Bradshaw won six league championships and five district titles her first two years at Issaquah. She finished second at the Class AAA state cross-country meet as a sophomore. At this Saturday's state meet, anything in the top 10 would be a welcome surprise.

"It's so frustrating because the whole point of running is to improve. That basically is what motivates everyone who goes out there," said Woodinville graduate Krissi Mathers, who now runs at Central Washington. "When worse comes to worse, you get worse every week."

Mathers placed second to Bradshaw at the 1996 KingCo cross-country meet before beginning medication to restart her period.

Amenorrhea, the absence of menstruation, is common in female athletes in intense training programs. Long-term problems such as osteoporosis (premature bone loss and/or inadequate bone formation) have been linked to the condition.

Bradshaw and Mathers started taking medication at about the same time because they were amenorrheic. The results were very similar, and very shocking for those who didn't understand what was going on.

"It kind of started (puberty) in super-speed overload," Mathers said.

In less than eight months, Mathers' 1,600 time increased by a minute. Her 800 time was up more than 25 seconds, and she went from third in the league 3,200 as a sophomore to a frustrated spectator at the league meet her junior year.

"There was one point where I came home after a workout and I was so frustrated that I leaned against the wall in my garage and hugged my knees and cried for a half hour," said Mathers, who stopped running in meets during her junior season.

"That was probably my all-time low in life."

Bradshaw, who is 5 feet 3, estimates she gained 20 pounds between the start of her sophomore year and the end of her junior year.

She still trained as hard, 30 to 40 miles per week, if not harder than before. But the stopwatch never rewarded her effort.

The cross-country course that took her less than 18 minutes to complete as a sophomore took her nearly 19 minutes to complete the next year. Her 3,200 time increased more than 50 seconds.

More than losing, it is the slower times that cause runners to quit. For a time that varies by athlete, confidence is replaced by frustration.

"She was very fragile," said Bradshaw's coach, Gwen Robertson. "You want to get them to focus on the process instead of the outcome. But that's hard to do."

When she sat with Bradshaw in the woods behind Issaquah High School and explained why her times were getting worse, Robertson tried to convince her that it wouldn't continue indefinitely. She has seen so many runners go through this in her 16 years of coaching. She knew, from personal experience, it can be overcome.

Robertson set an age-group national record in the 1,500 as a 14-year-old. It wasn't until her freshman year in college, four years later, that she ran as fast again.

But she made it back. She spent four years on the U.S. national race-walking team.

Mathers made it back, too. She has run personal-best times in several races this fall at Central Washington.

College coaches generally understand what puberty can do. They know a bad junior or senior year isn't always indicative of potential. And most are willing to give a runner the opportunity to continue her running career, which is what Bradshaw wants to do.

"I prefer someone to have gone through the fire," said Princeton cross-country Coach Pete Farell, who has coached the Tigers for 22 years. "It saves me a year and a half. And sometimes it's terminal (to their careers) on the other end."

The roller-coaster ride into adulthood isn't quite over for Bradshaw, although she thinks it is beginning to slow. While she trained over the summer, she lost most of the weight she had gained. She could feel herself improving and her times started to drop again this fall.

Losing still bothers her. She cried after finishing sixth at last week's district meet, but that's just part of the competitive spirit that has sustained her.

Unlike some athletes, who quit because of puberty, Bradshaw will keep running.

"It's a slow process, but it's getting there with time," Bradshaw said. "Just to see myself improve again, just to see myself coming back up gives me more motivation to try harder. To know that even if it's not this year that I hit that PR, it's going to be there eventually. And that makes me feel 10 times better."

Good enough to know that she'll never quit again.


. YOUNG, ON THE RUN . Freshman and sophomore girls have consistently fared well at state cross-country meets over the past 10 years. A year-by-year look (number of races varied between three and four per year):

. Year Wins Top 5 Top 10 . 1988 1 3 9 of 30 . 1989 0 4 10 of 30 . 1990 1 6 13 of 30 . 1991 2 7 17 of 40 . 1992 0 3 16 of 40 . 1993 1 8 21 of 40 . 1994 1 7 15 of 40 . 1995 1 5 9 of 30 . 1996 1 6 12 of 30 . 1997 2 6 11 of 30 . Girls total 10 55 133 of 340 . Boys total 5 16 43 of 350 # .


# In 1997, four boys races and three girls races were run.

. Source: Mike Hubbard, Inglemoor High School .