NEW YORK — In high school people talked about her body in e-mail chains. “She’s too big to beat us,” she remembers teammates writing. In college it was constant commentary. “You could lose five pounds,” she was told, no matter how many pounds she’d already lost or what her current weight was. Coaches, teammates, you name it. Today, it’s message boards. “Not buying it. Nobody runs that time at that weight without EPO or blood doping,” one anonymous user wrote.
Allie Kieffer’s body has been scrutinized every step of her running career. She used to let it get to her—but now she speaks out against unhealthy habits and what she sees as concerning ‘norms’ within the running community.
At 5’4”, 120-something pounds, Kieffer is far from large. But she’s often been called “big” in the running world, where she says thinness is too often connected to success and strength too often associated with weight gain and slower speeds. In her experience, strength is too often overlooked—being thin comes above all else. Her first set of college coaches at Wake Forest never considered that their emphasis on size could actually be hindering her success. Lose five pounds, that’ll fix it.
She was her thinnest when she was younger, yet that wasn’t when she peaked. But ‘skinny’ was still the priority, even when it didn’t translate on the track.
What she’s learned, however, from her own career is that the secret to success is finding what works for you. For Kieffer, it just happens to look a little different than it does for some of her peers. It means training at altitude in Boulder for several weeks out of the year, strength training more often than other runners might and truly committing to the craft full-time. Her regimen results in a body built for Kieffer, one that has earned her plenty of prize money winning distance races. That same body helped her finish in the top-5 at the 2017 New York City Marathon as an unsponsored 30-year-old.
In the days before this year’s 2018 New York City Marathon, Kieffer, now 31, has spoken to The New York Times, Shape and Runner’s World about her story. She says that even though she’s never “looked” like a runner, she is. And she’s getting to be a pretty good one, at that.
Kieffer finished fifth in New York last year in 2:29:39, her personal best—fifteen minutes faster than her marathon debut one-year prior. It was just her third marathon ever, her second 26.2 in the open air (Kieffer ran the Armory New York City Indoor Marathon in 2016, finishing with a then-world record time of 2:44:44). She was the second American woman to cross the finish line last year behind Shalane Flanagan, who became the first American woman to win New York in 40 years.
Three months later, Kieffer penned a first-person article for Shape where she discussed the criticism she’s received about her body over the years. The conversation has continued and her voice amplified as 2018’s marathon approaches.
This year, she’s shooting for the podium. She’s been vocal about wanting a top-three finish, something she believes she can accomplish with a time of 2:27:00 or faster.
Her focus, however, isn’t on the finish line quite yet. And it won’t be until her last few miles. It’s on running her own race, not comparing herself to her competitors. That’s a lesson she’s learned from her body over time.
She ran shorter distances in college but struggled to find sustainable success, something she now attributes to how she was taught to look at her body. She was told to she had to be skinny to be fast; she remembers her coach at Wake Forest telling an impressionable 18-year-old-Allie things like, “Drink hot tea before you eat to shrink your stomach, then you won’t be as hungry.” It wasn’t until Kieffer pursued running professionally post-grad, and failed to find lasting success there too, that she took a break to reset. Battling injuries and almost broke, she relocated back to the Big Apple, just outside of Long Island where she grew up. That break from running opened the New York-native’s eyes to what “healthy” truly meant for her.
Kieffer started coaching runners to make some side money and to find some community, which unexpectedly turned into training in distance running to keep up with a student who was trying for a marathon. It was then, when she was running at a heavier weight than she ever did in college, that Kieffer found the key to success: nourishing and cherishing her body, even if that meant that she looked a little larger than some of her opponents.
Her message today is this: “You don’t need to lose weight or be skinny to be fast. You have to be healthy.”
While Kieffer’s story dives into important questions about body image and health, it also begs the question: What does a runner look like or—better yet—what should a runner look like? More importantly, what does ‘healthy’ mean? It’s a question that Kieffer herself has wrestled with many times, but it’s also one that she still struggles to articulate.
The reality that ‘skinny’ isn't innately unhealthy. This is where Kieffer's message can become muddled.
“Your weight to muscle ratio is going to impact how fast you are—but [that conversation] has to be done in a positive manner. It has to be ‘let’s be healthy’ rather than just ‘starve yourself to run fast,’” Kieffer told Sports Illustrated. “That didn’t help me get faster and it doesn’t help anyone get faster in a healthy way. It especially doesn’t keep you fast for a long time. You might take a short cut and be skinny and be fast for a little while but I don’t think you [can] stay healthy and be consistent enough to run for a long period of time if you’re starving yourself.”
Today, she switches between strength training and racking up miles on the road. Altitude training comes into play as races approach, but no matter what type of workout she’s doing, she’s fueling her body sufficiently.
But what if she was doing all those things and still looked skinny?
Kieffer knows she will never look ‘too skinny,’ a term often, ironically, used to describe many of the runners she’s told she’s ‘too big’ to compete against. That’s just not how her body is built. But some runners are–and that’s OK too.
This is the argument, some believe, Allie is intending to make. The issue, however, is that the messaging can come across as prioritizing strong over skinny and dejecting the latter in the process.
Stephanie Bruce, the 2018 U.S. 10K champion, found this flaw as the conversation around body image continued in the days leading up to New York. Bruce’s body, too, is often over-examined, but she, unlike Kieffer, is criticized for being too thin. Words like ‘anorexic’ and ‘unhealthy’ are thrown in her face over and over again, despite the fact that she’s healthy enough to have given birth twice and readily returned to racing both times.
“I don’t have anything to prove, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, but I am protective of my sport and when its narrative is conveyed as unhealthy it pisses me off,” Bruce wrote on Instagram. “Spreading positive body image messages is great but be careful of what that message is. I’m lean, skinny AND strong, I gave birth to 9- and 8-pound babies. So let’s get over what we look like and focus on what we can achieve by training our tails off, fueling ourselves and having confidence.”
Every interpretation of ‘healthy’ should be inclusive, Bruce says. By promoting strong over skinny and thin as inherently problematic, the intended body-positive message becomes an issue for some.
“I was trying to say that you can say ‘it doesn’t matter what size you are as a runner,’ but you have to include all sizes,” Bruce told Sports Illustrated. “That does include skinny people. But sometimes the conversation thinks that being thin is something that just happens to people and it's easy to be thin but that’s not the case.”
“How many people have told me to go eat a cheeseburger or go eat pizza? That’s offensive in my opinion,” she continued. “I don’t want young girls or women to look at me and want to be as lean as I am, I am this lean because I run 120 miles a week and I strength train. Other women have different bodies because of what they do. I think that we should all be able to be accepted but sometimes the messaging, the ‘strong not skinny,’ or whatever it is, is still exclusive. It all needs to be inclusive. Whatever body you have, great, what can you do with that body?”
What both women can do—with almost too perfectly juxtaposed body types, long and lean versus more petite and powerful—is incredibly impressive. They may not look alike, but both can run the same marathon time: 26.2 in two hours, 29 minutes. They’ve found what works for them.
Marathon runners come in all shapes and sizes. But what the messages of these women do have in common is one thing: your body should work for you, no matter the stereotypes or assumptions.
“With marathon running you tend to look a certain way,” 27-time U.S. Champion and two-time Olympian Molly Huddle told SI Friday.
Aware of the ongoing conversation, Huddle added: “I’m sure Steph [Bruce] has gotten a few comments where she’s probably been called unhealthy or ‘too skinny.’ You don’t know what someone is going through. She’s a perfectly healthy person. The same way you can’t judge whether someone is healthy or not for being ‘too big.’”
What Kieffer has been speaking out against is this notion of what marathoners “tend” to look like, not women who are thin as a whole. The crux of the conversation is that “it’s what your lungs and muscles are doing not what your body is shaped like that matters,” as Huddle eloquently stated.
Every shape is different. How everyone attains that shape is even more person-specific.
“I think it’s just finding what’s right for you,” two-time Olympian and 2018 Boston Marathon champion Des Linden said. “You have to [give your body] fuel and you have to listen to what your body is craving and what you need. It adapts to that. I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong I think you just have to find the right you in a healthy manner.”