The secret to a national cross country title? cheerful.

When the NC State football team got its hands on the Pod, a human-sized capsule that measures body composition, Hennes thought it might be a great opportunity for athletes, too. But she said, “We quickly realized we weren’t using data, and it wasn’t worth the data if someone had a tendency to have an eating disorder or compared themselves to other people.” It was an easy decision to stop using it.

Purposefully moving away from data and moving toward a healthy, fun culture is not uncommon in this high level of competition.

Instead, it is more common to hear athletes share what they describe as toxicity when you reach a breaking point. In the past few years, many runners have spoken out after reading about — and learning about — Mary Kane’s experience. Kane, the prodigy who once heralded a future American long-distance sprinter, described how she endured years of ridicule about her body from Alberto Salazar, her former coach. In the months and years since Cain’s disclosure, contestants across the US have shared their similar experiences: the fat conversations, the shaming and manipulation, the harassment, and the focus on body composition numbers over mental health.

Creating a healthy, inclusive, and integrative culture is at the forefront of NC State’s program. There are brunches after long periods. There are fighting game nights and fierce mini golf sessions. There are “Chopped” TV show-style cooking competitions at the Henes’ home and VIP-hosted dinners. There’s a lot of basketball too, even if HORSE is encouraged for individual games.

“Coach Hennes definitely cares about us as people before she takes care of us as athletes,” said Shmiel, who is studying to be a veterinarian. “We’ve been here for four years, and she sees the ups and downs and sees running as just part of who we are and not quite who we are.”

On Saturday, Haines said, as her athletes zipped around the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) track in Oklahoma State, she mostly stayed out of the way. Even cross-country running, without a timeout, can be too much, she said. She chose a place where she could give the runners the feedback they wanted, and trusted the rest with their training.

Tuohy, the favorite to win the title, only wanted to know one thing when she passed her coach. “He told me the team scores 400 meters from the finish,” Hennes recalls, asking Toohey.

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