But when I reported to my first practice, I realized that I would no longer breeze to the top of the ranks as I had when I was younger. I couldn’t rely on my talent alone. After two years away from competitive running, my body had changed. It was humiliating to have to walk after only a few miles on easy training runs. I finished dead last in my first cross-country race. I was not only the last on my team; I also had one of the slowest times in the whole league. The first few semesters in college were a long trudge toward getting my fitness back. In the meantime, I found ways to stay engaged and contribute to my team even though I wasn’t competing. When the traveling squad went to New York City for the Ivy League Cross Country Championships, I found my own transportation to the race and went in costume to cheer them on.* I kept showing up, and I’m proud of how I handled myself during those few years. Yes, years. It wasn’t until the winter of my junior year that I contributed my first team point.
Read: What gender inequality looks like in collegiate sports
During this time, I also learned how to fuel my body properly. Food can be a sensitive subject for female distance runners, since we are often pressured to stay thin even as our bodies mature. At Dartmouth, some girls on my team limited their portions by only eating from the palm-sized side-dish bowls in our cafeteria, never actual plates. When I became captain, I instituted a rule that everyone had to eat proper portions off a real plate. During graduate school at the University of Oregon, I had a teammate who ate all her meals with chopsticks, one grain of brown rice at a time. Every school has cases like this (my friend at Brown reported that her coach had a “no booze, no boys, no bagels” policy), and I don’t know exactly what the right answer is for athletes who struggle with weight issues. Each person has an optimal “race weight range”—but for female runners especially, coaches and athletes should consider the athlete’s longevity and durability, not just the numbers on a scale.
By senior year, my six-mile runs became ten-mile runs, and six hours of sleep became nine. I had finally learned what worked for my body, and I competed in an NCAA Track and Field Championship for the first time. By then, the preternaturally talented prepubescent Alexi who placed high in state championship meets was long gone. The new Alexi was made from work, discipline, patience, pain, and lots of sleep. Stepping up to the start line for the first leg of the distance medley relay at the 2012 NCAA Indoor Championships felt like something I had fought for and earned. I even got matching tattoos with my relay teammates because we were so proud. We had set a lofty goal, worked hard, and made it happen.
I am grateful that I had the opportunity to safely and naturally grow a body durable enough to compete not only in college, but also beyond. I’m certain that if I hadn’t gone through puberty naturally and menstruated normally, my body would have broken down after just a few workouts in the professional world.