University Of Guelph’s Toxic Running Culture Made Me Think It Was All Normal

For years, I’ve struggled to reconcile my experience as a University of Guelph runner.

In some ways, it was truly euphoric — running alongside my best friends on muddy cross-country courses and the predictable curve of the track for the best team in the country. Our head coach, Dave Scott-Thomas, was always there on the sidelines, pumping us up and cheering us on, ready to give us jubilant high fives if we ran well.

That's me behind the lead runner. My team's coach, Dave Scott-Thomas, watches from the sideline. (Photo: Samantha Beattie/HuffPost Canada)

To us, he was “Dave.” His name carried a kind of reverence in the running community. “What’s it like running for Dave?” other runners would ask me.

Being Dave’s athlete was consuming. So much of my undergrad was focused on running fast and helping my team win with an “all or nothing” mentality centred on Dave. At the beginning of each season, I’d meet with Dave one-on-one to talk about how fast he thought I’d be able to run, and about the girls on other teams I might be able to beat. If I didn’t meet his expectations, he wouldn’t talk to me. I felt ashamed and stressed, and he did nothing to ease these worries.  

I ended up sacrificing my body and self-esteem, and for what?

Earlier this month, a shocking story in the Globe and Mail left the running community reeling. Scott-Thomas’ former athlete, Megan Brown, alleged she was groomed by him for a years-long sexual relationship, starting when she was in high school and then as a University of Guelph student.

He ended their relationship in 2004, Brown said, alleging that he physically assaulted her in his office. She left Guelph after that, completely shunned. Her father reported Scott-Thomas to the University of Guelph and Athletics Canada. Neither oversight body penalized the coach in any meaningful way, the Globe reported.

And that makes me absolutely furious. 

When I arrived as a rookie in 2008, Dave was celebrated as the best — by coaches across the country and Guelph directors, professors, physical therapists, doctors, Olympians and former athletes. 

By contrast, I, like many others on the team, was told “Megan Brown is crazy,” something Brown recalled in an interview. I don’t remember who told me and at the time I didn’t know why, but it was an accepted sentiment on the team, almost an urban legend whispered when she ran by us at track meets. I didn’t question why. It’s a judgment I regret deeply. 

There is so much harm — especially to female athletes coached by Dave — that could have been prevented if just one person in a position of power had the courage to stand up for Megan.

Our running program was overseen by Dave Scott-Thomas, who allegedly groomed one of his runners for a sexual relationship. (Photo: Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail via CP)

It’s hard to explain the dark side of running for Guelph. My experience was one of microaggressions and indifference that cut me down over and over again until I believed I was so fundamentally flawed that I shouldn’t be on the team. 

I never suffered abuse like that alleged by Megan or some of the other women interviewed in the article, but in the years following her departure, I believe Dave continued to act in self-interest to win at all costs, at the expense of many of his athletes, myself included.

The girls I ran beside for four years suffered from fractured bones, anorexia, bulimia or other mental illnesses and still felt pressured to run because of the highly competitive environment Dave and his staff created. 

I ran through a bee sting I later had to go to the hospital for (I’m allergic), I ran with severe anemia, and I ran through colds. I hit the trails with my face still swollen from getting my wisdom teeth removed. 

I was addicted to the team and didn’t want to miss out on any workout so as to not disappoint myself, or Dave. 

Love HuffPost? Become a founding member of HuffPost Plus today.

Winning races and performing well meant earning the approval of coach Dave Scott-Thomas. (Photo: Samantha Beattie/HuffPost Canada)

I joined the Guelph team fresh from a relatively low-key running program in my hometown of Hamilton, Ont. We rookies were immediately accepted into the fold by the older athletes. My first-year training was lighter, or as Dave would say, fun. 

I felt like I belonged on the team, and celebrated big wins alongside my friends, drinking champagne from our trophies in hotel rooms after meets, watching in awe as the coaches got drunk, too. 

I didn’t run well until second year, and then I began to feel the pressure to do high mileage, running up to nine times a week, and consistently hit personal best times. I didn’t know how to cope with the physical exhaustion and by the end of each season felt burnt out. 

But it seemed worth the effort. I remember feeling special when I ran well, Dave making time to congratulate me, saying he knew I could do it and that I was on the cusp of something great. I am a perfectionist, and I wanted to reach a higher level of running and prove myself to Dave. 

And, I remember how stressed I felt when I didn’t appear to meet Dave’s expectations. 

After a bad race or workout, I felt ignored by Dave. If I did approach him, my heart racing, our conversations would inevitably veer away from my concern to whether I was fully committed to the sport. I already felt disappointed in myself, but Dave’s coldness made me feel even worse — hopeless and worthless.

Me, furthest left, lining up at the start line of a race. (Photo: Samantha Beattie/HuffPost Canada)

As a middle-of-the-pack runner, I was never connected to a sports psychologist or dietitian to help me improve. But I was told about losing weight. Once, the girls’ team had a meeting with a prominent sports physiologist who told us our thighs ought to get smaller as the season progressed, so we could run faster — it’s what Olympians did. 

I don’t remember any followup about how this could be done in a healthy way, but I do remember worrying that I was larger than my teammates, too big to be a good runner. Looking at pictures from that time, I can’t believe how thin I was. 

During one workout on the dusty roads of training camp that left me feeling particularly defeated, I remember Dave’s pickup truck closing in from behind as I fell away from the main pack. He sped around me, I believe, to keep a better eye on the lead runners, but remained close enough to give me a face full of exhaust until I completed the workout.

I have no idea if he knew what he was doing, or was simply so indifferent to his athletes that he didn’t think twice.

After running the best race of my life in third-year university, I suffered an injury pushing my body to hit the high mileage Dave had prescribed that season. I hurt and limped, but a Guelph physiotherapist still said I was OK to compete.

I only stopped when I could no longer physically lift my leg up because of the pain. I would later be diagnosed with osteitis pubis (an inflammation of where the major pelvic bones meet and often seen in athletes), but all I felt at the time was bitter disappointment and shame.

When I was ready to start competing again four months later, I emailed Dave. I don’t remember him offering any workouts or guidance. He just said to run a little more each week. I tried that and got injured again.

I felt encouraged to push my body past its limits. (Photo: Samantha Beattie/HuffPost Canada)

Finally, a year later, I was back on the track, but feeling overwhelmed with anxiety. We had an indoor meet in Ohio — my chance to show Dave I could run at a higher level. 

But with two laps to go in the 3,000-metre race, I was panicking, hyperventilating. I felt like I wasn’t in my own body. As I ran down the straightaway, I collapsed on the infield, desperate to end the torment inside my head.

In retrospect, I was mid-panic attack, but it would take me many years to make the connection on my own. (I was eventually diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.) 

I picked myself up and headed back to the bleachers, head bowed in pure dread of the consequences. How much of the team’s money and time had I just wasted?

Dave didn’t say a word to me following that race — not during the six-hour bus ride home, or in the days following. Nobody checked in. I didn’t know how to overcome the situation, or if I could stomach the repercussions — Dave’s silence, his cold stare, the indifference. A small part of me was also beginning to realize team staff didn’t care about my well-being, and I knew on some level it wasn’t right.  

I quit the team and never spoke to Dave in person again. 

Me and my parents at a Hamilton road race in 2019. It took me years to find running enjoyable again.  (Photo: Samantha Beattie/HuffPost Canada)

I didn’t run consistently for a long time after I left the Guelph team. Not running was how I freed myself from my experience at the university. 

Today, I am a successful journalist with an amazing support system. Only recently have I reclaimed the sport. For the first time since high school, I’ve discovered how to relax when running. How it can be meditative and peaceful and empowering. I love the life I’ve built for myself. 

And yet, there’s still this voice inside my head that sounds a lot like Dave, telling me I was too weak, or not good enough to “make it.”

As the running community continues to grapple with stories of abuse and neglect, I urge it to make systemic change. We need more female coaches. Why are coaches of elite female athletes almost always men? My guess is because few women have truly positive experiences competing, and would rather leave the running world at the end of their careers for something better.

Mental health needs to be an integral part of any training plan. Eating disorders need to be thought of as more than an unfortunate symptom of the sport. 

Female athletes need to be listened to. We aren’t disposable. Every part of us needs to be respected — our bodies, our emotions, our passions, our vulnerabilities. 

I am trying to remind myself that the good I found at Guelph is something that can never be taken away from me and my teammates. Dave didn’t make me hardworking, brave, determined and focused — I was those things before I met him. I want every Guelph athlete to remember that about themselves. They were and always will be more than Dave’s athletes.

Have a personal story you’d like to share on HuffPost Canada? You can find more information here on how to pitch and contact us.

RELATED

Running From Trauma Led Me To A Life Of Advocacy

I Didn't Let Double Amputation Dash My Olympic Dream

I'm Running a Triple Marathon to Show the Resilience of Sexual Assault Survivors

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.