After dropping her son, Colt, off at school, Kara Goucher usually goes for a run.
The Olympic runner is not training for anything, not the way she used to, but she still finds herself drawn to the act of putting one foot in front of the other, with no finish line or world championship in sight.
Lately, she has felt lighter than ever, just days after her memoir, “The Longest Race: Inside the Secret World of Abuse, Doping, and Deception on Nike’s Elite Running Team,” was released to the public.
The book, written with Mary Pilon, a former New York Times sports reporter, has been a long time coming. Goucher, 44, was a star witness who brought down Alberto Salazar, a now-disgraced elite running coach whose name and image once flanked the halls of buildings on Nike’s campus in Beaverton, Ore. She thought it would be years before the weight truly lifted.
“I knew I was ready to stop holding other people’s secrets,” she said over the phone.
The book arrives at a moment of reckoning for the running world, as more female runners have come forward to share their stories of the sport’s dark underbelly, one that can be rife with manipulation, eating disorders and physical and emotional abuse. And it comes at what feels like a golden age of American women’s distance running, as women’s recreational running is hitting a fever pitch.
It’s a moment Goucher has long been waiting for. “If the sport’s to be saved,” Goucher told David Epstein in a 2015 ProPublica investigation, “it can’t keep going on the way it is.”
She appears to be dedicating the rest of her career to making sure that’s the case.
In a recent conversation, she reflected on her decision to share her story with SafeSport, other athletes she’s looked to for inspiration and her relationship with running now. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In 2019, the New York Times Opinion documentary on Mary Cain went viral. Attention on abuse in the sport was at an all-time high. Did you expect the world to react to Mary’s story — or your own — in the way that it has?
KARA GOUCHER I thought, “Oh well, Mary’s story is horrific and what she went through is horrific, but that’s our sport!” But it was especially egregious because she was so young and so vulnerable, and I think people could picture their sister, their daughter, their friend — she humanized it in a way. I think it struck a chord with a lot of people.
It was just jarring to think that the most powerful company in the world and the most famous coach in the world isn’t a dream scenario where you’re excelling and loving every moment. It could be filled with suicidal thoughts and thoughts of self-harm.
In your memoir, you share that you made the sexual assault allegations that led to Salazar’s lifetime ban from the sport. Tell us about your decision to share your story with SafeSport after they approached you as part of an investigation into Salazar’s behavior.
I really thought about my nieces when I was asked to testify for SafeSport. I knew it was going to open up a lot of boxes that I wasn’t ready to deal with. I’m religious, and I was praying on it and thinking of them. I was thinking of how they are good girls, good girls like I always was, and if they were put in a similar situation they probably would do the exact same thing as I did.
I could help stop that for them. Becoming a mom and seeing these younger kids, my son himself, I would never want him to feel like they were powerless or that they had to accept this kind of behavior.
It seems as if we have reached a tipping point in the sport, with more and more women coming forward to share their stories of abuse or mistreatment. There seems to be this air of “enough.” Do you think collegiate and professional running is changing?
We still have a ways to go, but I think the conversations are so important. There are a lot of people reading Mary’s story — and that was of course extreme — but people could see themselves in this situation. Especially at the professional level, we need an independent party checking in on people who have suffered abuse. It’s too much for them to go to SafeSport.
Athletes are brilliant compartmentalizers. You push away pain and instead focus on how much you want it. You push away how much you miss your family because you are always so focused on your dream. When abuse happens, athletes are so good at pushing it away.
There should be another independent body checking in on athletes, almost like antidoping. Not tied to any shoe brand or coach or governing body, just a safe place that checks in and makes sure that you are being treated OK. We need something like that, and we need to be serious about how this impacts people — not just women, but men, too. We still need change when it comes to how we protect athletes.
You’ve talked about the importance of finding the power in your voice. As you’ve shared your story, have there been athletes you’ve looked to for inspiration?
I’ve really looked up to Allyson Felix. She found her voice in this very respectful manner. She’s so perfect — she has never said anything controversial, she has never angered anyone, so for her to use her voice to make change, whether it’s child care or racial disparities in maternal mortality or pregnancy protections or now her women-owned company. She has a lot to lose — her reputation is so squeaky clean — but she speaks out.
The other person is Lynn Jennings. I can’t even tell you what it meant to read her story in The Boston Globe. What she went through is horrible. She has inspired me so much. I was really emotional about it. The childhood hero I had ended up being even better than I ever knew.
Why did you decide to use your voice as a commentator for NBC?
I can hear the voices of the announcers I watched growing up — there wasn’t a single woman that ever made her way into the booth. We didn’t hear women. And that’s for a sport that had just as many women participants as men.
The first meet I did was in Eugene, Ore., and I hadn’t seen the new stadium yet. And of course it’s a Nike mecca, and there were photos of Salazar everywhere. I called my husband crying, saying, “I can’t do this, I can’t be here, I don’t feel safe,” and he was like, “You have to do this, you have to.” Part of it was overcoming my own fears and making space for myself.
It was also important for me to have my nieces, who are runners, turn on the TV and hear that voice. It’s important to have a female voice on the broadcast telling a female story.
What is your relationship with running like now?
This book isn’t a story about abuse, it’s a love story about how much I love running, and how it’s been this huge part of my life even though there have been dark times.
I try to run seven days a week, but sometimes it’s only four, sometimes it’s five or six.
But I’m only halfway through my running life, and the majority will probably be positive by the time I pass.