The secret to a national cross-country title? Fun.

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

Deliberately moving away from the data and leaning towards a healthy, deliberately fun culture is rare at such a high level of competition.

Instead, it’s more common to hear athletes share what they describe as toxicity when it hits a breaking point. Over the past few years, many runners have spoken out after reading — and acknowledging — Mary Cain’s experience. Cain, a child prodigy once heralded as the future of American long-distance running, has described how she experienced years of ridicule about her body from Alberto Salazar, her former trainer. In the months and years since Cain’s revelation, runners across the United States have shared their own similar experiences: big talk, shame and manipulation, harassment and a fixation on body composition numbers rather than mental health.

Creating a healthy, inclusive, and balanced culture is at the forefront of the NC State agenda. There are brunches after long runs. There are combative game nights and extremely fierce mini-golf sessions. There are cooking contests inspired by the television show “Chopped” at the Henes’ house and dinner parties organized by the upper classes. There’s also plenty of basketball, although HORSE was encouraged in one-on-one games.

“Coach Henes definitely cares about us as people before he cares about us as athletes,” said Chmiel, who is studying to become a veterinarian. “We’ve been here four years, she sees the ups and downs and she sees that running is just part of who we are and not who we are entirely.”

As her athletes raced the 6-kilometre (3.7-mile) course at Oklahoma State on Saturday, Henes said she mostly stayed away. Even cross-country running, with no downtime, can be overtrained, she said. She picked a place where she could give her riders the feedback they wanted and left the rest to their training.

Tuohy, the favorite to win the title, had only wanted to know one thing while walking past her coach. “Tell me the score of the team with 400 meters to go,” Henes recalled when asked by Tuohy.

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