This article was written by Cindy Kuzma and provided by our partners at Runner’s World.
In 2014, Michigan State University sophomore Rachele Schulist ran 19:54.30 for 6K to finish fourth at the NCAA cross-country championships, leading her team through an undefeated season to its first-ever women’s national title.
This year, as a redshirt senior at MSU, she finished 12th at nationals in 20:07.
An Instagram post the two-time All-American wrote on Monday, which was widely shared, tells the story of what happened in between—and why the second performance, 12 seconds off the first, signaled a far larger victory.
She’s stronger now. Healthy. Back in love with running again, a feeling she’d lost.
And in news that may shock even those who saw the side-by-side snapshots on Schulist’s feed, the 5-foot-10 runner is now 20 pounds heavier, she told Runner’s World in an interview Wednesday.
That she raced this well in her new, sturdier body belies the notion that only rail-thin athletes succeed in distance running, she said. In her post, she called it “bullshit.”
It’s a lesson that took her two difficult years, a serious injury, and a rocky comeback to learn. And she’s shared it to thunderous response, more than she could have imagined.
The nearly 3,000 likes and close to 200 comments on her post include messages from elite runners like Kate Grace and Kara Goucher. Hundreds have tweeted about it. And then there are all those runners who have contacted her personally to thank her.
A photo posted by Rachele Schulist (@racheleschulist) on
“I think how much it’s being spread around is just a testament to how relevant of a topic this is in our sport and that it needs to be talked about,” Schulist said.
At Zeeland West High School in Zeeland, Michigan, Schulist was a star. On the track, highlights included state championships in the 1600 meters and 3200 meters. In cross country, she claimed the 2010 Division II state title, running 17:39 for 5K.
With all those accomplishments, she didn’t worry much about her weight.
Then she went to college. The runners leading the pack at meets looked tiny. So did those posting abs-tastic photos on social media.
Beginning her sophomore year, she slowly began restricting what she was eating. She didn’t set out to shrink herself dramatically. But as the number on the scale fell, so did her race times.
“It does work—for a little while,” she said. “That’s the worst part about it.”
On paper, that year was a breakthrough one. She opened the season with a win at the Bill Dellinger Invitational, then was runnerup at the Great Lakes Regional Championships in 19:45. And then, her fourth-place finish at nationals. In the spring, she set the MSU record for 5,000 meters: 15:36.33.
“[People] see the 1 percent of my life, which is where I’m at racing,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, she did well, so it’s good.’”
Much of the other 99 percent, Schulist said, was misery. She never allowed herself to feel full. She thought about food almost constantly, plotting how much of her lunch she could leave on the plate.
Twice a year, her team stopped at a pizza joint on the way back from meets in Wisconsin. She always ordered salad.
Her coaches noticed, of course. They emphasized that she needed calories for recovery. They had discussions—with her and without her—about her well-being, said MSU head coach Walt Drenth.
“We’ve got great trust in our doctors and our sports medicine staff,” he said. “We were prepared to stop [her running] if at any point the medical staff thought we needed to stop.”
Schulist trained hard, too. If she had a choice between five miles or 10, she always opted for more, she said. She questioned those who socialized at practice, wondering how they could consider themselves serious runners.
Those teammates could tell things weren’t right. Beside her eating habits, her personality shifted. Relationships grew strained.
“When people are hurting, I think they say and they do things that can come across as cold or disconnected,” said Leah O’Connor, a two-time NCAA champion at MSU who now runs for the NorCal Distance Project in Sacramento.
O’Connor and Schulist trained together “step for step” for two years. During that time, O’Connor said she worked hard to balance listening and supporting her hurting teammate with taking care of her own running, body, and health.
“It’s a hard place for a whole team,” she said. “And especially for the person who’s dealing with it.”
Schulist said she heard the concerns of her teammates, Drenth, and associate head coach Lisa Senakiewich. Plus, she was seeing a nutritionist and a sports psychologist. But with her running going well, she lacked motivation to make changes.
The next year, 2015, started strong. In September, she led start to finish at the Spartan Invite. Later that month, she ran the Roy Griak Invitational in Minnesota in 21:32, finishing fifth—but ending up with knee pain.
The ache returned, and worsened, during her long run the next week. Team doctors diagnosed her with a patellar stress fracture, an uncommon injury. It was likely linked to her struggles with nutrition and weight.
Schulist spent the rest of the season training in the pool and watching her teammates race. The messages from her coaches and doctors about her health grew louder.
But even when she returned to racing in February, she couldn’t completely wrap her head around the idea that she could run as well as she did before with extra weight. Heading into the 2016 cross-country season, she was off her mental game. She placed 134th at the Wisconsin Invitational in October, a meet she had finished second at in 2014.
“Part of me second-guessed, was I only good because I was that small?” Schulist said. “And I was exhausted and I dreaded racing. I was just, like, embarrassed about it.”
Many runners with body image or disordered eating face those questions, O’Connor said. “When you have success and you’ve deprived yourself, you start to associate your success with that lifestyle,” she said. “You forget, almost, how much hard work and running you put in.”
Her coaches insisted that no, Schulist was the same runner—or rather, a better one. O’Connor, who has stayed in touch with Schulist after she graduated, echoed the message.
“Your talent isn’t going to go away. You aren’t racing well because you’re thin,” O’Connor tried to tell Schulist. “You’re running well because you’re a good runner. You’re going to run better when you’re healthy and have energy and consistent training.”
The message didn’t truly sink in for Schulist until a conversation with Drenth the day before the Big 10 Championships on October 30.
“He called me back in and asked, ‘What do I need to do to make you run without fear again?’” she said. He didn’t care about her time or place. “He said, ‘I just want you to run the way Rachele Schulist can run.’”
At that moment, a switch flipped. She knew she had to regain her confidence and joy in the sport. She told herself not to give up, to show up—if not for herself, for her teammates, her school, and her coach.
The next day, she ran 21:18 to place ninth in the conference. At the Great Lakes Regional in November, she ran 19:59 and finished fourth. But it wasn’t until her 12th-place finish at nationals that she—and her coaches—knew she’d truly staged a comeback.
Her workouts had gone so well, Drenth believes she could have ended up top five with another week or two of training. As he’d told her before, however, her mindset mattered far more.
“She was all in and it was the first time she’d been all in in a long time,” he said. “She wasn’t distracted by what she was or what she wasn’t.” That she also placed highly was icing: “I think it was an affirmation that she could be well and competitive.”
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Now, Schulist said, she’s much kinder to her body. She’s working back up to about 75 miles per week, but takes days off from training or ends a workout if she feels run down.
She eats full meals of healthy, whole foods. And yes, she’ll have some pizza, every once in a while.
She’s rebuilt connections with her teammates, whom she credits with reassuring her of her worth when she raced poorly. She’s emerged as a leader on the team, O’Connor said, showing a capacity to help others she didn’t possess at her lowest point.
She understands, and hopes others can learn, that success takes time. “It’s a process of growth and getting stronger and you can’t rush the process,” Schulist said. “The worst thing you can do is try to shortcut your way there.”
Schulist knows she’ll have to keep working hard to maintain control of her thoughts. When she’s tempted to slip, she reminds herself: “When you work out, you’re breaking down muscle to build new muscle. So if I work out really hard and I don’t give my body what it needs, that seems almost disrespectful to myself. I don’t want to break down—I want to be building myself up, getting stronger.”
That’s essential if she wants to meet her future goals, including placing high at nationals in indoor and outdoor track in the spring. And she wants to keep running after college, a dream Drenth and O’Connor think she’s now poised to achieve.
“One thing that she’s proven is that she’s tough as nails,” O’Connor said. “I think she can do whatever she sets her mind to.”
Though Schulist admitted sharing her story publicly makes her feel vulnerable, she’ll stay open about her struggles. “Afterward, reflecting on the season—it’s like, I wish I had come to this peace of mind sooner, you know? It would have made the whole season a lot more fun,” she said. “But at the same time, I think I went through this journey for a reason and that’s why I want to share it. I want good to come from the bad.”
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