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The Secret to a National Cross-Country Title? Fun.

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

To purposely lean away from data and toward a healthy, deliberately fun culture is uncommon at this high a level of competition.

Instead, it’s more common to hear athletes share what they describe as toxicity when it reaches a breaking point. In the past handful of years, many runners have spoken up after reading about — and recognizing — Mary Cain’s experience. Cain, a wunderkind once heralded as the future of American distance running, described how she experienced years of ridicule about her body from Alberto Salazar, her former coach. In the months and years following Cain’s disclosure, runners around the U.S. have shared their own similar experiences: fat talks, shaming and manipulation, harassment, and a fixation on body composition numbers over mental health.

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Creating a healthy, inclusive, well-rounded culture is at the forefront of the N.C. State program. There are brunches after long runs. There are combative game nights and extremely fierce mini golf sessions. There are cooking competitions modeled off the television show “Chopped” at the Henes household and dinners hosted by the upperclassmen. There’s a lot of basketball, too, even if HORSE has been encouraged over one-on-one games.

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

On Saturday, as her athletes wove around the 6-kilometer course (3.7 miles) at Oklahoma State, Henes said she mostly stayed out of the way. Even cross-country running, with no timeouts, can be over-coached, she said. She picked a spot where she could give her runners the feedback they wanted, and trusted the rest to their training.

Tuohy, the favorite to win the title, had wanted to know just one thing when she passed her coach. “Tell me the team score with 400 meters to go,” Henes recalled Tuohy asking.

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