Do you ever feel like a kid again while running? New runners, both young and old, often rediscover that childlike sense of wonder, where everything is exciting and anything seems possible. Improvement spawns greater desire for more improvement, and we look for ways to satisfy those desires: extra distance, longer races, faster times and different running disciplines. These can all enrich one’s experience as a runner, so much so that reaching a childlike mindset perhaps should be a goal in itself for any runner.
It was interesting, then, to recently come across a Facebook post from a concerned parent of a 10-year-old who had expressed an interest in running greater and greater distances. “Young bloke … 12km on Sunday in 1:05,” the post read. “He’s talking about a half-mara already!”
The chief concern of the poster was keeping the little guy’s goal to a reasonable distance for his age – “how far is too far?” More intriguing still was the follow-up question: “Is there a magic formula somewhere for how far kids can run?”
Despite a host of well-meaning replies, no magic formula emerged, but perhaps the best place to look is inside the head of the 10-year-old – or, for that matter, any other youngster with a desire to run. Kids have a beautifully unspoilt sense of what works for them, and maybe we should more closely observe their “training methods”. The number-one law of kids’ running is that it needs to be fun. If it’s not, they probably won’t do it.
“Too far”, then, may lie just beyond the point at which a child voluntarily stops. The danger zone closes in when that inherent ability to moderate their own on/off switch is short-circuited by those who would claim to know better.
Of course, this works both ways. Most parents wouldn’t be comfortable allowing their children total free rein over their endeavours, so it makes sense that sport should be no different. While they may have an inherent ability to slow or stop, kids don’t necessarily know where the boundaries between safety and danger exist, and they don’t need to discover each and every painful experience for themselves. Experience is one of the many gifts parents give their children, and it is something a good coach should also be able to pass on.
We also shouldn’t discount the example we set as parents. Part of the “problem” with this 10-year-old runner may be that his parents are ultrarunners. It can be seen as a positive indictment on the parents that their child is following their good example of leading a fit and, presumably, healthy lifestyle. The fact the child is aware of what and how far a half marathon is suggests his eyes are open and he’s paying attention.
Short of allowing our kids to define their own distance boundaries (though this is the only true method), what does conventional wisdom tell us? There seems to be little evidence to suggest self-driven, voluntary exercise by kids is detrimental to their health – quite the contrary, in fact. Numerous studies and professional opinions and advice point to the many benefits such exercise has on the developing child. Allowing children freedom to explore their own boundaries to their heart’s content, then, may be nothing but beneficial.
Some of the great running coaches of days gone by have recognised this. Legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard made many such observations, which he documented in Distance Training for Young Athletes.
“Youngsters under 15 can handle a great deal of aerobic training because their capacity to use oxygen in relation to their bodyweight is greater than an adult’s,” notes Lydiard.
“It is not unusual for boys and girls of 10 to 12 to run weekly aerobic mileages of up to 120 kilometres.”
Percy Cerutty, a coach considered to be ahead of his time in his eccentric approach to the training and general overall development of the athlete as a person, appears to concur with Lydiard in his 1963 book Schoolboy Athletics (though we can now update this to include school girls): “Upwards of 200 miles (320km) per month can be expected,” he notes. Importantly, Cerutty prefaces this number in writing about children who are “… most likely to succeed as a miler, and the longer distances,” and goes on to say “he will most likely be found to be the one who loves running for its own sake.”
“Should anyone consider these mileages excessive,” he continues, “even under 12 years of age, I can assure them, if the boy wants to do, and enjoys doing, these runs, on no account should they be discouraged from doing them.”
However, Cerutty also notes the importance of ensuring a child be the chief driving force behind their own running.
“It is when boys are compelled rather than encouraged that harm can come,” he explains. “Compulsions can break; efforts voluntarily undertaken, no matter what they may be, seldom – if ever – cause permanent harm.”
Meanwhile, across the Tasman Sea, Lydiard noticed “thousands of boys and girls running in cross-country packs, jumping fences and creeks, wallowing through mud, in sunshine or rain, heat or cold, in total enjoyment.”
Based on these observations from two of the most trusted minds in the history of distance running, our “young bloke” who ran 12km in 65min and is looking at a half marathon should be quite okay to go for it as long as it is of his own free will. Once again, when the act of running is more akin to play, the natural ability to avoid uncomfortable oxygen debt and exhaustion puts kids in a state of playful flow.
Theory and words of wisdom are one thing, but a real-life example is quite another. And so we can look to Colby Wentlandt, a quite amazing young ultrarunner from Warner Springs, California, to see how far a simple love of running can take a kid. In May 2013, aged just 12, he completed his first 100-mile race – the Ride the Wind 100-miler, near the Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas – in 32hr 7min 30sec. Like our Facebook poster’s son, Wentlandt was inspired by his ultrarunning parents, training with them and completing the first 100km of his 100-miler with his mum.
Before Ride the Wind, Wentlandt started out with a marathon, naturally, and said, “I enjoyed the race experience. After I finished, I felt amazing; I felt like I was on top of the world. The idea of going farther than a marathon amazed me … I wanted to try it.”
So he did, and after the requisite struggles associated with running a 100-mile race, he received his 100-mile finishers’ belt buckle. “When it was in my hands, all the pain was worth it,” he said. “I can’t wait to do it again! Now that I have done a 100-miler, my next goal is to be the youngest person to run the Badwater 135.”
At the time of writing, Colby has about three years to complete Badwater and so beat the 19-year-old finisher of arguably the toughest race on earth, Nickademus Hollon. Hollon’s journey into ultramarathon running began while in high school, where he ran cross country. At 15, he did a 3hr 29min marathon, barely beating a guy in a banana costume. Then he did a fundraiser for a friend with leukemia, pledging to run 3000 miles to raise $10,000. As part of it, he did a 100-mile run around his high school track.
“Although it was insanely difficult for me, I finished it,” he recalls. “I pulled it off. It was something where, for the first time, I finished first, per se, in my mind. I instantly clung to that as an identity.”
Both Wentlandt and Hollon offer great examples of success stories for self-driven young runners whose desire to run has taken them further than many can even imagine.
In contrast, when there are outside forces at play, we get something like the strange story of Budhia Singh from India. By age three, Singh was the youngest person ever to finish a marathon. By age four, he had completed 48 marathons. However, his personal story puts a very sad spin on his running accomplishments.
Born to a very poor family, Singh’s mother sold him for 800 rupees, and he was eventually taken in and adopted by a man, Biranchi Das, who became his “marathon coach”. Predictably, allegations of forced training and exploitation for financial gain by Das arose, and Indian Child Welfare officials became involved. After running 65km in just seven hours at age four, Singh was disallowed to run such distances again when doctors found the boy had “high blood pressure, a high rate of protein catabolism, was under cardiological stress, and at risk of renal failure.”
Bizarrely, Das was murdered in 2008 over an unrelated incident, and Singh was moved into a government-run sports hostel, where he remained physically active but no longer ran extreme distances.
Though it’s hard to say for sure, Singh may well be an example of a child running beyond the point of play and into the dangerous zone where detrimental effects – mental as well as physical – can manifest.
Play Sport Australia lists the nine reasons for kids stopping sport, all of which are much more likely to come as a result of outside influence than through a child’s internal motivations:
As Kahlil Gibran said in The Prophet, “[Your children] are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself… You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.” Just as you have found a better way of living through distance running, it is natural, even desirable, that your children follow in your footsteps. Perhaps all we can do is make sure we offer a steady bow so the arrows can fly straight and true, swift and far.
A child running can be seen as the purest form of the art. To stifle the purity of running for the love of running with control and regimen – no matter how seated in concern it is – could potentially limit or destroy the greatest gift any distance runner could ever hope for. The best approach, then, may be to nurture your child’s desire to run simply because they love to run, no matter the distance. Better still, go with them and pay attention. Character, self-confidence, fortitude and, most of all, faith in their own ability are all on display in abundance. You may have more to learn from them than you think.