When is it Too young and Too soon for Endurance Events?

Competing in endurance events like marathons and triathlons is fun, exciting, fulfilling, though at times is grueling and arduous. The grueling aspects can be the heavy weeks of training and even the race itself. Not only from a physical aspect, but an emotional one.

If this is true for adult athletes what about youth athletes? When are athletes considered too young to compete in endurance events? And, what is the parents’ role when a child wants to compete in physically demanding events? Should there be an age minimum set by race organizers? These are interesting questions for parents, coaches and sports enthusiasts. To stimulate thought and discussion, I’ve included here, stories of pre-adolescent children competing in events that most adults would find challenging if not unimaginable.

Story One: The ‘Pixie’ Runners
I came across a news story recently that provides a real life, yet extreme example of young athletes competing in such events. It goes like this, two young girls, sisters, age ten and twelve compete in endurance events, marathons, half marathons, and triathlons. They compete in tough events; trail marathons [full and half] and shorter races, usually consisting of difficult trails in high altitudes. The older child, Kaytlynn, petite and tiny, weighing not more than sixty pounds competed in over ninety events in the last two years. Her sister, apparently not as ‘serious’ as her older sister, competed in just over seventy.

Kaytlynn at age 11, after completing the full marathon in Texas, Cedar Horn

According to the NYT article, the girls often cry during their races, even after if they don’t win, or when they are hurt. Though Kaytlynn does enjoy running, she says this, “running is fun, even though it hurts sometimes” and, she continues, “it makes a purpose in my life.” Click here for the full story, and here for a slide show of these [adorable] girls (Bearak, 2012).

I find this story disturbing for several reasons. I’ve competed and trained for several half and full marathons, and know the physical and time commitments required. The benefits of training hard are worth the effort, yet I only run three or four endurance events a year. These children are running every other weekend.  I wonder how these kids will feel about running when they are teenagers, and even more importantly, what kind of relationship they will have with their parents.  What do you think the role of the parents should be in this situation? Should they be encouraging their girls as this father appears to do, or should they restrict the participation even though Kaytlynn loves running and is obviously a gifted athlete?

View of Alcatraz on the water.
1.5mi from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park, more mileage if swimming against currents

Story Two: Seven-year Old Goes to Alcatraz
Seven-year old boy, Braxton of Arizona, was the youngest ever to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco’s Aquatic Park back in 2006. According to the news story, the young swimmer got the idea after reading an article in a magazine about a nine-year old who had just completed the swim (this seems a stretch that a seven-year old is reading magazine articles, however…). The boy approached his swim coach, the coach agreed to help him prepare, and training preparation began [I’m assuming with his parents support].

The boy trained for two hours a day, four times a week. He also completed training swims in several Arizona lakes and completed a trip to the San Francisco Bay the month before the race to prepare for the event.  In an interview before the event, Braxton said this, “It kind of seems like a long way, but I’m not totally worried. It’s not that far.” (AP, 2006)

What do you think?
What do you think of these two stories? It’s hard not to be impressed by these amazing feats …. if done by adults, yet for young children not fully developed, physically and emotionally?  The risks associated with competing and training for endurance events are numerous including, injury, chronic fatigue and burnout. These are all exacerbated when there is little down time between each; training then becomes a ‘job’, and not simply a hobby or pastime. When training comes first, and significant time and financial resources are devoted to it, the ‘fun’ and enjoyment is in danger of wearing a bit thin. I have mixed feelings about young athletes competing in endurance events; in these stories above I don’t think it’s healthy, yet on a smaller scare? Perhaps. My daughter competed in a half marathon when she was fifteen, and it was a positive experience, yet I won’t let her compete in a full marathon until she turns eighteen.

What do you think of these unique and athletically gifted children? Share your thoughts with a comment if you are so inclined.

Photo Credits: 1) Young Runner, by Toronto Rob (Flickr), 2) Kaytlynn, Fiftystatesmarathon, (Flickr),  3) Alcatraz, luxomedia’s photostream (Flickr),

One thought on “When is it Too young and Too soon for Endurance Events?

  1. Reblogged this on The Runners Muse and commented:

    I wrote this post for my blog, ‘School First: Sports Second, a blog about school, youth sports and finding the right balance’. I thought readers of this blog, [many of you endurance athletes and/or parents], will find the stories of these young athletes incredulous.


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