Children And Ultramarathons

Andrew Miller at the 2013 Waldo 100K. Photo: Long Run Pictures

In early March, for the first time in nearly eight years, I started coaching high school running. Coaching high school track and cross-country a dozen years ago – and the frustration of seeing my kids injured – first inspired me to leave behind my career as a laboratory chemist and become a physical therapist. But, ironically, it was the intense time and energy demands of a physical therapy career that precluded a return to bona fide team coaching, until this year.

Returning to high school coaching has only reinforced my values and mission for all runners with whom I work: inspire, teach, and equip young people to become life-long runners and – short of that – provide a nurturing experience where they can grow as individuals within a community.

On a recent Saturday long run, my friend Mike and I shuffled effortlessly along the river path. Mid-run we bumped into another friend, Jeremy, who was running home from a youth soccer game. Both men have children involved in youth sport: Mike’s elementary-aged daughter loves to swim, while Jeremy has three daughters involved in soccer, track and cross-country running.

As we loped along the rushing Willamette River in Eugene, Oregon, we talked all things running: my recent return to high school coaching, then ultramarathon training and racing. Soon, the conversation turned to kids in ultramarathon running: young boys and girls running ultramarathon trail races, some as young as eight years old, as well as a local talent, 17- year old Andrew Miller of Corvallis, who in 2013 placed in the top five at the competitive Waldo 100K, and, six weeks later, placed an astonishing third at the Pine to Palm 100-mile race.

Andrew Miller at the 2013 Waldo 100K. Photo: Long Run Pictures

Andrew Miller at the 2013 Waldo 100K. Photo: Long Run Pictures

The young Mr. Miller is a hot topic among local ultrarunners (and non-runners, I’m certain). Spurning the opportunities of youth running (he is not on his school cross-country or track teams), Miller has been running ultras since the tender age of 14, when he ran his first 50k. He is a quiet, but amiable young man who has no problem fielding a myriad of questions about his running: why he doesn’t run for his school (he’d rather run long on the trails), whether ultrarunning is too stressful on his body (no, “It’s fun!”). The tougher questions are aimed at his parents: is training and racing ultra distances safe for his physical development? Will running that far – and that frequently at his age (he completed a whopping nine ultra races from 50k to 100 miles in 2013, according to ultrasignup.com) – be sustainable for lifelong running?

Our trio mulls over these questions as we turn upriver – the concept of children competing in grueling mountain ultramarathons is truly running against the current of conventional wisdom. Mike and Jeremy chew on those ideas, as my brain turns inward.

When I began coaching, I quickly realized that my passions in life were well outside the sterility of the laboratory. I considered teaching, but then turned to coaching as a stand-alone career. Within a year I was pursuing a master’s degree in Kinesiology at Minnesota, the gold standard requirement to become a collegiate coach. But rather than pursue the hard sciences, I went for the brain: sport psychology.

Within that, my core focus was youth sport. We studied the evolution of youth sport from its beginnings in the early 20th century to present-day. The major changes seen during that time include a dramatic decrease in unstructured, unsupervised neighborhood sport – or “free play” – that has been replaced by organized, adult-run practices and competitions.

The results are striking: over the past three decades, injury rates for children have sky-rocketed, kids are specializing in only one sport earlier, and – most troubling – the majority of all kids will quit their favorite sport before the age of 14.

What are kids missing out on in this shift from free to structured and focused play? In addition to lost activity time – kids can no longer run out the back door to the neighborhood park, they must be driven across town – they’re potentially losing valuable socialization and creativity: no longer able to create their own games, establish rules and govern among themselves, all these things are now dictated for them.

But perhaps most striking – and likely contributing to the explosive injury and burnout rate presently seen among young athletes – is that children no longer self-select play intensity. Rather than play hard, go easy, and rest when they feel like it, children are forced into adultdictated exercise parameters: and the result is typically more intensity, less variety, longer periods, and more frequently – at ever younger ages.

I mull over this notion silently, then ask, “How do we know a long ultra is more stressful than other youth sports?”

Indeed, is it that unfathomable that an easy multi-hour shuffle (or two or three) through the mountains may be significantly less stressful than a typical week of youth soccer, which can include three to six hours of practice in addition to weekly multi-day, multi-game tournaments? How do we measure the physiological stress incurred on developing bodies that undergo the intensity that is so common – and universally accepted as safe – in such conventional youth sports?

Indeed, when young Andrew Miller takes off on a four-hour trail run/hike with his younger brother Jacob, 16, in the Cascade coast range west of Corvallis – running as fast as they like, stopping when they want – he is likely putting no more (and possibly much less) stress through his muscles, joints and organs than his scholastic- sporting peers who spend one to three hours, daily, in high school sports.

This brings it all back to The Mission: creating a positive experience for our kids, and promoting healthy, sustainable, and lifelong physical activity and community involvement. Implicit in this mission is an accurate judgment, then balance, of the true stress load we place upon our children, and then, somehow fostering those elements – self-selection of intensity, peer socialization, and freedom to play – that have been lost in modern organized sport.

Given those values, perhaps long trail running – and even ultramarathon racing – might be among the best options for exposing our children to the best that sports have to offer. Indeed, I can think of no better place for our young people to learn the values of hard work, commitment, and overcoming adversity, as well as the community values of team work, mutual sacrifice, respect, mentorship, and acceptance than the ultrarunning community.

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Joe Uhan

Joe Uhan is a physical therapist, coach and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 18 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50/50 in October 2010, was the bronze medalist at the 2012 USATF 100K Trail Championships, and finished 9th overall at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe works at Tensegrity Physical Therapy in Eugene, Oregon.
  • @Brad Dains

    This is one thing that I struggle with as a parent. My 8 year old wants to go run with me. The longest I’ve taken her on is a 5 mile run. She LOVES it and wants to go longer, but I don’t want her to burn out on it. I and my wife know that it’s good for her, but she has told me that she wants to run a 1/2 marathon by 10 years old, a full marathon by 12 and her first ultra by 16 (yes, these are her goals, not mine). When/how do I tell her just to slow down and enjoy the ride? The other thing that I struggle with is if you look at how many kids get hurt every year from head injuries (primarily football and soccer), shoulder problems (primarily baseball/softball), knee problems from repetitive jumping (primarily basketball and volleyball) and wonder how people can look at something like running and claim “you’re going to ruin your knees” but football in the US is one of the most popular sports in the country.

  • Jason Bullock

    Really glad you asked these questions. My 16 year old son has been running
    ultras for two years now. He wanted to run with me when he was twelve
    and within a few months he went from running a daily five where he is
    today. His mother and I asked the hard questions about long term
    effects on his joints and bones and came to the same conclusion as
    you have. He as well as all my children we would play full tilt from
    their earliest years for hours on end breaking only for snacks and
    stopping only when they were called in at night. They are older now
    and over the intervening years each one slowed down because other
    activities replaced the playing. But he has taken to running.
    Athletic trainers and physical therapists stretch and pull on him and
    say he is fine. He sets his own running schedule and is hindered only
    by my calender and pocket book. This year he has completed the
    Delirium 24 hour, Reservoir Park 50k, Fort Clinch 100, 12 Hours of
    Hope, Lone Cane 50K. And we have FHT77, Hell Hole 100, and the
    Mountain Challenge Series 48 hour to finish the spring. So far injury
    free.

  • https://www.facebook.com/mark.plate.10 Mark Plate

    My 14 and 12 year old sons have been running ultras regularly for over a year thus far. They have had no injuries, and they keep wanting to come back for more. They much prefer ultras over school and club track, and in fact, the 14 year old will not be running school cross country or track this coming fall when he goes to high school because he wants to keep running ultras instead. They will be running the 40-mile Flint Hills trail race in Kansas this coming weekend, the Solemates’ CYA 24-hour race in July, and the Silverton Challenge 72-hour race Labor Day weekend, which is one of the toughest ultras out there, and which they also completed last year.

  • Robert Rayburn

    This touches very close to home with me. My first ultra was the 1999 Mosquito Pass Marathon (I think the distance was 28-31 miles that year). I would have been 14 at the time. My times were slow but I had fun. I went on to finishing a 50 (2000 Collegiate Peaks) and two 100′s (Rocky Raccoon 2000 & 2001) before graduating high school in June 2001.

    In addition to the ultras, I ran cross country and track in high school. I felt like I ran in two worlds, one of the trail/mountain/ultra runners where everything was just another challenge. And that of the cross country and track folks, where I would push myself for the faster 3200m or 5K times. Both worlds complimented one another. I would find that the discipline of the track would carry over to discipline at aid stations to not hang about. The mental toughness forged over mountains gave me the feeling that I could do anything.

    Was it hard on me? yes… a good highschool friend of mine still remembers me limping through the crowded hallways of my school trying to get to class the day after my first 100. At the same time, I was back to running by the end of the week.
    The only push back I got from my CC and Track coaches was that they felt I could have been better had I been more focused on the short distances. My times were decent, but not good enough to go on to race in college.

    The most memorable critiques/advice came from some of the most well known figures in ultrarunning. I was at a high school cross country camp near Colorado Springs a week or two after I did Mosquito. Mark Plaatjes was a guest speaker one day. After his talk, he took questions. I asked him his thoughts on kids running ultras. Given the setting he gave a very measured response of “You only have so many marathons in your legs, you don’t want to use them up when you are young.” Following that advice, I have never run a marathon. Afterwards, I went up and talked to him one on one and mentioned Mosquito. He response then was more supportive and he wished me luck on my future plans.

    A couple years later I was training with my dad going up over Hope Pass. He was training for another go at Leadville. I had always wanted to run it, but Ken Chlouber (not known for bending the rules for anyone) had a hard and fast 21 year age limit. As my dad and I took a rest at the top of the pass before racing back down to Twin Lakes, Who should come up from the north side going the other way but Ken himself. I seized the moment and asked Ken if he would grant me special permission to run the following year (by which point I would have finished my second 100 and qualified in every way but minimum age). Ken, a father of a runner himself, put his arm over my shoulder and looking out over the great view of Leadville from Hope Pass said to me, “At 16 years old, you need to be out chasing girls, not running with old men in the woods.”

    As I went to college and the structure of high school went away. I found it harder to get out and go run. The pressures to find a group and fit in among people my own age got to me. I placed 3rd at Heartland 50 in 2002 (out of a field of 13 I believe) and dropped the next year at about 34 miles due do landing wrong on a sharp rock at about 5 miles and having pain in my foot.

    These days I do 5k’s and a couple of half marathons with friends. Nowhere near as fast as I once was. The post college desk job (and maybe a few beers) have added some significant weight to the point where most people wouldn’t suspect me of ever being a runner, let alone ultras. I can’t say that I was burnt out on running them, maybe I just needed more kids my age to run them with?

  • Caleb Wilson

    Fort Clinch RD here. Elijah is a cool kid. Smart and recognizes his limits. You guys trained him well.

  • Caleb Wilson

    It was awesome to have him at my race.

  • Cary Stephens

    Notably, Andrew Miller just won the Scout Mountain 100k two weeks after winning the McDonald Forest 50k. He is racing well beyond his years. He is also very humble and runs for hours in the forest for the love of it. He should be a role model for many young kids when it comes to attitude and dedication.