Not your typical marathon training mileage, but these are not your typical marathon runners.
William Bell and his son, Billy, completed their first Detroit Free Press Marathon in 1997 when Billy was just 11 years old. A year later, they were joined by 10-year-old brother, Curt, and 9-year-old sister, Anne.
These kids are far different from their typical Nintendo-playing couch potato classmates, but is it too much?
In the early '80s, marathon running for children was controversial. Sure, there were kids out there doing it and even recording some impressive times. Twelve-year-old Wesley Paul ran a 2:46 marathon in 1982, and 8-year-old Tabitha Franks popped a 3:13 a year later.
But doctors were unclear on the long-term consequences that child marathon runners would face.
Today, while marathon running may seem a little extreme for most kids, doctors agree that the sport poses no more physical threat to children than it does to adults -- even at the marathon distance.
In fact, regular aerobic exercise for kids helps to strengthen bones, aids in weight control and leads to improved cardiovascular health into adulthood. By far, the biggest problems for children and running seem to be the psychological aspects of training and racing that make child runners different than their often-overzealous parents.
It was the arrival of the Baby Jogger in 1984 that introduced recreational and competitive running to a whole new audience. Kids could now accompany their parents on a run even before they could crawl.
Stacie Luizzi, a longtime runner and recent mother, enjoys going for three or four runs per week with her 18-month-old daughter.
"Jocelyn absolutely loves it!" Luizzi says. "When I ask her if she wants to go running, she says 'cow, cow, moo, moo' because we always run past the cow pastures. Then she gets out her coat and hat and climbs in (the jogger)."
Luizzi's neighbors often borrow her jogger for local races, and recently took their 2 1/2-year-old daughter out of the stroller so she could run the final 50 yards to the finish. She loved it, and the crowd cheered her all the way across the finish line.
But it isn't long before kids outgrow the stroller and are ready to run on their own, and this is when doctors caution parents to take a step back and contain their enthusiasm before pushing their kids.
Most running parents dream of the day their offspring will begin running and racing, but young children are not ready for structured training and the pressure that comes with competition.
At a young age, running should be more free-form and fun, with goals that are easily attainable. Events like the RunTex Marathon Kids program in Austin, Texas, are a great way to introduce children to running as a fun activity.
In the program, Children from kindergarten through fifth grade must accumulate 26.2 miles of running in increments of one-half to one mile over a five-month period. The "Final Mile Celebration" is held in the University of Texas Mike Myers Track & Field Stadium, where the kids complete the last mile of the program alongside Olympic athletes and receive their finishers medals.
Physician and Sportsmedicine lists the following 10 guidelines for pre-teen children and competitive athletics. These apply to all sports, including running.
1. Make sure your children know that "win or lose," you love them and are not disappointed with their performance.
2. Be realistic about your child's physical ability.
3. Help your child set realistic goals.
4. Emphasize improved performance, not winning. Positively reinforce improved skills.
5. Don't relive your own athletic past through your child.
6. Provide a safe environment for training and competition.
7. Control your own emotions at games and events. Don't yell at other players, coaches or officials.
8. Be a cheerleader for your child and the other children on the team.
9. Respect your child's coaches. Communicate openly with them. If you disagree with their approach, discuss it with them.
10. Be a positive role model. Enjoy sports yourself. Set your own goals. Live a healthy lifestyle.
Set a good example
With almost half of American teenagers reporting they do not engage in regular vigorous activity, and nearly that many classified as overweight, an exercise program is a simple solution that will reap lifetime benefits.
Doctors recommend that children should exercise vigorously for a minimum of 30 minutes, three or four times per week. This can be anything from running, to playing tag, to riding their bikes.
Being runners, we'd all like to see our kids choose running; however, pushing your child into running when they would rather do something else will make them despise the sport for life. Instead, try and set an example.
When your child sees you running and enjoying it, they will most likely try the sport themselves -- especially if they have a grown-up cheering for them from the sidelines of local running events.
Regular family bike rides and hikes will also show your kids that being active can be fun, and in the long run will make them fitter, healthier and happier adults.
More information about children and running can be found at www.kidsrunning.com.
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