Marathon kids: Too young to run?

With more children and teens taking up the marathon challenge, some doctors warn that running the full 42 kilometres can permanently injure growing bodies

From Friday's Globe and Mail

There was something different about the lanky, fresh-faced racer who completed the Cape Breton Fiddlers Run marathon in three hours, 28 minutes and six seconds two weeks ago.

Maybe it was that he embraced his mother at the finish. Maybe it was the Eminem on his iPod.

For Nicholas Burke, completing his second marathon proved he could "pretty much accomplish anything" - especially considering he's only a teenager.

But others say his young age means he shouldn't be running marathons at all.

Mr. Burke, 17, is among a small but growing number of Canadian youth - some as young as 9 - that race officials report are completing marathons and 21-kilometre half marathons at major races.

Their participation highlights one of the most controversial questions in the running world: How young is too young to run 42.2 kilometres?

Marathons can permanently injure growing bodies, say some sports doctors, who warn that the road race may be the newest sports arena where children's bodies are being pushed too hard.

"As more and more children are running longer and longer and harder and harder, we're seeing ever-increasing numbers of injuries from overuse," said Stephen Rice, a pediatric sports doctor from New Jersey who has researched the sport's health


Concerned by the number of young entrants, race officials are now adding parental consent forms to their registration policies to protect themselves from liability. Some running enthusiasts also warn that young athletes are being pushed to dangerous extremes by zealous adults, and are

advocating a ban on racers younger than 18.

The controversy comes at a time when children's running programs are being promoted more than ever before. Fuelled by anxiety over childhood obesity and sedentary lifestyles, kids' races have been added to marathon events in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and dozens of U.S. cities in the past five years, attracting thousands of children and school groups


About 400 children crossed the finish line at the Niagara Falls International Marathon on Oct. 28. The kids' marathon program, which mirrors others across the country, requires elementary school children to run 40 kilometres, broken into smaller distances, over a six-week period. Then, on race day, they run the final 2.2 kilometres and cross the same finish line as world-class athletes.

"It feels really good," said

10-year-old Alexander Foster McCullough, a Grade 5 student who completed the program for the third year.

Programs such as the Niagara Falls Schools Marathon Challenge are almost universally praised because they encourage children to become active and will, it is hoped, instill a lifelong love of running.

"They get the real marathon experience with all the timing chips," said teacher Christina Jackson, who coached Alexander and 16 other students from St. Ann elementary school in Fenwick, Ont. "They get really jazzed up about it."

But when a youngster is inspired to run 42.2 kilometres all at once, many draw a different line. Running enthusiasts spar over the question in online forums, magazines and medical journals, as more children want to run longer distances and adults wonder whether they should.

The issue hit the international stage last year when India's so-called marathon boy tried to run about 70 kilometres before doctors stopped him near the 65-km mark. His coach was charged with torture in August after his mother reported signs of abuse. China had its own 8-year-old marathon girl, who reportedly ran 3,500 kilometres this summer at the urging of her father, sparking protests from children's rights activists.

Much of the controversy comes from the confusion over whether running a marathon helps or harms growing bodies.

In its 2007 guide for clinicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics said there was no compelling evidence suggesting that children should be banned from marathons, as long as they train properly and aren't being forced to take part.

But other medical bodies - including the one advising the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS) - recommend that runners under 18 should be banned. Their arguments are based on anecdotal evidence and studies looking at youth competing in other endurance sports, such as triathlons.

Dr. Rice authored a position statement that was published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine in 2003 on behalf of AIMS.

He cited a long list of health risks, including stress fractures, reduction in bone mass, decreased flexibility, adult-onset arthritis and other degenerative conditions. Children are also more likely than adults to overheat during exercise, he wrote, because they heat up faster and are less able to get rid of heat through sweat.

"Running is wonderful," Dr. Rice says. "But 26 miles? Is it really necessary to run that far?"

Yes, Mr. Burke says.

He was inspired to run the marathon at 10, when he flipped the television channel and saw runners pouring over the finish line at the Boston Marathon. By 12, he was running two kilometres a night after dinner. At 15, he completed his first five-kilometre competitive race.

"I got the bug from there," Mr. Burke said.

Six months after that race, he finished the Blue Nose International Marathon in Halifax in a respectable three hours and 50 minutes. He was the third male under 19 across the finish line.

Mr. Burke couldn't find a running coach in Victoria Mines, N.S., the village of 1,000 people where he lives with his parents and 10-year-old brother. So he followed a six-month marathon training program he found online. He checked regularly with Internet forums, seeking advice and encouragement from other runners. He also got a green light from his doctor.

"He's always been so active and so healthy that I don't see it as a problem," said his mother, Sandra Burke, whose concerns were alleviated by the medical checkup.

Race organizers can't ensure anyone has trained properly. But while many say they don't want teenagers competing in their races, they put the onus on parents to stop them.

"If a parent comes along and really wants their 17-year-old to run the marathon, we're not going to tell them that they can't," said Laurie Davison, spokeswoman for the Ottawa Marathon. "But they have to sign the waiver."

Parental consent is also required by the Toronto Marathon and Vancouver Marathon, which gets about 50 runners under age 19 in the full and

half marathon races each

year. Smaller races, such as the

Calgary Marathon and Cape Breton Fiddlers Run, don't have official policies for young


Mr. Burke knows that many people don't support his passion. He's debated with those who have the "gall" to challenge what he's doing.

His goal is to qualify for the race that first inspired him: the Boston Marathon. When he attempts to make the three-hour, 10-minute qualifying time in Halifax in May, he'll be able to meet Boston's 18-year old age requirement.

"I feel like nobody can stop me," he said. "I get this feeling that comes over me [when I run]. That it's my own time and everything, just for me."