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