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.
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.