A 35-year old pregnant woman who is in the latter stage of her pregnancy and still doing regular CrossFit workouts, received heavy criticism recently after a photo of her lifting a heavy weight was posted on CrossFit Headquarter’s Facebook page. In response to the barrage of criticism, another heavily pregnant athlete (and certified yoga teacher) also posted pictures of herself on Athleta.net, one of which showed her doing a headstand on a paddle board. Her accompanying words attempted to convince readers that women do not have to stop doing what they are doing just because they are pregnant.
The problem however, is that any sport that calls into question seemingly extreme or out-of-the-norm behaviors, will always draw a certain amount of negative attention towards the person/s performing the questionable behaviors. And that brings me to the topic of this month’s TrailRunner Magazine’s Blog Symposium Topic: Should Kids Be Allowed To Run Ultras?
Here again, you have a situation in which a few individuals are engaged in a specific sport, and creating controversial discussions about their participation because they pose a risk of some sort. In the case of kids running ultras, the risk posed is one which directly concerns the kids themselves, in the sense that running such distances may adversely affect their physical development and consequent future sports opportunities. I suppose youth runners are also at a greater risk of more immediate threats, such as injuries yielded on the trails, or nutrition and heat-related illnesses that occur while running. Regardless of the risks they face however, I believe that they should be afforded the same entry rights to ultra races as adult runners.
There is nothing new about kids doing remarkable and dangerous things in the world of sports; we see young gymnasts thrusting their perfectly poised bodies into mid-air and doing triple flips before landing, and young boys body-slamming other boys every time they practice or play a game of rugby, and also young cheerleaders tossing their smaller team members high into the air with the hopeful aim of catching them as they vulnerably fall towards the ground. No one can deny that these young athletes never get hurt, because that simply isn’t true, but for the most part people accept and applaud what they do because they recognize that their training is probably supervised by an experienced coach, and monitored by supportive parents.
Likewise, kids who are running ultras are presumably receiving guidance and advice from an adult mentor who is familiar with the risks and dangers of trail running. Even a parent with no knowledge at all of ultra-distance running, would at least understand that even the most athletically-talented child would need to receive some training instruction and ultra-running education before signing up for an ultra.
So assuming then, that kids who run ultras, are receiving training advice and necessary safety information, why should that make it okay for them to run ultras? It doesn’t, if they have known health conditions, or if their bodies are not capable of tolerating the excessive demands of endurance running, or even perhaps, if the child is a late-maturer with under-developed muscles and consequently at greater risk of injury. It’s crucial then, that all kids, even those who think they are fit and healthy, undergo a thorough medical screening before parents allow them to commit to a sport, and especially a sport which places greater-than-usual physical stress on their bodies.
Now that we’ve established that kids who are currently, or planning on running future ultras, are a) hopefully being supervised by someone who has the ability to coach and educate them, and b) have been carefully examined by a physician who has deemed them healthy enough to participate in a physically demanding sport, then I believe that apart from parental opposition, there should be nothing preventing kids from running ultras.
On the contrary, if kids who wish to run ultras have a desire to do so because they genuinely enjoy running excessively long distances, then why not grant them that favor. There will undoubtedly be some areas of concern that parents need to be watchful of (for example, a lapse in school grades, risk of overuse injuries, or over-zealousness that leads to unrealistic race goals), but with close monitoring these things can be prevented or detected before they become too much of a problem.
Statistics show that the benefits of kids participating in sports outweigh the negatives, and I believe that the same would also apply to kids participating in higher-risk sports. Consider what alternative options a kid might turn to if denied the opportunity to pursue a sport that he/she is passionate about. As a mother of two daughters, I would much prefer that my daughters fill their time with activities that enhance their physical, emotional, and academic development; a healthy obsession with a sport of their choice would most certainly fit the bill in at least two of these areas.
Furthermore, ultra-running is a sport that may offer additional and unique benefits. Unlike other “risky” sports, such as competitive gymnastics, rugby, or ice hockey, kids who take up ultra-running are not under pressing burdens to execute their routines or game moves perfectly. There is no pressure to excel or to win; goals can be set and worked towards at whatever level of commitment is desirable.
The ultra-running community also offers other unique benefits for kids who choose to get involved. Such kids will be exposed to a different kind of competitive rivalry, one which encourages a rivalry against “self” versus others. Of course, the elite runners are out to compete against one another, but the average ultra-runner sets out to beat his or her previous time, or to simply finish the run and have fun doing it. The camaraderie too, out on the course and at the finish line is something that any adult or kid caught in the midst of cannot help but be positively affected by.
With all of the above said, I’m not so naïve and foolish to think that any kid who wants to run ultras should be allowed to do so, but under the circumstances I’ve noted, I am convinced that some kids should most definitely be allowed.