How Young Is Too Young?

As you’re reading this, 13-year-old Jordan Romero of Big Bear, CA, is bivouacked at 22,000’ on the slopes of Mount Everest, preparing for a summit bid that would make him the youngest person ever to stand on the world’s highest peak.

Despite his age, Romero is no novice; he’s climbed to the highest points on five other continents, and has more mountaineering experience than many “tourist climbers” who pay for guided expeditions on Everest. However, his attempt has been met with equal parts praise and outrage by experienced mountain climbers. Some see him as a role model for a generation of unhealthy, overweight kids. Others consider him a poster boy for reckless ambition and misguided parental prioritization.

The question is simple, but the answer is incredibly complex: how old should kids be before taking on extreme athletic challenges?

The running community grapples with a similar dilemma – albeit on a less dramatic scale than mountain climbing – in considering at what age children should be permitted to enter marathons or ultramarathons. Nearly every race today has a minimum age requirement, but in the 1970s, very young runners were somewhat commonplace at major marathons.

Prior to instituting a minimum age of 18 in 1981, the New York City Marathon saw approximately 75 runners aged 8 to 13 cross its finish line in the late 1970s. The Los Angeles Marathon’s “Students Run LA” program annually trains kids ages 12 to 18 to finish the event. Locally, the Big Sur Marathon’s minimum age is 16 – although in an interesting twist, its medical director ran his first marathon at age 13. Last month, four 16-year-olds successfully completed the challenging 26.2-mile Highway 1 course.

So how young is too young? Is 12 or 16 more risky than 18? What about 10 or 8? And what exactly is the rationale for any of these guidelines?

The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that runners focus on shorter events like the 10K or half-marathon until age 18. A group called the International Marathon Medical Directors Association cites the AAP guideline in its own recommendation for an 18-year-old age requirement. Generally, the standards are based as much on psychological considerations as they are on physiology.

For example, it’s true that kids with developing bones and muscles are highly susceptible to overuse injuries with endurance running – but this is a consequence for many adults who train excessively as well. Children’s bodies aren’t as adept at thermoregulation, leaving them susceptible to heat-related problems during a race – but the bodies of novice marathoners are equally unprepared in this regard. Overall, the physical risks of the marathon for youngsters aren’t significantly greater than those for adults.

Instead, the primary concern expressed by most running authorities, as well as grown-ups who started as extremely young distance runners, is that kids might be trying the marathon for the wrong reasons, and might burn out on running relatively early in life. From a standpoint of promoting lifelong health, it’s always better for runners of any age to build up to the marathon gradually, over a period of years instead of weeks. And if parental pressures are any factor in a child entering the marathon, the likelihood of he or she continuing as independent adults is fairly low.

In the end, every situation is unique to the individuals involved, in running just as it is in mountain climbing. The only things we can wish for Jordan Romero or any other young athletes are for them always to be safe, have fun, and develop a passion for healthy activity that lasts a lifetime.

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