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May 6, 2010

How Young Is Too Young?

If you haven’t heard of Jordan Romero yet, chances are that you will in the very near future.

Jordan is a 13-year-old Californian who is currently making a summit attempt on Mount Everest; it’s the kind of story that simultaneously makes you say “Whoa, cool!” and “Wait … what?” His journey has gained a lot of attention, with recent profiles on all the major network news programs and CNN (which used to be a major news outlet), as well as a great deal of family-driven self-promotion from his website and various new media outlets.


image from JordanRomero.com

The prospect of an adolescent kid taking on Mount Everest – as well as the parents who support and fund such an undertaking – is far too complicated for me to analyze in a single blog post. That’s why I was thrilled to read an outstanding feature article on Jordan’s quest in Outside Magazine last month – the link for which is provided below.

While reading that article, I was reminded of a New York Times piece from last fall that recalled a generation of very young kids who ran the New York City Marathon before age limits were instituted. On some levels, it was just a matter of scale between concerns the running community had back then, and those that the mountain climbing community is struggling with now. Obviously, climbing Mount Everest is a much bigger, much more potentially deadly pursuit than running an ultra, but many of the considerations for and against such activities are quite similar.

That’s the premise I used for the Monterey Herald article that follows. This was also one of those rare times when I’m thankful for an editor-enforced word count, because I could have very easily stretched this from 600 words to 1500 without even looking up from the monitor. However, you’ll be shortchanging yourselves if you skip the more detailed articles - especially the one on Romero – so be sure to follow those links for a more comprehensive read on the situations.

I also had a lot of help on this article from a friend of mine who happens to be the medical director of the Big Sur Marathon. He has an interesting perspective on the issue, having been one of those kids who ran a marathon at age 13 and a 50-miler at age 14, and who is now a member of the board that enforces the 16-year-old age minimum at Big Sur. The point of the article below isn’t necessarily to make a recommendation about these guidelines one way or the other; my intention was mainly to throw a question out there that might trigger some interesting discussion.

Finally, if you want to track Jordan’s progress in something close to real time, his team posts frequent updates here on his blog. The question of whether or not he should be there is now moot; the only thing left for us to do in this case is follow along and see what happens.


Running Life 5/6/10 “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. [See Outside Magazine’s profile of Jordan.]

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. [See this New York Times article.] 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, and his first ultra at age 14. Last month, four 16-year-olds successfully completed Big Sur's 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. Curiously, 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. There will always be precocious kids who are physically gifted and genuinely self-driven enough to take on such challenges, and there will always be some who are better off building up to such things patiently. 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.

6 comments:

Michael Shane Helton 5/6/10, 11:15 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Shane Helton 5/6/10, 11:16 PM  

My first thought was, "What does his father do?" After reading the article, my thoughts were confirmed; he is an adventure racer. There are entire books written on the psychology behind why children want to emulate their parents.

Whether this kid knows it or not, has been manipulated into doing this event.

However, the real question is whether or not that is a bad thing. He is not going off to Everest solo...he is going with his dad and his dad's partner. That sounds like quality family time.

If done right, it sounds like a great adventure for a family and an opportunity to learn many things along the way. I wish him the best of luck.

Stuart 5/7/10, 6:36 AM  

Talent, genes and cash!

Tony Hawk, Shawn White and the girl who ran the 50 miler (not so much cash needed there) all started super young.

With time, training and tenacity most things are achievable by most people

shel 5/7/10, 8:48 AM  

like michael, i have little doubt that if jordan's father were a beer swilling lay-about, jordan would be firmly ensconced in front of his X-Box this weekend and not 22,000 feet up. i applaud parents who manage to set a good example, and the children who run after them. jordan is the responsibility of his folks and if they, knowing him better than anyone else, feel he can summit everest safely - then he should. they care much more about him than we do, so i expect that they are confident in his safety.
2000 years ago, a man was considered able to be a father, warrior, land owner et al much younger than today, and the same goes for women. i suspect that young people's bodies are able to do a lot more safely than they are given credit for.

Barefoot AngieB 5/7/10, 9:37 AM  

I share the sentiments of those that posted before me.
I think its fantastic! I wish them the very best and will be eagerly watching for their progress.

Jimmy Hart 5/7/10, 9:27 PM  

times are different. kids today have liberties bestowed upon them that we dreamed about as children but knew we could only attain as adults. more and more kids are left to raise and drive themselves through life. i say we as a society have built a generation of kids that want greatness and have more than enough outlets to attain it. this kid has a dad with a passion and he has jumped right on the back of that.

i watched a show today about 10-14 year old kids who have started charity foundations that rival the largest organizations on the planet. there was no way a kid could have done that in my time and my time was not that long ago.

the times? well they are a changin

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