Long may you run
by Greg Hitchcock 4.18.01

One of the most intense, live-or-die, race struggles I have ever witnessed was a one-mile race. Two athletes, one blonde and one dark-haired gave everything they had, yard after yard, first one taking the lead, then the other.

One lap, then another, then the third, and finally the last lap, these two gave everything they had to separate themselves. The final 50 yards were a clawing battle for air and the finish line. In the last meter the blonde athlete held the slightest edge as the dark-haired runner lunged only to come across the line a few inches behind. The newspaper photographer caught the end struggle as the dark-haired athlete went sprawling to the track.

The two athletes were no more than 10 years old. This was the first time each of these kids managed, barely, to break the six-minute mile barrier. They each were out of the sport by the time they were 15.

At the time, I was a promising young high school runner, posting a 4:40 mile and a 9:47 two-mile as a freshman. Living in a one track town––the track which had hosted the 1968 U.S. Olympic Trials at high altitude––I would often see these young runners training, with efforts that often held more mileage and intensity than my own. I worried then about what kind of future these boys would have; I still do.

It is a common story. A young child possesses talent. An ignorant parent or mentor has misguided notions or unfulfilled athletic dreams. Immediate success comes from stepped up training, so more training is added. Medals are won and there is media and social praise. Then it all comes to an end by high school. We can count the reasons:

  1. Too much training at a young age, especially on hard surfaces, leads to injuries. These are usually chronic and may prevent the person from ever running again.
  2. Mental burn out caused by too much work at too young an age (also a powerful argument against too much homework). Adults and teens can, to a certain extent, rationalize and compartmentalize the work necessary to achieve athletic potential, but this is beyond the grasp of younger kids.
  3. Disillusionment as the star athlete realizes he was a big fish, and not so big at that, in a very small pond. The number of athletes increases by an exponential factor at high school. Budding good runners are everywhere. The young star learns that he will have to work even harder to just get a decent placing in the meets. Athletes new to the sport, with similar talent, don't know any better and are pleased to finish 10th or 20th. But this is quite a comedown for the kid who was used to winning.
  4. The excitement of race day is gone. Youth runners, especially the talented ones, have been to so many races, in so many different places, including state, regional and national meets, that there is nothing new or interesting about mere high school invitationals, let alone dual meets.

With these lessons and the Hippocratic oath in mind (first: do no harm), I have taken to coaching my kids' (ages 10 and 13) youth track team. So far so good, though herding cats would be a more accurate description of what I do than coaching. We try to stay busy with chase and tag games, follow the leader, relays, and ball sports that keep all of the kids moving all of the time. The more talented and eager kids likely cover over three miles fartlekstyle during the twice a week, one hour practices, and those with less spunk might not do two miles. But they all seem to have fun, and the "work" is minimized.

But do not these principles apply to all of us? Too much training and pure work will lead to injuries and mental burnout for adult athletes as well. While it might be difficult to gather 20 adults together for a game of blob tag, there are still things we can do to keep this athletic experience fresh. Varied routes, training partners, seasonal training regimes, and even scheduled time off (we take vacations from work after all) should be part of the running lifestyle.

To do what we do––running and racing––there must still be a lot of kid in us. Remember the cautionary tale of the two talented boys who ran the kid right out of themselves and forfeited a beautiful lifetime sport.