Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Guest Article - Too young to run a Marathon? David O'Dwyer

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Guest Article - Too young to run a Marathon? David O'Dwyer

The following article appeared in a recent issue of the Irish Runner magazine and is published here with their kind permission...

Guest Article - Too young to run a Marathon? David O'Dwyer
One would have expected greater level acclaim and even furrore leading to debate surrounding the age of the winner of the 2009 Dublin Marathon. At only 19 years old Feyisa Lilesa from Ethiopia became the youngest ever winner of the event in its 30 years existence. Somehow the fact that he was still a teenager seemed to get little media attention.

Conventional wisdom used to believe that that a top class marathoner does not reach their peak until their mid or possibly even late 30’s. The theory being based on years of training and accumulating ‘miles in the legs’ would only bear fruit in later years. There is some evidence to support this theory with Carlos Lopez winning the Olympic Marathon in 1984 at the age of 38, the same age as Tomescu Dita of Romania who won the Womens Olympic Marathon in Beijing in 2008.

However in the past couple of years the winners of some of the major Marathons have been getting younger and younger, not to mention their times getting faster and faster. The 2009 London and Chicago Marathons were won by 22 year old Sammy Wanjiru from Kenya in 2.05.10 and 2.05.41 respectively. The third place finisher in Chicago was 21 year old Vincent Kipruto also from Kenya who won the Paris Marathon earlier that year in a course record of 2:05:47. Finishing second in the Paris Marathon was 20 year old Ethiopian Bazu Worku, making his debut at the distance in a time of 2:06:15.

The times being set by these athletes is quite breathtaking and when their ages are taken into consideration their feats are all the more amazing. If they are capable of running these times in their early 20’s then what can we expect over the next 15 years when they will be expected to reach their prime in terms of Marathon running? The previous world record of 2:03:58 was held by the legendary Haile Gebreselasie who incidentally followed the more conventional route into the Marathon by waiting until his 30’s before tackling the distance. The question we all want answered is when will the 2 hour barrier be broken or are we reaching the limits in terms of human capability? In order to break 2 hours for the marathon, mile splits of 4.34 min./mile will be required. Is this possible? Only time will tell.

As the age of the elite athletes gets younger and younger there could come a point when the cut off point for entering the Marathon may be challenged. The IMMDA(International Marathon Medical Directors Association) has written a paper asking the question ‘How young is too young?’ with regard to running a Marathon. Its advisory statement reads, ‘Marathon running should be reserved only for those individuals who have reached their eighteenth birthday.’ This advice seems to have been universally accepted across the world by the organisers of Marathons and most events now have a minimum age level if 18. 

However there have been many under 18’s that have completed Marathons down through the years. There are quite a few stories doing the rounds about some kids under 18’s getting through the system and completing the distance without any serious repercussions, physical or otherwise and in pretty decent times too.

The ARRS(Association of Road Running Stats) website contains some staggering times for kids as young as 5 for the Marathon. This reputable website states that the youngest recorded male and female marathoners are Bucky Cox aged just 5 years 358 days and Jennifer Amyx aged 5 years 261 days. Bucky Cox’s recorded time was 5:25:09 in the Junction City Marathon in 1978 was followed up with a 4:07:27 in the Glass City Marathon in Toledo, Ohio the following year aged 6 years, 341 days. Jennifer Amyx’s record run of 4:56:36 was in Johnstown PA in 1978. She bettered the time the following year in the same race with a time of 4:00:36.

At the time there was widespread debate about allowing children so young to compete in a Marathon. The running boom in the US was reaching its peak towards the late ‘70’s and to many they became cult heroes but it also raised many questions about the impact it would have on their future physical development. Other more pertinent questions must be asked of organisers and not to mention parents as on the face of it, it could be described as a form of maltreatment.

For the record it is believed that Cox retired in 1983 at the ripe old age of 11 having clocked 12,000 miles. Amyx who used to train up to 100 miles per week by the time she was 12 was forced cut back on her training due to a heart complaint, that she claims was not running related and was discovered in her late teens. Neither suffered any significant ill-effects from their exploits and went on to lead normal lives enjoying running at a more recreational level.

Association of Road Running Stats:
Athletics Weekly:
IMMDA advisory statement as found on the AIMS website (Association of International Marathon and Distances Races)


Grellan said...

4:02/mile? in a marathon!!! that would get you under 1:46, as well as 2 hours.

Anonymous said...

Agreed with above I thought that was too fast. Think it should be 4:40 about!

John Desmond said...

There was a mistake in the original article. Now corrected.