The first issue that comes to mind in considering whether kids should be allowed to run ultramarathons is probably liability. But while liability is certainly a real hurdle for race directors (like getting the proper permits and other “behind the scenes” work), we shouldn’t let it be the deciding factor.
The truth is that some ultras have been able to secure insurance coverage and legal protections to allow younger runners. So let’s move beyond that issue and examine some of the other objections to allowing participants under the age of 18.
Ultras are Too Dangerous for Kids.
Dangerous compared to what? Is running – even when we’re talking about an ultramarathon distance – more of a risk than football or soccer or cheerleading or lacrosse or softball? There isn’t much data for ultramarathon injuries among high school aged runners, but if we compare those other sports with the injury rates for track and cross country, then the answer (particularly when it comes to arguably the most dangerous and long lasting injury – concussions) is clear. Running is a lot safer.
We already have time cutoffs, medical checks and other safety procedures in place at virtually all ultras, and these should be enough to protect all runners, regardless of age.
Young Runners Aren’t Ready for Ultras.
Aren’t ready how? Mentally? Physically? Not all young runners are ready for an ultra, of course, but neither are all the adults who enter.
Mentally. The motivation to run an ultra must come from within, since there’s going to be very little peer pressure (within any age group) to participate. In fact, we’ve probably encountered the opposite; friends and family who try to convince us we shouldn’t run ultras. If a 16 or 17 year old has a desire to run ultra distances instead of going out for their high school football or basketball team, then we should respect and acknowledge that desire. Isn’t a big part of being ready to run an ultra the desire to do so?
Physically. While there aren’t many ultras that currently allow minors, we do have data from the oldest and largest ultra in the U.S. (the JFK 50). That race has had at least one finisher age 16 or under in each of the last 5 years. In total, over that 5 year period there have been six 17 year olds, six 16 year olds, four 15 year olds and one 13 year old who have finished the race.
There are even young runners capable of finishing longer events. At this past summer’s Run-de-Vous 100-mile race in California, a 13 year old finished in the top half of the field, in less than 24 hours. Clearly there are kids out there who can handle the distance.
It’s important not to fall into the trap of arguing that because most kids aren’t going to be ready to run an ultra, no kids should be allowed. After all, I’m 44 years old, and I suspect that most 44 year olds would have a difficult time completing an ultramarathon.
Ultras are Already Too Crowded.
I suspect that this is one of the core reasons some would argue against allowing young runners into ultras. But to those who bemoan the downsides of the growth of our sport, or who long for the “good old days” where they knew most of the other people lined up beside them at the start line…. it’s already too late. The beautiful secret of ultrarunning is out, and we can’t expect it to ever return to the way it was (or the way some imagine it to have been). While there are sure to be bucket-list braggarts or “one and done” runners at your next ultra, there’s going to be more who are just starting to love the sport in the way you have for years or decades. Some of these might even be under the age of 18.
And let’s be honest, most kids aren’t going to be interested in running an ultra. If anything, they’re going to face bigger obstacles in getting to the start line than adult participants (e.g., race entry fees, transportation to and from the race, and convincing the parents to sign their waiver), as well as the aforementioned peer pressure.
Anyone who still wants to run after facing those additional burdens should be recognized as someone with the heart of a true ultrarunner – potentially a lifelong ultrarunner – and I say we should welcome them into the community.