How Old is Too Old and How Young is Too Young?

In a sea of politically dominated news, out came one of those stories that renews a “long running” debate. A topic that seems to span generations allowing those currently in the sport, young and old, to argue and study it along with experts from decades past.

imageI was absent-mindedly listening to the evening news when they say “Coming up, a 9-year old planning to run a marathon in the Antarctica tomorrow. “What?,”  I said to the dogs. “Did he say Antarctica?” Of course, the news was that little Nikolas Toocheck was the 9-year old attempting this amazing feat.

A quick search reveals previous reports of mothers, coaches and friends who all claim they have a child as young as 4, 5 or 6 that has completed a marathon. No doubt it is possible for these children to run 26.2 miles. I just wonder why do they really want to?

There have been child prodigies for centuries…children that demonstrate a special gift in math, piano, chess, even leading an orchestra. Tiger Woods started playing golf in 1978 at the age of two. He won the 9-10 year old boy’s event at the Junior World Golf Championships in 1984 at the age of 8. When your 2-year old is having a putting contest with Bob Hope on TV, you may think this career was meant to be.

The youngest marathoner on record was the “Marathon Boy”, Budhia Singh, from the slums of India. Budhia became an overnight celebrity for running marathons from the age of three. When Budhia’s father died, his mother sold Budhia to a man for 800 rupees ($20) because she could no longer take care of him. His new caretaker discovered his talent after his punishment for being a bully was to run until told to stop. Budhia ran for 5 hours that day when his caretaker again remembered him. He went on to run 48 marathons by age 4.

When asked what he liked about running marathons? He answered it was the attention and the fact that he got a good meal every day. Finally when he collapsed after a well-publicized 40-mile run, the Indian government stepped in and temporarily banned him from running marathons. The adults in Budhia’s life saw an Olympic gold medalist hopeful, not a child.

Nikolas Toocheck has already run one marathon in Delaware and claims to have run in some 100 competitive events. He  appears finally in an interview on the news program – a cute little guy who says one of the things he likes most about running is spending time with his dad – an optometrist who is also in the Air Force Reserve, and a seasoned runner who has completed about a dozen marathons.

His mom says she wasn’t sure she liked the idea of her son running “on glaciers.” Truth is it was her idea for him to run a marathon on every continent in support of his grandfather’s charity. His older sister is as passionate about writing as Nikolas is about running. At 14 years old, she’s writing her second book…..clearly a highly charged family.

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The short clip just before this story about Nikolas Toocheck was that the oldest marathoner had just completed his last race at age 101. Indian-born Fauja Singh took up running at the age of 89 as a way to get over depression after his wife and son died in quick succession in India. He went on to be a torch bearer for the 2012 Olympics and was featured in Adidas’ “Impossible is Nothing” advertising campaign.

This got me to wondering who are the oldest champions. I was surprised to find Marcie Trent, born December 22, 1917 from Girdwood, Arkansas. She made history in May 1978 with a marathon finish of 3:31:30.

The first woman to beat the sub-three hour barrier was 29-year old Adrienne Beanes in 1971 with a time of 2:46:30. Marcie Trent’s 3:31:30 finish in 1978 was at the age of 60! And, there are dozens of other worthy examples just like this one.

Seventy year old Charlie Viers finished the marathon in 5:12:32 in 2011. Sigrid Eichner from Germany finished in 5:25:25 just this January at age 72. And, since Fauja Singh can not produce a birth certificate, the oldest marathon finisher on record is 98-year old Dimitrion Yordanidis.

Events come in 3s and sure enough I’m watching “Morning Joe” the next day and the headline is “______ is the new 30.” Ok, I’m in on this one. Better than I expected….70 is the new 30!! Well, 72 to be exact. It appears life spans have increased so much over the past 100 or so years that, evolutionarily speaking, 72 is the new 30, says a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The news cycle is getting better all the time.

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There are great debates over how young is too young among coaches, doctors, runners, parents – everyone. My personal view is that children who are thrust into an overdose of one sport run the risk of burning out before they are adults – a time when it’s as important as ever to maintain a regular exercise program. It seems to me that the late teens/early 20s is a more appropriate time to pursue the intensive training required to compete in endurance sports.

But who debates the pros and cons of an older athlete? They inspire us to keep pursuing our own passions. I clap the loudest for the lone runner who wins the age group award because he/she is the only runner for that age. That’s something to be proud of!

I’m intrigued by the notion of training longer than the traditional 18-week marathon program to reach a peak that is sustained for a number of weeks. I’ve read about it, how to schedule it…..how to hold a peak and not overtrain. Maybe this too is the point for our adolescent athletes.

If they were to strive to maintain peak athletic form and hold that peak for life, maybe all the age groups in our competitions would be filled. All of us would compete for the rest of our lives. We wouldn’t want to risk the early burn-out of our child prodigies but rather prepare them for a life of successes.

“Not everybody peaks at age 20,” claims a current TV commercial, and it seems that’s not all bad after all.

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