Little Runners

Many of my most fond memories from childhood involved running. Growing up in a spacious rural area I can remember using running as a means to get places as quickly as possible. Whether I was heading to the lake to go fishing, into the forest to gather moss (not sure why a seven year old needs to gather moss but I distinctly remember doing so), or down the road to a friend’s house, running was often the quickest and most efficient way to do so. As I got older and began to participant in middle-school and eventually high-school track and cross country, I developed many more fond memories as a runner. The thrill of competition, the camaraderie of being on a team, and the drive to push myself to go as fast as possible are all things that I am glad to have experienced at that age. These memories, combined with how much running has been a part of my past decade as an adult led me to be nothing but totally excited and supportive when my stepdaughter announced several weeks ago that she would like to join her school’s trail running club.

She’s always been a natural runner. I’ve only occasionally met other children her age who can keep up with her, and I’ve only occasionally met anyone, child or adult, who can run technical terrain as well as she can. It’s a joy to watch her dance down a trail when we’ve been out for a hike and she decides that she’s getting bored with how long it’s taking. She knows that if she runs as fast as she can, we can be done sooner. On more than one occasion I’ve had a hard time keeping up with her for short stretches of trail.

The trail running club seemed like the perfect fit. She went the first day and seemed to have a good-enough time, but then decided over the next few days that she didn’t want to go again. For a short time, I found myself trying to talk her into sticking with it. She never did, however, go back to trail running club, and after having a little time to think about it, I realized that I was entirely content that she quit. At first this contentedness confused me. Running had been such a memorable part of my childhood that it didn’t make sense to me why I was so content with her dropping out of the running club. It hit me after a few days, though, that she is only eight years old. When I was that age I don’t think I even knew there was such a thing as organized running. I probably had numerous times at age eight in which I ran two or three (or more) miles throughout a given day, but I doubt I was ever aware that anyone (child or adult) ever kept track of how far, how fast, or for how many minutes they ran. All things that she most certainly would have learned to do if she had stuck with the running club.

I’ve written numerous articles for this website touching on the appeal of the simplicity of running. It’s an activity that virtually everyone can partake in by simply stepping outside and doing it. There are all kinds of great reasons to run in a more structured and serious manner, but pretty much all of them make the activity a little more contrived and a little less simple then it was when we were children and just ran when it made sense to run. I stopped running in this way when I first joined middle-school cross country. From that moment forward, running has almost always been done for a reason, and not just because it made sense in the given moment. For most of the past few years, I have even put a lot of energy into simplifying my running and making it is as pure and child-like as possible, but having opened myself up to organized running when I was a teenager most definitely eliminated any chance of ever really again running as care free as I did as a child.

I certainly don’t view this as a bad thing, and the things I have learned and the experiences I have had throughout my life as a result of structured and organized running are beyond measurement. However, in looking back on my childhood as a runner, and in currently observing my stepdaughter as a runner I realize how glad I am that I did not start organized running any earlier than I did. I have 12 or 13 years of memories that I can tap into in which running was as pure and basic as I often find myself wanting it to be now. The moments in which I find that purity and simplicity are almost always my favorite parts of any given run.

Every kid is a bit different than I was, and a bit different than my stepdaughter is, but my advice to any parent trying to decide whether to introduce your child to organized running or not is to take the time to make sure they are ready to lose the pure and simple relationship that they currently have with it. For some children this may come as early as six or seven years old, but for most I think the time is much later than this. There will come a time when they are most definitely ready, but if you have any doubts then they likely aren’t there yet. Running after all is one of the most simple activities any of us will ever partake in. Our children deserve some quality time as runners before structure and organization complicate things for them. Take advantage of this time by paying close attention to how they run. There is a lot to be learned.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Running seems like an almost inherent behavior in children. As Geoff points out, little children run fast, often, many times spontaneously, and without giving the act much thought. Why do you think this is?
  • For those with children, have they shown interest in doing running as a sport, in going out an intentionally running, like adults do? If so, how did that come about?
  • Why do you think that we, as adults, formulate a different and more ‘official’ relationship with running than the more spontaneous relationship that kids have?

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