Northern Kentucky goes national again: Should 6-year-old have run 26.2-mile marathon?

Dan Weber
Dan Weber is LINK nky's sports editor-at-large. Contact him at [email protected]

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It’s a Northern Kentucky story that’s everywhere right now and unlike the national coverage Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann – a completely innocent bystander – got in 2019, this one is probably warranted.

We’re talking of the running Crawford Family out of Bellevue, Ben and Kami, and their six kids including the youngest, six-year old Rainier, who finished Cincinnati’s Flying Pig Marathon as a family unit May 1. Took them more than eight hours and when they finished, most of the 5,000 runners were long gone and they were “all alone,” Ben said.

But there was Rainier, over his tears at the 20-mile mark and able at last to feast on a couple of sleeves of Pringles, as his dad had promised him.

“Is this so horrible, a 6-year old runs a marathon,” one of the many newspaper, magazine, web site, and national TV stories about the Crawfords, asked in a headline that saw the controversy covered in the New York Daily News, the New York Post, even the UK Daily Mail and Business Insider India. Olympic athletes and running experts were condemning the idea of a six-year old running 26.2 miles over that much time, willing or not.

Things got a bit trickier when Child Protective Services showed up at the Crawfords’ door Friday to check on Rainier after a referral generated by all the publicity for the family’s road-running accomplishment.

Here’s Ben Crawford’s response, quoted in the Enquirer, when asked why people would report his family to Child Protective Services: “They can’t stand the fact that some people are different, and when they can’t make sense of it, they try and end it. I’m not even saying we have it right or we have it figured out. We’re just doing it our way, and we make our YouTube channel (Fight for Together with 47,000 viewers) to show people what the pros and cons are.”

The Crawfords have answered the charges saying Rainier wanted to make the run on his own and there was no effort to make him run if he himself didn’t choose to.

However, there’s more than one problem with how this developed. According to its rules, no runner under the age of 18 is allowed to enter the Flying Pig Marathon. Seems reasonable.

At 18, you can serve your country, risk your life, choose to do so or not. And for the most part, your bones have fully developed and whatever damage you do to them through repetitive stress injuries is your call.

On the family’s YouTube channel, there’s an interesting video (link: Marathon Training with Kids in the Rain (emotional) of Rainier, and mom and dad, doing some running in the rain a couple of months back. You can see the familiar streets of Bellevue and the Purple People Bridge as they head out in a downpour. Rainier says he’d rather not, at first, then goes along with a smile. He’s an impressive six-year old.

And give Ben credit, as he sums up the day, and the reason for heading out in the rain, he notes how they can’t skip training if they want to be ready. But also talks of how they “can give Rainier autonomy” in all of this, as if it’s possible to give a six-year old “autonomy.”

As it turns out, Rainier’s “autonomy” is his decision on whether “to walk or run,” Ben says, not on whether to go out in the rain.

Which seems to be where this all goes off the rails a bit. He’s six. Physically and emotionally, he can’t be asked to make that decision. He just can’t. And no one, parents included, should think he is capable of doing so with “autonomy.” If the whole family is planning to make the run, how can he – the little guy at the age of six – deny them that. He’s a team player, obviously.

But first, let’s deal with the people in charge of the Flying Pig. Their rules say you have to be 18 to run in the race. And they let a six-year old in. They now say they won’t let it happen again and they only did it to keep the Crawfords from “banditing” in as unregistered runners and to offer them full support of race personnel.

Not a good idea as Race Director Iris Simpson Bush now says and that in the future, age restrictions will be strictly enforced. Good move there. But only after the bad publicity.

Here would have been a better way to support the Crawfords:

How about sitting down with the family and bringing in a number of top area sports physicians specializing in distance running and young athletes and come up with a plan for a family that wants to run together. After all, Rainier wasn’t the only Crawford under 18.

Maybe Rainier gets in one of those carts that someone in the family can push. Or the under-18’s start somewhere out on the course and pick up mom and dad and Rainier in his cart as they come through. And then he gets out to finish from whatever distance makes sense.

This is a story that warrants our attention. An earlier video of their eight-year-old daughter’s marathon run three years ago has drawn nearly 1.2 million views.

But here’s the issue. In order for the kids to get ready for a marathon, in order for anyone to get ready to run that far, there are months and months of training required. And despite the Crawfords’ insistence that the medical literature is inconclusive about really young people running long distances, it is not.

Not training for a marathon would be bad for them, obviously. Training for a marathon could well be worse.

There’s a reason that when Rainier gets to high school, the longest race he’ll be allowed to run by the KHSAA is 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) in cross country and 3,200 meters (1.988 miles) in track and field. So clearly there’s an issue with younger runners running great distances – and training to do so.

What’s the right number? Are there exceptions? And how to make that decision? The Crawford Family videos make a strong case for what they’re doing. The kids come across as sweet, smart, articulate, and real. They look like they love the grind, at times, of doing this together.

The video Family Hikes Appalachian Trail of the family’s hiking the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail when Rainier was a two-year old, has been viewed nearly 1.04 million times.

But there’s a moment when the family reaches Maine’s Mt. Katahdin when they run into regulations that forbid youngsters being carried from going above the tree line. After much debate as to whether to break the rules and pay a fine, or leave Rainier with a baby-sitter and the rest go, or just stop at the tree line, they just stopped there. And still became, as they note, the largest family group ever to hike the Appalachian Trail.

That’s what should have happened at The Flying Pig. Follow the rules. Push as hard as you can. Train as a family. Check with the experts – and push them, too. As we know from the Covid experience, they’re not always right. But better to be safe with a six-year old than sorry when he’s 18.

Correction: Nick Sandmann’s name was incorrectly spelled in an earlier version of this story. LINK nky regrets the error.

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