Reflections on a year of running with a 10-year-old half-marathoner

How I started my 2021 running season with a 9-year-old training partner

In mid-March, somehow I convinced my 9-year-old he might enjoy running from our house in Bloomington to Yellowwood Lake. My logic was like “remember when you hiked 16 miles last year? This is only 10 miles and you don’t have to wear a backpack. So much easier!”

Alex agreed, and paced himself. Time passed quickly with the adventure of exploring new roads and routes.

Two weeks later, I decided to still do a 38 mile “birthday run”, from Bloomington to Nashville and back with a lunch stop in the middle. I had not been putting some longer runs, but welcomed a day off.

Alex got dropped off to run the last 4.5 miles with me.

The calendar and now turned to April and entered prime running season. The next weekend, I asked Alex if he wanted to run the 10 mile Three Lakes trail with me. The logic was “Look, you just did 12 miles two weeks ago and almost 5 last week, so I think you can do this”. Also, there was an option for a 8 mile version that we could take near the end of the loop.

At this point, Alex was doing any running mid-week. Alex agreed. He enjoyed being out in the woods and chatted up about Minecraft and Terraria as we went. Alex tired by the time we came to the decision point around mile 7, and we took the shorter loop option.

Taking inventory of how that run went, Alex started to appreciate that weekend long runs might actually go better if you ran some miles at all during the week to boost endurance.

I mentioned to him Dances with Dirt was coming up in May. He had a chance of being competitive in his age group at the 10k distance, or entering the 13.1 race for the challenge of completing this distance. He thought about this about 3 seconds and opted to sign up for the 13.1 distance and committed to training for it with me. This began my spring training block with a 9-year-old and my season of being a support runner.

Spring training with a 9-year-old

I tried to keep up the variety and sense of adventure with the few weeks Alex had to build up towards the Dances with Dirt Gnaw Bone trail race in May.

He re-matched the Three Lakes Trail and notably improved his time, although still opting for the 8-mile option.

We threw in a 6-mile backpacking trip with overnight hammock camping

We did a shorter “course preview” run in Brown County and 9 miles at Paynetown.

One weekend we tried rock climbing, and he asked to run 3.5 miles each way to the climbing gym and back.

First half marathon with a 10 year-old

The Dances with Dirt trail half marathon may seem like an odd choice for a first half-marathon. It’s a tough course with some horse-trail sections that are consistently muddy. But it’s also exactly the same course I chose for my first marathon. For the spirit of adventure, it delivers.

I had told Alex to go out slow, and he did a better job of taking my advice than I did. I bolted from the start line, only to find I had immediately gotten ahead of Alex. I held back with him as nearly every runner passed in the first mile while Alex stuck with the plan. His determinedly steady, easy effort paid off. He had enough energy to put his fastest mile at the end of the race, blasting past many people who had passed him the first mile overall, and finishing in the top half overall.

Not only did he complete the 13.1 distance for the first time, he had good race experience because paced himself well and focused on having a good time.

He would end up completing three more half marathons in the fall and racing a 15k, but before I recap those I’ve got some reflections on the impact on my own training

What happened to my mileage goals when I ran with a 10 year old this year

I let go my annual goal to train with Alex. Alex was consistently putting in 20 miles a week on the weeks he was training, which was a lot less than the 40 to 50 miles a week I would put in myself to build for a racing season.

But something unexpected happened. Because my miles with Alex were at an easier pace for me, they weren’t as tiring. In my own training, I would struggle to maintain higher mileage weeks combined with faster paces. Running with Alex meant easy miles were easy. I built on that training by adding more miles after I dropped him off at home, or adding longer or faster runs on his of days. As a result, I was able to consistently put in 40 to 50 mile weeks in my fall training block anyway, and actually met and exceeded and my annual running goal of 1,500 miles per year that I had set before I realized I’d be running so much with him.

What happened to my fitness when I trained with a 10 year old this year

Running with Alex meant a lot of slower and shorter runs, and almost no long runs of 20 miles plus that I might have done on my own.

A benchmark run before I started training with him was a 7-mile round-trip to Griffy Lake that I PR’ed at 6:57 pace early in the year.

After a year of training with a 10-year-old, I repeated the performance this December, with less rest time and less relative effort

As far as I can tell, I ended the year with my fitness no worse for having a 10-year-old training partner.

What I learned from pacing a 10 year-old half-marathoner at the Tecumseh Half

After Alex successfully used a slow-start strategy in the spring half-marathon, he repeated the strategy in three fall half-marathons.

But before he got the start line, he committed to training with me for weeks in advance, slowly ramping up his long runs to 8, 10, 11 and 12 miles.

One confidence-boosting run early in August was an 8-mile loop through Griffy with 3x repeats on the steep, long, Timbercrest hill.

As the season progressed, his hill-climbing speed made noticeable gains. Once Alex built up to 10 mile long runs, he ran (or walked hiked) at least 10 miles for 12 weekends in row in the fall.

When he toed the line at the Tecumseh half marathon challenge in October, I knew he had solid training for the race that likely matched many of the adults in the race. Although his running had an improved a good deal from the spring, he started the race again at what felt like a snails pace compared to what I knew he could do. But I trusted his pacing strategy after it worked from him in the spring, and again we watched most of the field pass us in the first mile of the race.

By mile two I nudged him a bit faster and he started to pass some back of the runners. The pacing still felt too slow relatively to his training, but I had repeatedly gone out too fast in my own races, and trusted Alex’s instincts.

At almost 3 miles in we started a climb from the lake to the range that would be two miles of uphill climbing. Alex edged up his pace and kept passing people, chatting as he passed them. He had learned to say “Good job” as he passed after his spring race where he had trash-talked other runners like he was playing streetball with his cousins.

Once we got to the gravel road on the ridge, I started to see how much Alex had been holding back. He took advantage of the double track, dropped his pace to 7:30 to 8 minute miles and continued to pass more people.

What goes up must come down and technical downhills are Alex’s favorite terrain. With his short stride, he dances over the terrain, easily navigating switch backs and stepping around anyone who might be in front him.

And so he continued, passing more people mile by mile, on uphills, downhills and flats. While I wasn’t much help pacing in the first part of the race, I did help with in-flight re-fueling, but carrying his water, and stopping if needed at an aid-station for a refill, then running to catch up and hand him a banana or more Tailwind.

When we reached the ridge marking the beginning of the last 5k, it was time to execute a new plan. As we ran along, I handed him half of a pair of wireless earbuds, while I put on the other on. Both were connected to my phone and Alex’s Power Songs Playlist. As the music started pumping, Alex really kicked into high gear, while I struggled to keep my pace within bluetooth range, lest him give me the thumbs down hand single to let me know the audio was dropping. His pace dropped below 6 minute miles on some downhills, continuing to pass people. As we got the home stretch, there was no one else in sight to try and pass, so I gave an all our sprint of my own to give Alex one last person to catch.

Just after we heaved across the finish line, a race volunteer handed Alex a medal for the Under-20 age group win.

The race had gone much better than expected. I thought a 3-hour finish and a 13-minute-mile pace was a good goal based on his spring race, but Alex finished 35 minutes ahead of that with a 10:58 pace.

As Alex had been incrementally turning up his effort, he probably based about 100 of the 150 racers, moving up to finish 34th out of 150, in the top 22%.

As his supporter, I got what’s like a well-executed race to come together step by step, and that was exciting and gratifying to know I was a part of that team as it was put in my own effort. The pacing of my own future races will be better as I result as I channel Alex’s restraint in the early miles.

Engage the turbo boosters

Rather than being beat up after the Tecumseh trail race, Alex bounced back with even faster speed. The following Wednesday was his first run back, we ran a common 5-mile route and he PR’d all the segments and set a mile PR as he finished.

So, yeah, we signed up for another fall race, the Hilly Half Road Race in Brown County.

By then he was 9 weeks in to running at least 10 miles on the weekends, and so we ran 10 miles at Laura Hare Nature Preserve at Downey Hill the next weekend. After two loops, we did some hiking to round out 10 miles.

The next weekend would be Alex’s 10th weekend of running at least 10 miles at 10 years old. We called this the 10-10-10 project and it was time to pick the capstone run. I gave Alex several suggestions for routes that might be a meaningful capstone run, and he quickly chose the longest option, a 19 mile run to Nashville, Indiana from Bloomington. At this point, he hadn’t run further than the 13.1 distance.

Although it was much longer distance, Alex still paced himself with energy for a strong finish. As we closed the last 5k into Nashville, Alex set distance PRs for every distance that Strava measures from the 5k down to 1/2 mile. The last mile into Nashville was 6:57.

At this point, there was just one more weekend before the Hilly Half. I gave Alex an option to some race-specific training on a road route, but he opted to settle unfinished business back at the Three Lakes trail. He wanted a rematch to complete the full 10-mile trail there.

Now coming off a 19-mile run the weekend before, Alex could comfortably complete the 10-mile loop, at faster pace that he was able to complete the 8-mile version before. Our biggest challenge was cold hands on 40 degree day.

Capping off the season with the Hilly Half

My 10-year-old and I arrived at the Hilly Half without having done a course preview. Temps were now colder than we’d be running in, hovering just above freezing at the start. But we still opted for shorts and t-shirts, supplemented by arm-sleeves and legs sleeves.

I was personally feeling in great shape for the race, and again struggled to stick with Alex’s slow-start approach. I felt his fitness had improved enough to step the pace a notch at the start, but again he stayed rather conservative and let a large swath of runners pass us on the first hill. He was motivated to step up the pace just a bit when he saw another runner his age on the hill and made a point of catching them.

We came to a full stand-still at the top of the hill when he realized his shoe was untied. It seemed to take ages to get it re-tied, while our trackers reported the operation took 40 seconds.

I tried to nudge Alex faster and here and there, but mostly he told me he was sticking with his own pacing.

Unlike Tecumseh, we didn’t seem to be passing many people in the middle of race. On the plus side, Alex was maintaining a steady effort.

As we approached the last 5k mark, I handed Alex, one of my Bluetooth earbuds and prepared to start his power song playlist.

On cue, the tunes started flowing he stepped over the 5k sensor and he dropped the pace from a 9-minute mile to about 6:30. NOW we were passing people at a good clip.

One guy immediately looked at his watch as he saw Alex flying by, as if he was thinking “If that’s how fast this 10-year-old is going, how fast am I going?”

We caught up some two high-schoolers who would be in the Under-20 age group. That had seemed to be a couple of miles ahead earlier and I was surprised to see them again. At first I suggested we hold back and pass them near the finish line, but soon it was clear we were coming on them fast, so we decided to fly by and see if they gave chase. They did not.

As Alex maintained sub-7-minute pace steaming down the hill, it was hard for me to stay with Bluetooth range with him, causing his power songs to drop in and out, making for even more chaotic experience of what was already becoming a blur.

As the finish line came in sight a football field away, Alex caught up with a guy in a Columbia hat who really didn’t want to be passed. Game on for a sprint to the finish. Alex found one more gear and dropped his pace further to 6 minutes per mile to edge way his way past meters from the finish line.

Alex’s season of steady long-run training had paid off. While averaging sub-9 would have been a PR, Alex averaged 8:09 for a 1:47 finish, setting PRs for every distance that Strava tracks from half-marathon on down. The strong finish included his 5k PR and mile PR.

He earned 2nd in the Under 20 division, finishing in the top 16% overall. It was just back in March that he ran at least 10 miles for the first time in his life. It was a wild ride to end up with a competitive half-marathon finish eight months later.

I asked him about his 2022 running goals. He wants to try these races again. Thanks for reading and see you out there next year!

Alex and Mark