The news that eight 14-16 year old girls have entered the 100km Surf Coast Century event this weekend has sparked a lot of debate and concern in the ultra running community. These girls have entered the race as solo runners but have said they will predominately be walking the distance and plan to stick together as a group. From my investigations their school hasn’t supported their decision to embark on this challenging course over a grueling distance that can never be underestimated. Their teacher, who I have spoken to, will be joining them and he has completed the Great Ocean Walk (a 100km event). He has also placed a big emphasis on the mental aptitude required for endurance events and for life in general. Anybody who has ever attempted a 100km ultra event understands the intense physical and mental challenges involved.
My stomach has been in knots since the moment I heard about this. I read Rapid Ascent’s Q&A with the girls and while I thought their answers were incredibly mature, suggesting that they have taken their training seriously – to the extent that they may even potentially be better trained than some other competitors on the course – my race and professional experience told me I needed to do more research.
In my few years of ultra running I have seen the “worst case scenario” play out – multiple times. We are talking about life and death here. I was in a race where a fellow competitor died due to heat stroke, and in another race where five competitors were trapped and burnt in a bushfire. Before being so closely connected to these incidents I was the kind of person who would have said “that can’t or won’t happen to me”. I’ve learned the hard way that it can happen, and it does. Anyone who says that safety and risk minimization are not important components to a race plan cannot truly understand the possible dangers inherent in this sport.
I am not saying that Rapid Ascent hasn’t been proactive in putting in place safety measures to minimize the risk of acute problems occurring. They have spoken in depth with the girls involved as well as their parents, and from my understanding there is a nutrition and race strategy in place (with the girls planning on a 21 hour goal to complete the distance). Additionally they are requiring the girls to each carry a mobile phone and for the final two checkpoints there will be additional support to walk alongside them. With all of this in mind it is understandable that there has been a lot of support for the girls undertaking this 100km race. At the core of my concern, however, is the impact a 100km event can have on the body of an adolescent female and the broader precedent it sets: that it is safe and wise for people in this age bracket (particularly 14 and 15 year olds) to push their bodies in this way.
I want to be open with the fact that there isn’t any concrete, empirical research saying that 14 and 15 year old girls are going to suffer long-lasting detrimental effects from competing in a 100km race. This is predominantly because there have not been any case studies of groups of females around this age taking part in extreme endurance events. It is also not the same as Jessica Watson sailing around the world, Kilian Jornet doing mountain hikes as a child or any of the other examples that have been discussed as a parallel to this situation.
This situation is different because it is a race and regardless of the professed comfortable pace the girls plan to go at, there are timed checkpoints to reach and that immediately creates the goal of reaching those destinations within that timeframe. Debatably we could add to that the element of external and internal pressure to complete the race in time which is created by the sheer level of discussion surrounding the girls’ involvement in the race. It is highly unlikely that eight individuals – of any age – will experience the highs and lows of ultra racing at the same time. Unless they are very confident in expressing how they are feeling it is likely that individuals will be pushing harder than they wish to in order to stick with the group, in order to achieve that goal of finishing the race.
Whether we like it or not a race has parameters, responsibilities, duties of care and standards. My fear is that it is not in the best interests of these young girls to allow them to compete in such a physically, emotionally and psychologically demanding race, at such a young age. I believe the risks are simply too great.
I thought it would be fair to list below some of the comments in support of this undertaking.
- “Life is full of inherent dangers, at least this one is entered into sensibly”.
- “Are we scared that the youngsters come in and dominate our sport”.
- “Surely the event management would be sure of their abilities”.
- “I would hope discussion has been had and the girls are seasoned runners”.
- It is a shame we live in a world where people feel teenagers have to be ‘protected’ from the risks of trail running, while the much more real problem is that many are eating themselves into much more sever problems with an excessively sedentary/indoor lifestyle”.
- “At no point will the girls be more than 15 minutes walk from a main or fire road that is accessible to all traffic.”
- “If they travel at an average of just over 4 km/hr (pretty slow walk) they will make it under the cutoffs. The weather will be mild and the trail is very well marked. It really shouldn’t be a big deal especially as they walk as a group.”
- “If we don’t encourage and let them to feel the sense of achievement of completing an ultra race of any size, we will lose them back to the streets, game consoles, drinking, etc.”
- “The most likely type to push themselves beyond their own limits are the middle-aged males.”
- “More people die/injure etc of not doing enough physical activities than too much of it! Listen to your body, participate in events to your ability and you are probably ok.”
Before I get onto the most important part of this blog I want to emphasise that I am an ardent supporter of youth embarking on challenges, being active and adventurous, and I am extremely reluctant when it comes to placing limitations on anyone. I do believe these girls seem like they have the cardio-vascular strength to complete the distance – but I remember the feeling after my first 100km event as an active 20 year old. My knee joints were so inflamed that I needed my parents’ assistance going to the bathroom. I walked for most of that event and I had lingering injuries for many weeks following it. On reflection, I believe my body wasn’t developed for a 100km event as I hadn’t completed a marathon, or even a half marathon in a race context. I keep wondering what the strain is going to be like for these girls at hour 14 and 21 into this race (which is double and triple the time they have been on their feet in training). As bad as I did feel in the recovery phase after my first 100km, I also wasn’t dealing with puberty and my body was fully developed – bit of a shame really as I would have liked to have grown more in my 20s. It is important to note there is also a pairs (50km x 2) and relay option (25km x 4) on Saturday. I feel this would have been a great starting point for the girls to begin to develop the strength and resilience required , whilst still being an amazing challenge.
I could go on with my own stories and personal experiences but I decided I would ask an expert, and I’d like to share his perspective with you. Ross Kinsella is an athlete (marathoner, ironman) as well as being an APA endorsed? Sports Physiotherapist. His qualifications include:
• Bachelor of Science (Medical)
• Bachelor of Physiotherapy (Hons)
• Masters of Sports Physiotherapy
“I want to make it very clear prior to answering the questions below that life is about moderation. This is relevant to all aspects of life. I am fortunate enough in my position as a Sports Physiotherapist to promote activity and try to encourage people of all ages to enjoy exercise and to ensure that people stay active throughout their lifespan. However, I do have some concerns about a group of young 14-16 year old females conducting the 100km event.
What is the impact of 100kms on the body?
Do you think this impact is different for a 14-16 year old girl?
I will answer both of these questions in the answer below. A young female athlete from 14-16 years of age is clearly in a developmental period of their lives.
My clear concern with young females covering a distance of this magnitude revolves around the following areas:
1. They have not reached their peak bone mineral density
2. The potential risk of fatigue and instability from conducting a long event could lead to a wide range of overuse injuries, such as severes, runner’s knee, ITB friction syndrome and stress fractures due to a lack of biomechanical strength and efficiency of running. Additionally reduced muscular strength and support to provide an efficient running/walking style would be put to a severe test with a distance of this magnitude.
3. The muscular system is clearly not fully developed so the ability to stabilize and support the joints and pelvic girdle is reduce.
4. The potential influence of training and doing an event of this distance could lead to exercise associated menstrual cycle irregularities, which in turn could lead to reduced fertility and reduced bone mass.
Numerous studies highlight the effect of athletic amenorrhea on bone mass. Where bone loss can occur rapidly in the first 2-3 years following menstrual disturbances at a rate of about 4% per year. This in turn could potentially lead to premature osteoporosis in subsequent years. This is part of what we call the “female athlete triad”. A syndrome of eating disturbances, amenorrhea and osteoporosis. Now I am not saying that these girls have this condition at all, but exercising for this duration could lead to physiological changes spiraling out of control.
Some points on bone mineral density:
- Girls tend to commence their adolescent growth spurts around the age of 11, the rate of linear growth in girls usually decelerates with menarche (beginning of menstruation) which is between 12-14 years of age. Peak bone mass is generally not achieved until 20-21 years of age.
- There is a dissociation between linear bone growth and bone mineral accrual in girls, which can lead to a relative weakness in the bones during the adolescent growth spurt. That is their bone mineral density is not at its peak by any means. This in turn could potentially lead to young female athletes covering these distance and developing a wide range of stress related injuries such as:
- Femoral neck stress fractures;
- Metatarsal stress fractures;
- Medial tibial stress syndrome (shin splints);
- Pubic ramus stress fractures; and
- Sacral stress fractures.
If this is taken into consideration as well as the reduced physical support of the muscular system around the bones and joints, particularly with fatigue then the risk of injury is increased.
Other concerns that I have relate to emotional and mental fatigue and the lack of sleep on the young body with an event of this duration.
Do you think the girls are putting themselves at a lower risk because they are walking the event?
This is a tricky one. Yes for sure as each step would be less load compared to running. However with walking the event the girls would be out there for an extremely long time so elements such as fatigue, nutrition, recovery, mental and emotional fatigue add up as well as lack of sleep. This is a lot to take on board for a young adolescent female.
Can you give me an idea about the recovery that takes place after covering a 100km distance in a 21 (projected time)-27 hour (final cut off) time frame?
The girls are going to be very sore after the event, especially when they wake up the next morning. They will experience what is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It is imperative that the girls follow the best practice available with recovery if they do the event. This includes good nutrition, the use of compression, active recovery, massage therapy and above all some very good nights sleeping! They will be very sore regardless for some time.
They will just be more sore then a lot of people due to the lack of conditioning and lack of muscular strength to support their frame for such a duration. So they will have significantly more DOMS then the older runner. They will be working in a fatigued state for longer! Hence they will pull up worse for it.
Question 4: In your personal opinion do you think the fact that this is taking place in a race context is different than if the girls were doing this over a weekend?
For sure a race context would place more load through the body as you will be pushed forward to get the best time that you can. So this could potentially highlight some of the concerns that I mentioned previously.”
These are the kinds of risks that these girls will be facing when they take to the course this weekend. I know from my own personal experience that preparing for an event like this involves a lot more than a solid training regime. It requires a long term build up in endurance events where participants develop the physiological capability to put their body under the extreme stress that comes with the 100km distance.
I take my role as Ambassador in events and organisations quite seriously and for this reason I have decided to stand down from this role at the Surf Coast Century. Thank you to Gretel Fortmann who was going to be my team mate in the pairs event for understanding and supporting me in my decision. I wish the girls the best of luck over the weekend and I hope to see them on the trails in the future.