Among the thousands of runners in Sunday’s Vermont City Marathon, one competitor stood out, not for the swiftness of her time, but because she was the youngest runner in the field.
Lila Carleton is 15, just a few months shy of her 16th birthday. Race organizers say you have to be 16 to enter. But the young woman made her case to the marathon board, and they let her in.
The decision was not made lightly. Runners and medical professionals have serious concerns about the toll distance running can take on a young person’s body.
The fact that everyone in the race was older than her didn’t faze Lila Carleton. Indeed, little seems to faze the Huntington high school sophomore. She Nordic skis at Champlain Valley Union, and has run track and cross country. But she started distance running on her own, and slowly built up to 26 miles without a formal program.
“And then one day, I had run like 16 miles, and one Saturday I just kind of decided, ‘why don’t I try this? Let’s see what happens,’” she said. “And so I went out and essentially just ran a marathon and came back. And I thought I might as well enter an official one.”
But first she had to convince her parents, who were initially not on board when Lila told them at age 14 she wanted to run a marathon.
“We thought it was a terrible idea,” said her father, Ian Carleton.
Her running and Nordic coach at first agreed that Lila was too young. Ian Carleton changed his mind that Saturday when she ran the marathon distance and showed how determined she was.
“At that point I realized resistance was futile,” he recalled. “And so, I focused on helping her learn as much as possible about training and nutrition, understanding that this is something she is passionate about and I’m not about to stand in the way of my child’s passion.”
Passion can get you very far.
But passion and sheer will are sometimes no match for the physical stress – especially on young bodies – of running long distance.
The effects are well documented.
Muscle injuries, joint damage and stress fractures occur with greater frequency in young runners. And young women in particular can face what’s called the female athlete triad: This involves eating disorders exacerbated by extreme exercise, osteoporosis and amenorrhea, which means they stop having their menstrual cycle.
Put marathoner and running coach Sam Davis down in the seriously skeptical category.
“She has her whole life to run marathons,” Davis said. “I know people who have run hundreds of marathons, after they have turned 18.”
Davis is member of the board of RunVermont, which organizes the Burlington race. He said if Lila was his daughter, he wouldn’t have let her run.
“As a coach, it’s not something I would take on myself if a parent approached me with a 15 year old,” he said. “It’s just so demanding.”
Davis says the medical literature is divided about when it’s safe to start distance running. A 2009 white paper by the International Marathon Medical Directors Association says 18 should be the threshold.
RunVermont sets the age at 16 to enter its full marathon, and the organization says if a younger person wants to run, they have to review the 2009 medical white paper, consult with a doctor, get approval from a coach, and have their parents sign a waiver.
“They ask my opinion, and I’m going to give them my opinion. But in the end, as a board, if we are setting the guidelines for a person who is under the age, and the parents are okay with it, then we’ve done all we can and it’s on the parents at that point,” he said.
Lila Carleton said these precautions are necessary.
“It’s a big deal to try and run a marathon and when you’re not fully developed or whatever, it can be dangerous and you can damage your body,” she said. “And I totally agree with all the precautions they’re taking, because I put in a lot of work. I trained for a very long time, and it’s always been a goal of mine to try to run a marathon. It wasn’t something I took lightly.”
Ian Carleton has heard from some on the RunVermont board who were concerned that Lila’s story getting publicized would make other young people — who may not be as well prepared as Lila — want to run marathons. He said they were being justifiably cautious as they reviewed his daughter’s application.
“I think it was an incredibly valuable process for Lila, and I also think it's the right way for organizers to approach for what is still an open debate about whether long distances for kids her age is appropriate,” he said.
Sunday was cool and overcast, a good day for running. The top women were done for an hour or more by the time Lila Carleton crossed the finish line with an unofficial time of 4:18:23.
She looked exhausted, and elated. The hardest part was toward the end, between miles 18 and 21, she said.
“My body hurt so badly. I don’t know. I was just really sore and I was tired,” she said.
Lila says she’d love to run another marathon, and maybe even take on some even longer, 50 mile or 100 mile endurance runs.
If she decides to run the Burlington race next year, she won't need special permission. She turns 16 in July.