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Oh Nicki!

Marathons Are Not For The Young

Published December 7, 1998, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

When our July 1996 attempt to set a world record in the women's 100-mile relay fell behind schedule, several high school runners came to the rescue. In the cross country and track seasons that followed, we cheered on these world record holders as they matured in their running.

As a high school freshman, Nicki ran a mile personal record on that fateful evening. She improved steadily through her sophomore and junior years, and recently ran her final scholastic cross-country season. To my surprise, Nicki has decided to skip her last indoor track season to train for a small town winter Marathon.

Unlike road races at shorter distances, the Marathon remains a formidable test, both physically and emotionally. Hence, training and running Marathons should be undertaken with the utmost respect for the distance, and an honest recognition for its lasting impact on the spirit and the body.

It is no coincidence that 5K and 10K races remain the longest distances for scholastic and collegiate competition. A lot of thought and concern for these athletes' well being justifies an upper limit on long distance competition. High school and college runners are simply too young to train and safely run the Marathon distance.

A careful examination of the distribution of Marathon times with age shows that men and women mature in their late twenties. These numbers suggest that the physical and mental development necessary for peak performance elude the younger runners. It is no coincidence that the recent 2:06:05 men's world record in the Marathon was set by a 27-year-old runner, Brazil's Ronaldo Da Costa.

At the shorter end of the running spectrum, sprinters tend to achieve their peak performance in their early twenties. This phenomenon is also evident in swimming, where collegiate athletes dominate international competition. However, few teen-agers, if any, have crossed the English Channel.

In deference for nature that dictated a longer and slower maturing process for endurance events, athletes should delay running Marathons until their late twenties. In the meantime, a gradual progression through the longer distances, including several experiences at the 10-mile through half-marathon range, could condition the body for longer endurance efforts.

The national racing scene contains several examples that support this argument. Olympian Cathy O'Brien, who set a junior world record in the Marathon at age 19 and qualified for 3 consecutive Olympic Marathon trials, burned out and skipped the 1996 Marathon trials before reaching her peak.

On the other hand, Francie Larrieu-Smith ran the 1,500 meters at age 19 at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the 10,000 meters at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and the Marathon at age 39 at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Similarly, Mary Decker Slaney's longevity may be credited to her focus on the shorter end of long distances between 1,500 and 5,000 meters.

Even if Nicki were old enough to run a marathon, she would be ill-advised to choose a winter Marathon as her first Marathon. To train safely for a Marathon requires a 3-month build-up phase, followed by 3 months with long week-end runs. Central New York winters are hardly conducive to weekly long runs, and hours of exposure to the elements on slippery pavements are seldom enjoyable. The cold weather, the added weight of winter clothing and the loss of insulation due to sweat retention, all create added stress to the heart.

Nicki's final error is the choice of a small town Marathon. First-time Marathon runners are better advised to run a large metropolitan Marathon, and enjoy the safety and expertise of a large group of volunteers. Facing the uncertain challenge of a first-time Marathon is stressful enough, without the prospects of a one-man volunteer team multiplexing as race director, starter, timer, water supplier and first-aid provider.

Like many good things that come in pairs, Marathon is not life's only pleasure that should be delayed to the late twenties. Marriage, the other big M, also stands to benefit from some delay. However, while a late start on Marathons may result in more marathons, a later first marriage may lead to fewer marriages.

Kamal Jabbour occasionally practices what he preaches, by running his first Marathon at age 40. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at

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