Just 46 minutes and 48 seconds after the gun went off in Woods Hole to start the 40th running of the Falmouth Road Race on Sunday, Mashpee summer resident Kelly Konstanty crossed the finish line in Falmouth Heights.
There she would wait patiently for her father, Gary C. Mitchell of Harborview Drive, East Falmouth, who was running alongside her son, 10-year-old AJ Konstanty, who was running his first-ever road race.
A little more than 40 minutes later the pair would head down the hill on Grand Avenue, past an exuberant Ms. Konstanty, and finish the seven-mile race. “I started crying when he came by,” Ms. Konstanty said. “I was on the hill and screaming his name and he had a big smile on his face. As soon as he saw me he had one last spurt of energy and ran across the finish line and I got emotional. I was very proud of him.”
That extra support was all AJ needed to achieve his personal goal of completing the race in under an hour and a half and besting his grandfather by 12 seconds with a time of 1:27:46.
This weekend marked AJ’s second race ever completed. The first was a five-mile Turkey Trot in Southport, Connecticut, after which he began developing an interest in running.
Part of that may be due to family genetics, as his mother has now run the Falmouth Road Race 17 times, although she did not become serious about the sport until she was in college. Her first Falmouth race was in 1994, at the age of 21.
“I asked him if he would like to run the race because it was the 40th year and he said, ‘Yes,’ ” Ms. Konstanty said.
Training began slowly, she said, with the mileage building up week after week. One week prior to the road race AJ ran seven miles, a test to see if he was ready for this level of endurance.
AJ said he was nervous just before the race that “I was not going to finish, but every time I ran past the water stations, music playing or people cheering me on, I kept running.”
Only once did AJ walk and for good reason: “I had a bug bite and it itched,” he explained. “Other than that I ran the whole time.”
He was spurred on by family rooting him on at the 4.5-mile marker. “That really gave me a big boost and I sprinted the rest of the way,” he said. “I felt so good that I had run seven miles and I was so happy that I finished."
More Children Taking To Long-Distance Running
AJ’s story is part of a trend in which more people are running longer distances at a younger age, said Dr. Donald E. O’Malley of Cape Cod Sports Medicine on Gifford Street.
As a rule the Falmouth Road Race permits runners 7 and older to participate in the race, which Dr. O’Malley said falls in line with marathons around the country.
On the Falmouth Road Race website, there are six children listed at that age who participated in Sunday’s event although assistant road race director Matthew G. Auger said it takes roughly two weeks to verify that information as occasionally number swapping occurs.
In an average year, he said, there are 130 children between the ages of 7 and 14 who compete in the race. Organizers, he said, have not looked at data to determine whether this demographic has risen over the past decade.
While he noted there are definite health benefits to having children run, he questioned whether this particular race was well-suited for them. “I don’t recommend it because it is an extremely hot day and it is a difficult course,” he said. “Generally, a 7-year-old doesn’t have much experience and that can make Falmouth more difficult. I would certainly recommend a 5K, but this is much more difficult because this race is more than double that distance.”
On some occasions, children running the race do as well, if not better, than many of the adults.
Such was the case in 2003 when 12-year-old Briana Jackucewicz of Howell, New Jersey, finished with a time of 41:59, good enough for 100th place overall and 26th place among females.
Now 21 and a senior-to-be at Harvard University, Ms. Jackucewicz returned to the Falmouth race for the first time since that run. Her time this year, 42:16, was slightly off her previous pace, but still placed her among the top 30 female finishers.
She, too, was introduced to the sport by a parent, her father Roger Jackucewicz, who was a Connecticut state high school champion in cross country and track, and later went on to run at Lehigh University.
I think it is great to see younger kids running because it has shaped who I’ve become now. I think running teaches kids a great work ethic and is a big reason I ended up at Harvard.
Her talent as a child was enough to catch the attention of The New York Times, which published a feature on her in May 2004, just two months after she broke the national high school mark for the 5,000-meter run at the National Scholastic indoor meet in New York City as a seventh grader.
To this day, Ms. Jackucewicz runs—she is on Harvard’s cross-country and track teams—and considers the activity a large part of who she is. And she takes delight in seeing the next generation of runners put one foot in front of the other, stride for stride, mile for mile, as a test of one’s physical limitations.
“I think it is great to see younger kids running because it has shaped who I’ve become now,” she said. “I think running teaches kids a great work ethic and is a big reason I ended up at Harvard.”
Whether the sport represents a risk for children has not fully been explored, which is why Dr. O’Malley termed it a Pandora’s box. “With Pop Warner and Little League we have organized sports, but with youth running it is not an organized sport until middle school,” he said. “We have no tracking device and there are very few scientific studies out there that have looked at this.”
Health Risks Are Minimal
Still, his own experience as the former medical co-director of the Falmouth Road Race and working in the Boston Marathon medical tent for two years is that parental concerns should be minimal. “I didn’t see any pre-puberty runners [7- to 12-year-olds] come into the Boston Marathon tent at all,” he said. “And for 10 years being one of the Falmouth Road Race medical directors, I can’t remember any children’s injuries from that race.”
With the studies that have been done, he said, evidence appears to show that running for children is not as dangerous as it is for adults, and those risks are primarily focused on sprains, strains or stress fractures caused by over-exercise.
One study, conducted by Dr. William Roberts, the medical director for the Twin Cities Marathon, culled 25 years’ worth of data from that race, looking at runners between the ages of 7 and 17. Of the 310 total runners in this age group, Dr. Roberts found that only four children had medical encounters. “I think all were either a sprained ankle or strained plantar fasciitis,” Dr. O’Malley said, noting that this rate of injury was half of that for adults.
That study showed, Dr. O’Malley said, that it is okay for children 7 and older to run a marathon. “Now the real question becomes, in my mind, since it is not an organized sport: what is the proper training?” Dr. O’Malley said.
Generally people will have lower incidents of diabetes and heart disease if they start a good running program early and living a healthy lifestyle early because it carries over to them as adults.
Dr. Donald O'Malley
To make that determination, he said, parents should have their children get involved with local track clubs and consult with their members who have expertise working with youth.
For Dr. O’Malley the benefits of running far outweigh any potential negatives, particularly since it is such a cheap and easy sport for children to do. “It can be done with others, on a regular basis and generally people will have lower incidents of diabetes and heart disease if they start a good running program early and living a healthy lifestyle early because it carries over to them as adults,” he said.
Ultimately, the choice to pursue the sport, he said, should be left up to the child. “The kid should want to run,” he said.
Such was the case with Ms. Konstanty, who said her son has naturally taken to the sport.
“I like running because it is a really fun activity,” said AJ, who already has set a goal of shaving a minute or two off this year’s time. And perhaps one day, the roles will be reversed and he will be the one finishing the road race first and waiting for his mother at the finish line, although he admitted it may be a while before that happens. “If I’m still running when she is 60, then I probably might be able to beat her,” he said.