Noah Bliss is a running phenom.
Just 10 1/2 years old, the Kenosha boy ran two half-marathons in May, setting a record in one and nearly matching it in the other.
He weighs 71 pounds, stands 4 feet 7 inches tall, wears a youth size 4 shoe and is finishing the fourth grade.
Noah took up running at the age of 7 after his father, Jeff Bliss, also began running for the first time. Since then, Noah has competed in about 70 races, most of them 5Ks, some of them 10Ks and now five half-marathons.
His parents are both in awe of and inspired by their son's running ability. They've had to expand a display rack to make room for all his medals and ribbons.
"When we did our first 5K, I tried to keep him with me, but he kept inching ahead and inching ahead and then he just took off," said his mom, Monica. "That's pretty much the way it has been ever since."
Noah really turned heads in the Wisconsin Half-marathon in Kenosha on May 3. He ran the race in 1 hour 37 minutes 15 seconds in a gun time, which is what the race recognizes. It was the fastest in the world among 10-year-old boys, according to the Association of Road Racing Statisticians. According to his chip time, he actually ran the 13.1 miles in 1:36:47. (A 10-year-old in Virginia broke Noah's record later in May, running a half-marathon in 1:35:02.)
Just two weeks later, Noah ran the Cellcom Green Bay Half-marathon in 1 hour 38 minutes 17 seconds, behind another young runner. Drew Dahlen, a 12-year-old from Green Bay, finished in 1 hour 29 minutes 57 seconds.
While there is no question Noah's accomplishments are incredible, his achievements also raise the question: How much is too much and too soon when it comes to running such distances?
Questions and cautions
It is not common to see runners at this age doing long distances. Race officials at the Wisconsin Marathon and Half-marathon usually require participants to be at least 14. But when Noah was 8, his family requested the race make an exception.
"My first reaction was, that's awfully young," said Jonathan Cain, a promoter and organizer of the Wisconsin Marathon and Half-marathon in Kenosha. "I coach high schoolers in cross country and track. We don't let freshmen and sometimes even sophomores compete at more than 10 miles."
But the Bliss family assured Cain they would run with him the whole time, and that Noah was putting in the mileage for training and that he could stop and walk a little during the race if necessary. Cain was impressed but still cautious.
"My opinion was he's probably still too young, but I don't have a medical degree," Cain said.
He ran the idea by the race's medical director and did some research. He couldn't find any information that said running at this distance was harmful for a child so allowed Noah to race. Noah ran the half in 2:09:22 in 2012 and in 1:44:26 in 2013. He ran either with Monica or Jeff almost the whole way.
"It's definitely more on the family -- that we trust them," Cain said.
Running coaches and medical people said dedication to training is important for anyone running distances, particularly someone so young.
Tamroyal Yow, YMCA group vice president of center operations, said two factors should be considered when determining whether a child should complete such a distance: Who is initiating the activity, the parent/guardian or the child? And is the child committed to training?
"In general, children who are active at this age are very good at activities that require short bursts of exertion followed by short bouts of rest," Yow said. "Running 13.1 miles is definitely different.
"If the youth truly loves to run and compete, let him train for the activity," she said. "However, they should be closely monitored for injuries and burnout."
Burnout is a major concern for youth sports. Kids who train and practice in just one sport or activity year-round from an early age can get tired of the sport -- mentally and physically -- by the time they reach high school.
"He should be careful not to put too much training and time into running at such a young age," said Kristina Jenich, a personal trainer at Innovative Health & Fitness gym in Franklin who also began her running career at the same age as Noah. "It increases his likelihood of burnout, which is common among young athletes of any sport.
"Long-distance running can also increase his risk of injury such as patellofemoral syndrome, stress fractures, tendinitis, and many others. If he wants to continue long-distance running, his parents need to make sure he follows a healthy conditioning routine: plenty of rest, staying hydrated, consuming enough calories, stretching and listening to his body when injured."
Dwight Sandvold, a high school distance running coach with 25 years of experience, cautioned that too much running too soon can affect performance later.
"Each of us is born with a certain percentage of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers," said Sandvold. "Our ability to access these fibers is largely determined in our youth. So are the movement patterns of fast and slow running."
He said running a half-marathon in less than two hours is impressive, but the 8- to 9-minute-mile pace is slow by competitive running standards.
"This slow pace is being 'hardwired' into the neurological system during the hours and hours of training and competing at this pace," said Sandvold. "In my experience these young runners who are out doing 5Ks -- and up -- at an early age have a very hard time accessing the speed needed to be competitive at even a high school level."
He said the state qualifying time for high school runners in Wisconsin was 4:25 or under in the mile, 9:45 or under for two miles.
"To win will traditionally take a 4:15 or under and a 9:20 or under," said Sandvold. "My advice for young runners is to join a local youth track club. Start with sprints or the 400 and 800. Develop speed to burn and add the endurance later. Adult marathon runners are proof that endurance can be trained at anytime."
Kevin Walter, program director at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin Sports Medicine, said there is no reliable data or research that says running that far that young is harmful -- or OK -- for 10-year-olds.
"The wear and tear concern is legit, but if they're training well, the risk to growth plates can be minimized," said Walter. "Concerns for injury are very real as kids are more likely to get hurt with intense training -- too much too soon -- and sustain injuries when their bodies are growing and changing."
But he also questioned if there was any difference between a child running a 10K or a half-marathon and a child playing in weekend-long, multi-game soccer tournaments.
To Walter, the training is fine for 10-year-olds, as long as it is their desire to run and not the prodding of coaches and parents.
"It should be about the kid's enjoyment and not running if having pain," said Walter.
Generally, these experts wished Noah the best, as long as he was being closely supervised.
"It is absolutely amazing what the human body is capable of, even at age 10," said Jenich. "I completely understand the love of running and passion to race. It is exhilarating to finish a race and beat your personal best or even a record."
The family's story
Monica Bliss has heard the "too much, too soon" questions, and talked at length for this story about the care that she, a human resources employee, and her husband, a detective with the Kenosha County Sheriff's department, have taken regarding Noah and his running.
Jeff, 39, began running when Noah was 6; Monica, 37, took up running because of Noah. They started with a jog and then walk around the block, then two, and so on. Their first race was the 5K Firecracker Run in July of 2011.
"Running has been such an amazing discovery for all of us," said Monica. "To be able to set the goals, reach them and have that sense of accomplishment -- and then have all the healthy things that come with it."
Noah asked to try a 10K, and running and training became a family activity.
Monica Bliss said Noah's pediatrician is supportive of his running. The family did what she called a preventative cardiac workup before his first half-marathon to make sure he was healthy enough to run the distance. When Noah ran that first half at age 8, Monica insisted he run with her, though he wanted to go ahead and did just at the end.
Besides Green Bay and Kenosha, Noah has run the Skeleton Skamper half-marathon in Racine. Monica said when Noah has asked to run in a full marathon, he's been told not yet. He has never been injured, she said.
While the Bliss family hasn't consulted a running coach, they said they have been to an orthopedic surgeon to check Noah's feet. Because Jeff and Monica didn't have a running background, Monica said they did a lot of research and reading on their own. They also asked runner friends who were also health care professionals for guidance.
"Our really big goal was to keep it fun," said Monica. "It's a lot of hard work, especially when you are training for these long races. We make sure he's doing everything he needs to be doing but not too much, not pushing him to the point where it is something he doesn't want to do."
Monica said the family looks at running as Noah's sport. Instead of two soccer or baseball practices and a game each week, the Bliss family does three training runs a week of 3 to 4 miles along with a 6-mile run, or longer when he's training for a longer race.
When asked about the two half-marathons in two weeks, Monica said that after the Kenosha half-marathon May 3, Noah took a week off from running. Monica, Jeff and Noah considered the Kenosha half-marathon just a training run for the Green Bay half-marathon.
"I know a lot of people who are very, very experienced runners who do work with groups and coaches who do 12- and 13-mile training runs," said Monica. "We didn't know he'd run it so fast."
She also said the drive all comes from Noah.
"For Noah, to keep it fun, it's about his goals," said Monica Bliss. "It's about the races that he wants to do. It's really about him. We go out and we do it with him because it is a family thing that we do. But it's really about him.
He's choosing his goals."
Noah often picks runs that support his favorite causes. He raised $1,250 for Racers Against Childhood Cancer. He's also running the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control 5K because he loves dogs.
"I am not blind to the controversy surrounding this," Monica said. "We did our research. Is it too much, too soon, all of those things. For Noah, it hasn't been. He likes it.
"If at any point I thought that we were doing something unsafe, I wouldn't have done it. I mean, he's my child. As much fun as some of this is, it isn't worth it if it will hurt my child."
Monica said Noah is a healthy eater who considers broccoli a snack and asks for his mom's green smoothies even more than an occasional cookie. His overall health and growth is excellent, she said.
Noah is also a very good student and loves to play football and basketball with his friends.
"Running, when he started, I don't think any of us thought it would turn in to what it has turned in to," said Monica.
"People who know us know we don't push him at all -- any more than a 10-year-old, hey, you've got to do your practice today.
"This is his choice. It's not us. We're not these hardcore runners that have been doing this our whole lives that are living vicariously through our son. This is what Noah loves to do right now. This is what he loves and enjoys and I'm not going to take that away from him.
"Do I worry about burnout? I think he has a talent so I hope he doesn't burn out, but at the same time, there's no guarantee that he would want to run in the future. So right now we're supporting him in what he loves. And as long as that's what he wants to do, we will keep supporting him."
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