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And the littlest child shall race right by them

More and more, the young are taking up running

Angela Lin of Needham and Kate Hammerness of Sherborn, both 5, crossed the finish line for a fun run at Wellesley College last Saturday. Angela Lin of Needham and Kate Hammerness of Sherborn, both 5, crossed the finish line for a fun run at Wellesley College last Saturday. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / April 3, 2011

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Runners training for the Boston Marathon strode past Wellesley College’s Keohane Sports Center early on a Saturday. Inside, younger athletes were working toward personal bests. “Will all 4-year-olds please head to the red balloons,’’ a voice said over a loudspeaker.

It was just a “fun run,’’ with ribbons for participation, not victory. Even so, Emily Reza, 4 1/2, had lain awake fretting the night before, from 2 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. “I don’t think she understood how long 75 yards is,’’ explained her mother, Molly Reza. A competitor in an earlier heat, Logan Murphy, 3, did not take the event lightly, either. He had been doing wind sprints for weeks with his father, Tom Murphy, who was a track athlete in high school. “We expect a better performance’’ than last year, he said, half-kidding. “More focused.’’

Boston’s famed race for grown-ups is still two weeks off, but the kiddie race season is already underway. Yes, there’s a kiddie race season, and it’s growing, even if some athletes need to be rescued crying from the track or reminded to run toward the finish line.

Membership in USA Track & Field’s 10-and-under category hit 16,319 last year, up from 11,959 in 2001, an increase of 36 percent. Over the past decade, the number of fun runs has also seen a dramatic increase.

Dave McGillivray — race director for the Boston Marathon and president of DMSE Sports Inc., a sports-event management firm — estimates that there are five times more kiddie races now than a decade ago, with children competing at distances of up to a mile. In 10 to 15 percent of cases, he said, the associated fun runs, which can be as short as 25 yards for the youngest kids, now draw more entrants than some adult races, including marathons.

“We used to put down a cone here, a cone there, and give everyone a ribbon, and that was that,’’ McGillivray said. “Now, we have to create a committee of specialists, if you will, to organize the whole thing. You get 2,000 kids, you might have 6,000 [spectators], plus some parents get overanxious. You have to create crowd control barricades so the parents don’t get in the way.’’

Last July, 700 children showed up for a fun run at Gillette Stadium that was new and had hardly been promoted. “We thought we’d get a couple of hundred kids,’’ McGillivray said. “This year, in a good way, we’re nervous.’’

How nervous? He’s expecting 1,500 runners for this year’s July 3 Patriot Place Kid’s run, with events ranging from 50 yards to about 600 yards. Three hundred children are expected at the Rhody 5K Road Race in Lincoln, R.I., in June, with distances starting at 100 yards and going up to 500 yards. At least 600 to 700 children are expected at the B2B Kids Fun Run in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, in August.

“Twelve years ago these races didn’t even exist,’’ McGillivray said.

In at least one case, children are moving in on the adults’ turf. Not content to run the shorter companion race that goes along with Andover’s Thanksgiving Day Feaster Five, about 500 kids 12 and younger signed up last year for newly created youth slots in the main 5K and 5-mile races, said Tom Licciardello, race chairman and director of development for the Merrimack Valley Striders running club.

“We said, ‘Let’s give them a discount, so they can run with their parents,’ ’’ Licciardello said, “but in many cases the parents couldn’t keep up with them.’’

The surge in interest in youth running can be seen at retailers such as Modell’s Sporting Goods, which tallied double-digit increases in sales of tyke-sized running shoes from 2009 to 2010 and expects the same this year, said Rich Lampmann, director of marketing.

“The kids know what they want,’’ said Newton store manager Rosalind Roos. “They direct the parents, the people who follow behind with the credit card.’’

Rising participation in running is also evident in emergency rooms nationwide, where visits by runners ages 6 to 18 increased from 11,706 in 1994 to 15,663 in 2007, said Lara McKenzie, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. The injuries ranged from fractures, which were the most common, to scrapes, said McKenzie, adding that 98.5 percent of the children did not require hospitalization.

As interest grows, Pierre d’Hemecourt, director of primary care sports medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston, regularly hears from parents asking about appropriate distances for different age groups.

“There is no real solid data on that,’’ said d’Hemecourt, who is a runner himself, “but there is a lot of speculation.’’ Children ages 8 to 10 can generallly build up to running 3K races and possibly 5K races, he said, and kindergartners should be fine in distances as long as 100 to 200 meters. “The key is to keep it fun and to stimulate an active lifestyle that will persist.’’

A proponent of the sport, he said parents should keep an eye out for activity-related pain that lasts for a few weeks, such as shin or heel pain, and take children to a doctor if discomfort persists beyond that. He also cautioned against running in severe weather. “Kids have less of an ability to handle heat and cold than adults,’’ he said.

At a time when major league sports obsess the nation, why are more children turning to the relatively low-key sport of running? Observers point to concerns over childhood obesity, the rising profile of some American track stars, and running moms and dads.

“Life works in a cyclical manner,’’ McGillivray said. “In the ’70s and ’80s, the only ones running were kids running track in high school and in the playground. Then in the ’80s and ’90s it got to the point where adults started getting involved in running. Now it’s almost like the parents are inspiring the kids.’’

Indeed, in Wellesley, Luke Miele has been going to his father’s marathons since he was a newborn. Now 4 3/4, he practically begs to go on training runs. “Sometimes I’ll put off a long run until I can set up a play date for him,’’ Steve Miele said. “I don’t want him to feel bad.’’

Molly Barker — founder of Girls on the Run International, a nonprofit group that encourages preteens to develop healthy lifestyles — says running allows children to take a break from the noise of life. “It’s a complete turn-off of Facebook, cellphones, the computer, and television,’’ she said.

Barker started the group in North Carolina with 13 girls in 1996. It now serves 100,000 girls per year, and a Boston chapter opened last fall. Disconnecting from media was not an early emphasis, but this year the group has added a lesson about the importance of quiet time to the curriculum. “Running can serve as that space for a person,’’ said Barker.

David Willey, editor of Runner’s World, traces the trend to 2004, when American marathoners Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi medaled in the Olympics in Greece. They “paved the way for Ryan Hall, Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan, and others, and those are the newer faces that are resonating with kids today,’’ he wrote in e-mail.

Running, he added, is a sport in which kids actually get a lot of exercise. “Have you ever been to a 9-year-old’s baseball game?’’ he asked. “They spend 90 percent of the time just standing.’’

Even if some athletes need to be bribed with fattening food to participate, it’s a start.

After the race in Wellesley last Saturday, 2 1/2-year-old Fletcher MacArthur was enjoying the glazed doughnut he had earned.

“I offered him a treat,’’ said his mother, Lisa MacArthur, “and he was like, ‘OK, I’ll run.’ ’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.

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