As Katylynn Welsch, 12, and her ten-year-old sister Heather line up for their latest race they’re dwarfed by their competitors who are more than twice their size and age. Astonishingly though, the sisters not only keep up, but even beat the grown-ups.
Since they started competing against adults two years ago, they’ve clocked up 4,000-plus kilometres of running between them – often running half marathons
(21.1 kilometres each), although Katylynn has run two full marathons (42.195 kilometres each) as well.
The schoolgirls take part in races from five kilometres upwards most weekends and sometimes compete twice in two days.
To train they do an hour of sit-ups and leg exercises after school each day and sometimes run around their neighbourhood in Alvin, Texas – covering around 30 kilometres a week.
The girls’ regimes have sparked criticism with experts warning their gruelling training could be damaging their growing bodies.
Specialist physiotherapist Colin Patterson warns, “Extremes of any kind aren’t good for children’s development and this type of frequency of exercise runs the risk of injuries.
“Children risk damaging their bones, especially when they go through growth spurts and it may cause girls’ periods to stop.”
But their mother Niki, 43, insists, “I’m not a pushy mum. It’s hard enough to get kids to do what you want at the best of times, so the idea we could make them run a 20- or 40-kilometre race is ridiculous. Yes, we do have a treadmill in our living room, but for the most part it’s used as a clotheshorse or we just dump things on it.
“We do push them to do as well as they possibly can but if they turned around tomorrow and said they didn’t want to race we’d accept it. We wouldn’t just let them laze around and do nothing though. We’d definitely encourage them to do something else.”
These explanations haven’t satisfied the critics though. After one race in 2010 for instance, a paediatrician gave the girls’ father Rodney, 43, a talking to. “She said I was hurting my children and they shouldn’t be running in such long races, as it takes too much energy out of them and risks damaging their bones,” says the physical chemist. “It was unsettling.”
As a result Rodney and Niki, took the girls to doctors to be checked over. “The doctors said that although the girls were small, their bones and growth patterns were normal. So I’m not worried,” says Niki.
Rodney adds, “But they did advise the girls to do the daily sit-ups and leg exercises to help with their core strength. We continue to have them checked regularly just in case, but there hasn’t been any reason to stop them so far.”
Physiotherapist Patterson also highlights the importance of monitoring the children’s health, warning “Extremes of any kind aren’t good for children’s development and this type of exercise runs the risk of injuries.
“Children risk damaging their bones, especially when they go through growth spurts and it may cause girls to stop their periods or delay puberty.
“I’d advise careful monitoring if they are to compete at these distances and this level for much longer.”
Slight in size, but impressive results
The sisters have, between them, completed 160 races against adults and 56 children’s races. In Katylynn’s full marathons against adults – the Woodlands Marathon and the Surfside Beach Marathon in Texas – she finished in the top 300, an exceptional result for her age. But the girls
prefer 20-kilometre trail runs over tough, rugged terrain.
Katylynn and Heather, both 25 kilograms, are well below the average weight for children their ages – which are 42 kilograms and 32 kilograms for 12-year-olds and ten-year-olds respectively.
Niki insists the girls eat healthily.
“They have eggs, toast or porridge for breakfast, then a school lunch, which would typically be chicken with multigrain bread, mashed potatoes and a bowl of fresh fruit, and a healthy dinner like pasta,’’ she says. Rodney adds the girls have protein shakes to recover from long runs and says, “They’re full of energy after a race and spring out of bed the next morning asking, ‘What are we doing today?’”
Quite where the girls got their athletic ability is a mystery to both parents. While both played sports at school and have remained active into their later lives, neither showed any great sporting prowess.
“From the moment they were born, both were little whirlwinds,” laughs Niki. “Katylynn, especially, went from crawling to running, skipping and walking altogether.”
Encouraging the girls to be fit was always high on the agenda for Rodney and Niki, so their daughters tried out lots of sports, including football, basketball and softball.
Rodney says, “We’re the type of parents who can go a little overboard. When Katylynn started playing softball we got her a pitching machine. We also got a basketball hoop.”
But the girls were always small for their age and when it came to team sports, their puny size often left them at a disadvantage. Katylynn explains, “During football people would run right over me like I was the ball.”
Running was not really on the agenda until around four years ago, when Rodney read an article about triathlons for children. Aimed at kids as young as seven, the distances for the swimming, cycling and running weren’t very long. “I enjoyed it,” says Katylynn. “But my bike wasn’t very good and I wasn’t very good at swimming.”
As they had with the other sports, her parents encouraged her with swimming lessons and a top-of-the-range bike.
Their time and energy paid off and soon Katylynn was doing really well in all three disciplines.
But it was the running where she truly stood out, passing her fellow competitors for fun So, two years ago Katylynn made that her sole focus. And, inspired by her sister, Heather started too.
“There is definitely a healthy competition, especially with Heather, who has a fire in her belly,” laughs housewife Niki. “No matter what she is doing, she always wants to win. With the running anyway, Katylynn probably has more natural ability, so her younger sister has to work that little bit harder to keep up with her and sometimes that helps her beat her sister.”
Both did so well in the children’s races that Rodney decided to have them compete against the adults. He says, “It was amazing watching them. They just flew past people with smiles on their faces, like they weren’t working at all.”
Now the girls usually compete in grown-up races with Katylynn completing 20 kilometres in under an hour and a half, and Heather finishing in one hour and 35 minutes – which are good times even for adult club runners.
The girls say that while they love competing, they sometimes cause a stir among other runners. “Sometimes in a race people say ‘good job’ but a lot tell me I shouldn’t be running as I’ll hurt myself,” says Katylynn. Heather adds, “They don’t like it when we overtake them and some of them swear.”
But Niki is unfazed by the reaction saying, “The insults are like water off a duck’s back. They’re not aimed at the children really – they’re just a reflection of the other runners’ own disappointment.”
Both parents insist that it is not just in the sporting arena that they set high standards.
If the girls’ school grades begin slipping or they misbehave then they will be punished with a TV ban or have their iPods taken away. “We’re strict, but fair,” insists Niki. “We don’t directly reward them for doing well, but within reason they get everything they want.
“They’re both doing really well at school, which is great and both are pretty popular too.
“We’re not pushing them so hard they can’t have friends or anything. If they want to go out and play, as long as their homework is finished, we’re happy for them to go.”
Rodney adds, “I’d like to think that if they were having trouble with something or someone they could come to us and talk about it.”
With the girls running practically every weekend, it’s been a big commitment of both parents’ time and the financial outlay has also been huge.
Niki says, “I’d probably have a heart attack if we sat down and worked it out. After all there’s the equipment, the petrol and the hotel rooms.
“But seeing the joy it gives them makes it all worthwhile. And after all, they could have chosen a more expensive hobby.”
“We’re an outdoorsy family,” adds Rodney. “So they just love to get out into the countryside.”
Rodney says that in the United States there are strict rules about prize giving to school athletes, so most of the money they’ve won has been donated to charity, although the odd one has placed money into a college scholarship for the girls.
Katylynn and Heather – who say they don’t want to be professional runners when they’re older – have also been lucky as regards injuries so far. Katylynn had a minor problem with her heel, which was quickly fixed with a gel pad in her shoe.
“If we thought for one second that the running was hurting them, then it would stop,” says Niki.
“People only complain because they’re kids competing in adult events. If they did gymnastics, no one would bat an eyelid at their exercise regimes.”
Rodney adds, “If in the future they decide it’s not for them, then we’ll have no problem with that. For the moment though, they’re doing something that they absolutely love and isn’t that all a parent can ask?”
Says Katylynn, “I just love to run and compete. I don’t know what we’d do if I couldn’t run. If I felt bad I’d say so, like I did with my heel, but for the most part I love it.”
Heather adds, “It’s tiring but it’s good fun, especially when we beat people.”