Youth Triathlons Expand, Offer Short Distances

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 9, 2008 6:09 PM

It's hardly necessary to do a 140.6-mile triathlon to get health benefits, experts say. In fact it's not advisable, particularly for beginners and anyone under 18.

With the ranks of young triathletes growing (people 17 and younger make up nearly 20 percent of USA Triathlon's 113,000 members) there are a growing number of events tailored to youngsters' abilities.

The prototype was IronKids, launched in 1985 by the Sara Lee Corporation to promote of brand of bread that shared the name.

The abbreviated races, open to boys and girls ages 7 to 14, were short enough that nearly everyone was sure to finish. But the inaugural runner-up later gave up the sport, deciding cycling was his true calling. It was a good move on the part of Lance Armstrong, who went on to win seven Tour de France titles.

Three-time Olympic triathlete Hunter Kemper, 32, got his start in IronKids, winning five consecutive national titles. But Kemper insists he wouldn't have stuck with the sport if his introduction had been anything less than fun. And short.

Kemper won his first IronKids age-group title in 1986, when the race was held at Busch Gardens Amusement Park in Tampa, Fla. The children swam in a wave pool and biked and ran through the park, circling the animals along the way.

"As a kid you think it's cool: Wow! I'm a national champion," Kemper says. "Maybe there were only 10 kids in my age group, but still, you're a national champion."

Like Kensington's Hunter Lussi, professional triathlete Sara McLarty, 25, got her heart set on doing a triathlon at age 6, after watching her mother finish one. McLarty competed in her first mini-triathlon at 7 and progressed to IronKids, winning four national titles (1990-93).

"Burnout was never an issue because all I wanted to do was get on the starting line," said McLarty, who later swam competitively at the University of Florida.

After a one-year hiatus, IronKids resumes next year. (The brand was bought from Sara Lee by the World Triathlon Corporation, which owns the Ironman trademark.) The re-launched series will consist of eight races for kids six to 14 in cities yet to be named, culminating in a national championship.

In the Washington area, Columbia, Md., hosts a youth-only triathlon each July, offering three age-appropriate distances. Boys and girls ages 7 to 10 swim 50 yards, bike 2 miles and run one-half mile. Those distances are doubled for kids ages 11 and 12 (100-yard swim, 4-mile bike, 1-mile run). And youngsters 13 and 14 swim twice as far (200 yards) and also bike 4 miles and run 1.

"Schools by and large in many part of the country have done away with gym, so kids don't have any physical activity during the week," says Bob Vigorito of the Columbia Triathlon Association, which stages the kids event. "Our whole purpose in putting on a kids race is to get the kids active and the parents involved."

With more youngsters taking part in triathlons, the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness examined the trend and found that short events for youngsters (those lasting less than one hour) pose no health risks. But it raised concerns, in a 1996 article published in the journal Pediatrics, about elite youngsters who train at significantly more rigorous levels.

The panel recommended that youth triathlons emphasize "safety, fun and fitness rather than competition." In addition, it called for numerous safety precautions. Among them: that children be given a swim test beforehand to ensure they can swim the required distance; that the swim take place in a pool rather than open water, with lifeguards present; that the bike course be closed to automobile traffic, and helmets be required; and that races be shortened or canceled in extreme weather, given children's heightened risk of hypothermia or heat illness.

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