Jeffrey Bert does not love running short distances — it’s just not where the 14-year-old Bend boy’s strengths lie. And when he says “short distances,” he means a mile, or 2 miles, or even 5K, the length of a typical high school cross-country race.
Last month, Bert ran his first ultramarathon (the term for any race longer than the 26.2-mile marathon distance) at the 50K Run the Rock at Smith Rock, finishing 34th in 6 hours, 57 minutes and 36 seconds. That was more to his liking.
“I kind of thought of it as a 5K (3.1 miles), to be honest,” Bert explained in an interview last week. “First mile, go out. Stay fast, stay ahead. Middle mile you can tone it back. And then last mile it’s just go hard. I thought about that, but in 10-mile (chunks).”
Bert, a freshman at Summit High School, says he discovered that he preferred long-distance trail running — long, long-distance running — on training runs with the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation nordic team, which often stretch to 13 or 15 miles. And for much of his life, he has been putting in as many miles with his family, going on weeklong backpacking trips with his parents, Mike and Marlice, both 48, and his younger sister.
Bert decided to run on his own instead of joining his middle school track team this past spring, and in July he attended a youth trail-running camp at Mount Hood led by Bend runner Max King . Many of the campers attended to train for high school cross-country season, but Bert came away with bigger — or, at least, longer — aspirations.
“I kind of learned what it’s like to be an ultra runner, and just to do that long running, and how it’s such a cool sport and a cool experience with good people,” Bert said.
The centerpiece of the camp is a “long adventure” of running and hiking, during which campers cover as many as 26 miles in one day.
“We pack sandwiches, and we stop and we go swimming, and then run; they’re just out there all day,” explained Corrine Malcolm an ultra runner who served as one of the counselors at this year’s camp. “For a lot of kids that’s an eye-opening experience. They’re really intimidated by it.
But Bert was not one of the nervous campers.
“A lot of kids get really worked up on the big day. You could tell, they were nervous in a sad way, or they were a little more excitable,” Malcolm said. “He was a kid that was really calm and level the entire time.” Bert had essentially finished a marathon. A 50K, the shortest ultra-marathon distance, is only five more miles on top of that. An ultra-distance race now seemed doable.
“You’re just so close to that goal of becoming an ultra runner,” Bert said. And soon after getting home from camp, he started looking for 50Ks, settling on Run the Rock, which was close to home.
Bert’s parents supported the idea, and he said he never received any warnings or discouragement in person, but Jeffrey said he was aware that some members of the running and medical communities don’t think that teens should be running ultras. Bert is not the first Oregon teen to run an ultramarathon: Andrew Miller of Corvallis, now 21, ran the 50K McKenzie River Trail Run at age 14 and went on to win the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in 2016. T.J. Hooks, now 20 and training in Ouray, Colorado, also ran a number of ultra races when he lived in Sisters as a teenager. But the club of teen ultra runners is still a new and small one, and it is not clear what the long-term ramifications of such extensive training might be.
In addition to the repetitive-use injuries that strike runners of all ages Chris Cooper, a physical therapist at the Therapeutic Associates clinic at the Athletic Club of Bend, cautioned that young runners are at a heightened risk of orthopedic injuries if they put excessive stress on their legs before their growth plates close.
“I think there’s potentially a risk for injury in someone younger that hasn’t developed as much muscle to protect their joint surfaces,” said Cooper. “There’s three to five times (the runner’s) body weight going through each leg with every impact of running. It’s a lot of load on our tissues, so if you don’t get the proper recovery, for anybody, no matter your age, there is potential for damage.”
Still, Cooper said he would not try to prevent a teen from running ultramarathons if he or she were well-trained and prepared.
Joe Uhan, a Eugene physical therapist, running coach and ultra runner, is more enthusiastic about the idea of kids taking up trail and ultra-distance training.
“I think the concern about kids running ultras is there’s a mindset of linearity: It’s like, if kids get injured this much doing high school cross-country at a 5K (distance), and now they’re going to train and race 50K, then it’s going to be 10 times the injury rate,” Uhan explained.
But Uhan said ultrarunning is probably less conducive to injury than most nonrunners would assume. The difference in training mileage for an ultra runner and a cross-country runner doesn’t need to be huge — ultra runners will typically go on training runs that approach the length of their race just a few times — and they often run at slower tempos than elite cross-country or track athletes.
Miller said he played soccer until his junior year of high school and didn’t worry much more about wear and tear from running than he did from soccer.
“If you run a race that weekend, versus a single weekend of soccer, the race does take more out of your body” Miller said. “But you don’t run a race every weekend. In training, kids mostly should be running for fun. If you’re just running for fun, you’re not going to do too much.”
And for much of this fall, Bert’s “fun” was spending long days on the trail. He reached out to Malcolm, the running camp counselor, for training tips. Twice he did long runs on back-to-back days to prepare himself for the exhaustion of race day.
Although he started out faster than perhaps was wise, Bert said his first ultra race went about as smoothly as he could have expected.
“By race day, I knew how many (energy) bars I needed in my pack, how many (bottles) of water, how much I should drink between water stations,” Bert said. “Right near the end I was pretty exhausted. I was not doing so great, but right near the end I was able to pick it up and finish it off strong.”
Bert said his friends don’t seem interested in ultras, although he is trying to persuade his father to run a 55K race with him next year. And Bert said that he homed in on a new goal during a trip to Colorado over Thanksgiving break.
“I do have a goal — and it’s not to win yet, because I don’t know how well I’m going to do — but I want to do Hardrock 100.5,” Bert said. “We actually checked out the start of that in Colorado, because the start was 50 miles away from where we were staying. That really inspired me. It’s just so crazy.”
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