Race against outrage: How a 6-year-old's marathon participation has polarized a community

Marathon running is grueling, even for the most experienced of athletes, most of whom are fully developed adults committed to months of training to endure 26.2 miles.

So it's no surprise that the story of 6-year-old Rainier Crawford running the Flying Pig Marathon with his family in Cincinnati in May drew national attention and intense scrutiny on social media.

How did a first-grader race alongside an estimated 20,000 runners who lined up to race on that sunny Sunday morning?

The answer depends on perspective and whom you ask. Blatant defiance of the rules, negligence and compliance among race officials were some of the reasons offered for Rainier’s participation. Regardless of your opinion on whether a child so young should be allowed to race, there is no definitive piece of research that experts rely on to set guidelines for marathon running.

“I understand how you can’t imagine a world where a kid would choose this, especially if you were forced to run or if you just experience running as this competitive, painful thing,” Ben Crawford, father of Rainier and his five siblings, told USA TODAY Sports. “I would just ask people to have an open mind and examine the evidence and hear the story and consider that running could be something different and running can be fun.”

Going viral

An estimated 500,000 Americans of various ages run in the more-than 1,100 marathons held each year, with most of them fulfilling a lifelong goal, taking advantage of the many health benefits of running or to simply enjoy the challenge.

The Flying Pig marathon has an age requirement of 14 for the half marathon and relay, 12 years old for 10K runners and 18 for the full marathon.

Ben and Kami Crawford of Bellevue, Kentucky are the parents of Rainier and five other children ranging in age from 21 to 11, who are runners. The Crawfords say running is a family affair and is something they do for fun, but it doesn’t dominate their lives as has been suggested.

Ben Crawford said no one batted an eye until Rainier crossed the finish line at the Flying Pig in 8 hours, 35 minutes, after the race course was closed, with his entire family in tow.

It didn’t take long for the online outrage to commence, with online videos and message boards plus network television producing stories about the family.

Olympic runner Kara Goucher was one of the many who responded via social media, writing: “I don't know who needs to hear this but a six year old cannot fathom what a marathon will do to them physically. A six year old does not understand what embracing misery is. A six year who is 'struggling physically' does not realize they have the right to stop and should.”

Goucher said she reached out to Crawford via Instagram and was concerned that the situation was dangerous for a child.

“I stand by what I said,” Goucher told USA TODAY Sports. “I never said (Child Protective Services) should be called, I never said they were bad parents. Obviously, it went there with other people. I never said that."

Goucher and Crawford corresponded after Crawford reached out to her, and Goucher called it “a really great exchange.”

“The next thing I know he is on Instagram Live, saying that I caused problems for their family,” Goucher said. “It was a very uncomfortable situation. I wish their family well, but I shared my opinion on something that he shared publicly, and it created this storm.

"But I will say he has enjoyed this.”

Crawford disagreed with Goucher’s assessment of what his family has gone through because of the marathon and its aftermath, adding that he worked with race officials and the race director to make sure his children were registered for the race.

Flying Pig race officials had another point of view, saying they had no choice but to let Rainier compete, referring to the family as “bandits” who let their underage children run in previous marathons, sometimes without their knowledge.

“This decision was not made lightly. The father was determined to do the race with his young child regardless,” Iris Simpson Bush, president and CEO of Pig Works, said in a statement after the May 1 marathon. “The intent was to try to offer protection and support if they were on our course (Medical, Fluid and Replenishment).”

Who are the Crawfords?

Ben Crawford says he started running in marathons less than a decade ago. The 43-year old describes himself as retired, doesn't consider himself an influencer and is now trying to become an author.

Meanwhile, the Crawfords have turned the incident into an opportunity for more exposure.

The Crawford family poses at the finish line of the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati.
The Crawford family poses at the finish line of the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati.

The month after the race, a documentary called “Marathon Boy” premiered, chronicling Rainier’s training, eventual finish, and his struggles, which included him stopping twice and enjoying a playground, crying numerous times, complaining of pain and being encouraged and coaxed to complete the marathon after being promised potato chips.

“Rainier doesn’t give a (expletive) about what anyone thinks. He doesn’t even know it’s impressive. He just wants the medal for himself,” Ben Crawford says in the video.

In one of the scenes, the Crawfords express concern for their youngest child and worries he won’t be able to finish the race.

“I'm nervous,” Ben is heard saying. Then Kami appears on screen to say she hopes Child Protective Services aren’t called on them.

She didn't know how prophetic her words would be.

Accusations of abuse

Officials from CPS, tasked with investigating abuse and neglect, showed up at the Crawfords door five days after the incident after a complaint had been called into their office concerning Rainier’s participation in the marathon.

Ben Crawford said he was surprised when officials arrived to investigate numerous allegations of abuse that happened on the marathon course, including Rainier being dragged while crying on his way to the finish line.

“Even though we don’t feel guilty about anything, and we know our kids chose to do this, you never know how the government is going to interpret things, and what they are going to conclude,” Crawford said.

He said he was aware that CPS could take his children and separate them for weeks or even months at a time while an investigation runs its course.

“We feel like that’s far more dangerous than anything we do with our children,” Crawford said. “People are making stuff up based on tweets from people with influence and hundreds of thousands of followers. It started this witch hunt.”

Crawford says he consulted with a physicians before letting another one of his children run, but he repeated the stance that the marathon is something his son wanted to do and is sympathetic to the outside world that wonders what they are doing.

Who should be running marathons?

The debate about who is equipped to run marathons has been a source of conjecture for years, but it hit a fever pitch when the story about the Crawfords went viral.

Most cities that sponsor road races, depending on the length, have an age requirement before allowing anyone to run a full marathon. For the New York City, Boston and London marathons, the minimum age is 18.

The Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa states that participants in the marathon must be 16 years of age or older on race day. It’s the same for the Chicago (with parental consent) and Los Angeles marathons, while the Honolulu race is open to anyone 7 years and older. The Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon in Minnesota, meanwhile, doesn’t have an age limit for young runners, citing the lack of medical evidence showing youth marathon running being harmful to health.

The Twin Cities Marathon does mandate runners to sign a waiver for any distance, and minors must get a parent or guardian’s signature.

Most of the age requirements are for a medical liability perspective, says Dr. George Chiampas, who is an emergency medicine and sports medicine specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and has been the medical director of the Chicago Marathon for the past 15 years. Anyone 18 years old, under the law, is considered an adult with the mindset they can make their own decisions about race participation.

Some physicians are not discouraging children as young as Rainier to run long distances, with each case different in scope because of how different people react to a grueling race.

“Making sure they understand the challenge they are about to partake in. And if they understand the physical, the mental, the social toll it takes to be able to accomplish something like this” Chiampas says.

“They need to have a conversation with their physician, participate in a full physical to make sure there are no underlying conditions and that the individual is willfully wanting to participate,” Chiampas said.

Chiampas believes there are children Rainier's age who can understand what it takes to run that distance, and as long as they have people in place to take care of their well-being, he sees no reason for anyone not to be able to run a marathon.

That said, Chiampas — who is also the chief medical officer for U.S. Soccer and the U.S. men’s national team — says guardians and parents of children marathon runners need to be cognizant of pain or swelling in legs and knees. Overexposure can cause stunting in growth, along with stress fractures and joint problems to bodies that are still developing.

“We get asked all the time: Can someone run 26.2 miles? And the answer is no,” Chiampas said. “There are physical limitations that people may or may not be aware of, whether it be genetic or anything else. There are emotional ones as well. In a 6-year-old, a lot of those social, emotional learning opportunities and skill sets may be lacking. For any runner, regardless of age, is that they understand that task they are about to take and that they have those surrounding resources.

"Running 26.2 miles should be a sense of accomplishment and give you purpose."

Dr. Alok Patel, a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health in California, says he is all for children exercising, playing sports and being active, but there is a limit as children can be more susceptible to injury — both physical and psychological.

“I can’t tell you the long-term effects of a child putting that much consistent strain on their joints. That alone is a reason that kids should not be undergoing (something) as strenuous as running marathons,” Patel said. “If you look at things like electrolyte abnormalities, dehydration, heatstroke, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle and joint injury, these present differently in young kids. I don’t think it’s a safe practice and would strongly recommend against it.”

Patel says in some situations it is OK if a young teen or older child wants to participate in short races, such as a 5K (3.10 miles), and he respects the fact that parents want to keep their children active.

“While there may be no definitive evidence that suggests this causes harm to children, we have no evidence to say it’s safe either," Patel said.

There are many other detractors, including Kara Goucher, who says marathon organizers are not doing their due diligence to make sure kids are safe.

“This is the unfortunate part. Those rules are there for a reason; they’re to protect kids and protect young growing bodies that are developing,” Goucher said.

Dr. William Roberts, the medical director for Twin Cities in Motion and the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, says while conjecture can come from those who take issue with it, opinions are not based on medical information.

“To that I say show me the data that it’s harmful,” says Roberts, who is a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota medical school. “Because we do have some data showing that it’s not.”

Roberts says the Twin Cities marathon looked at data spanning two decades (1982-2007) and found that out of 310 individuals that were under 17 years of age that finished the marathon, with the youngest being 7, only four were seen in a medical tent during the race.

While that study was published in 2010, Roberts says the results can be correlated to today’s races, where the risk for injury is relative to the ages of the participants.

“So, the illness/injury rate is about half that of our adults,” Roberts says.

A 2019 study from the Cleveland Clinic concluded that there is no “clear-cut” answer of when someone should start running, providing guidelines about saying the younger the runner is, the shorter the distance should be.

The Cleveland Clinic says races between 1 and 2 miles, or shorter runs such as a 100-yard dash, are appropriate, with training for children 7 and under being limited to one or two days a week.

The aftermath

The Crawfords say the case brought against them concerning CPS has been dismissed after no evidence of abuse was found. Ben Crawford is still smarting from what he calls “government interference” in his life.

“Our kids were afraid of going out, go online, afraid to go on future runs and afraid of the threat of being taken away,” he said.

When asked how Rainier was even allowed to participate and to provide details concerning whether he was registered in the race, officials from Pig Works, the parent company to the Flying Pig Marathon, declined comment to USA TODAY Sports.

A spokesperson said there is a committee meeting set for next month to discuss and finalize guidelines to make sure it doesn’t happen again. In a previous statement, race officials said “our requirement of 18+ for participation in the marathon will be strictly observed moving forward."

Crawford said the attention has died down for the time being, and along with the thousands of messages of encouragement and praise from strangers, there is also the infrequent online hate.

"It's made us closer as a family. We weren't doing (it) for the attention. We have been (doing) these things for nine years and going on adventures as a family for 20," Crawford said. “It doesn’t really help or hinder us or change our activities. It’s pretty far removed from our minds.”

As for Rainier, his father says he recently competed in an ultra-marathon (declining to say which one), running 27 miles over a 12-hour period. Crawford says he will enter Rainier in other marathons if he wants to compete.

“We have provided an environment for our children where we don’t tell them what they aren’t able to do,” Crawford said. “They were never told that they can’t run marathons, either morally or physically. We like them to discover their own limits."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Should kids run marathons? 6-year-old's participation sparks criticism