Earlier this month, a talented 17-year-old college runner named Tierney Wolfgram ran a marathon. Because of COVID, like so many other runners, she was forced to create her own goal, so she challenged herself to a time trial. But unlike nearly every other runner who took on a virtual marathon this fall, Wolfgram finished in 2:31. Yes, that's right — two hours and thirty-one minutes. That is astonishingly fast, and clearly Wolfgram is an incredible talent. But, according to the reaction online, apparently, she shouldn't be running marathons at this young an age.
I'm here to tell you that age, in fact, doesn't matter. Other factors do.
Running Twitter gets mad when teenagers run too far. The focus of the criticism is on age, but as usual, people are missing the more nuanced points when it comes to kids who run marathons. What really matters in a case like this is her training approach, her goals, her support, and her health.
Wherever her physical development is at 17 is not something I, nor the internet trolls, can know. Unfortunately, this concern functions as a dog whistle for the idea that women and girls can’t do as much as men and boys. The questions from a health and wellness standpoint are not different than any other athlete who might not keep up their energy intake with their energy expenditure. Certainly marathon training requires a higher expenditure, but it doesn’t mean she can’t eat enough to cover it. We shouldn’t assume every 17-year-old girl has an eating disorder.
I can’t speak to her training, other than what we can gather from her Strava posts and glean from various media stories written about her, which is that she ran around 85-100 miles per week. That’s what you need for a competitive marathon, (and young East African marathoners no doubt run more). Presumably that is a volume she has run before, as she’s already run two marathons, and she was closely supervised by her coach at the University of Nevada, Reno. The most predictable, and often wrong-headed line of attack in the running community is to pick apart someone else's training — even if it's obviously working for that particular runner: she ran 2:31:49, which is close to Olympic qualifier status. Only 26 women ran that time to get into the U.S. Olympic trials, including Sarah Sellers, who ran exactly the same time in Chicago in 2019 to finish 12th. Wolfgram's training is fine.
Her two previous marathons were a 2:40:03 at Twin Cities in 2018 to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, and then a 2:42:47 at the Trials earlier this year. After the Trials, she said she likely wouldn’t race another one until she turned 22 — that is, after university. But then COVID happened, her cross-country season was cancelled, and she was looking, like many runners, for a way to challenge herself. Considering her background, it seems like a good fit.
As a coach, my dealing-with-the-pandemic advice to the runners that I coach has been that they should do what they want: if they want to ramp it up, ramp it up. If they want to take a break, take a break. Smart sports organizations and school programs are taking the pressure off athletes, understanding that everyone is going to react differently to where we are at, given there is no clear structure and that sport means a lot more to athletes than we sometimes let on. So for this young runner, this was her COVID-era thing. It fits, it makes sense — and it’s also not unprecedented at all for her. In fact, she’s now a pretty experienced — and accomplished — marathoner.
Some people might say she’ll lose her speed: no she won’t. Training endurance and training speed are two different processes. Endurance takes a long time to build, but it also takes a long time to fade away once you stop training it. Speed doesn’t take long to build but it does go away quickly. If she wants to transition back to running shorter races, she'll have plenty of time to appropriately build-up in the coming months. That said, if she’s planning on dropping down to 5,000m or 10,000m in university, she won’t have any trouble. Those races are 98% dependent on the aerobic energy system. Speed isn’t an issue. Anyway, her marathon pace is 3:35/km, or under 18-minutes for 5k. She can already move plenty fast as a marathoner.
The greater age-related concern would be that since it takes longer to build endurance, especially what’s required for the marathon, she wouldn’t be ready to really perform. It can take years to really maximize one’s potential on the aerobic side. On that note, there’s a useful maxim in training (and in life):
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
That certainly applies to marathon running, in that it’s a big endeavour. For most fit and competitive athletes finishing a marathon is doable, but the cost of training, and of post-race recovery is quite high. That being said, Wolfgrom ran a 2:31. This tells me a couple things: first, she’s good enough that any concerns about the toll the marathon would take on her are probably exaggerated. Running a 2:31 is not the same as running a marathon to merely complete it, rolling in at over four hours. It’s probably harder on the body to be out there for that long than it is to go at a sub-maximal aerobic pace for the amount of time many recreational runners spend running most Sundays.
The reason many people assume marathons are only for older folks is that building the adequate endurance to run one well takes time. If she’s running 2:31, I have news for you: her endurance is fine. Yes, there are good examples of world-class marathoners in their late 30's and 40's but that doesn’t mean that it's the optimal age for a marathoner. Seven of the top 10 ranked women marathoners in the world are under 30, so while we like to play up the narrative that the marathon is where older, "more mature" athletes shine, the truth of the matter is, it's a young person's discipline. At the apex of the distance, the trend in recent years has been that East African runners start marathoning younger and younger. The world junior (under 20 years old) record for women is 2:20:59, held by Shure Demise of Ethiopia.
This form of reverse ageism with the marathon appears to be a cultural one, and is likely partially due to mass marathon participation trends in North America and Europe. Only two of Wolfgram's fellow Americans (Emily Sisson and Jordan Hasay) in that country’s top 10 on the world list are under 30 (both are 29). The youngest Canadian in the World Athletics top 10 is Kinsey Middleton at 28, followed by Robyn Mildren at 30. But this is likely because we don’t encourage young runners, in particular women, to run the marathon, not because there’s something inherently wrong with doing so but because the distance is seen as something that "older runners do."
That brings me to my other point: the subtle sexism of it all. The male equivalent time (based on the World Athletics' points system) is about 2:13-14. If a 17-year-old college guy ran that, he would be lionized, the stuff of LetsRun.com message board legend. There is a lingering sexisim in running that is pushing the old saw that women are fragile and can’t do what men do. This, despite the recent ultra victories by women and equalization of cross-country distances at the collegiate level. There’s no reason to think a female runner can’t do whatever a male can.
I shouldn’t be surprised that the internet decided to criticize a girl for running a marathon. It’s not a place where people are reticent with advice, well-meaning and otherwise. But it’s also true that those taking her to task probably don’t know much about her and probably haven’t thought through their position on young people marathoning. Sure, there are good reasons to focus on shorter distances, and the vast majority of North American high school and university aged runners don’t run more than 5k or 10k. It’s also true that plenty of East African runners start the marathon earlier. There are plenty of reasons why runners from those countries dominate the marathon rankings (but they dominate the rankings in all distance events). I am not here to argue that North Americans are also-rans at the marathon because we limit our young athletes to 5k before they turn 17, for the most part. I don’t really have enough information to make that case. But if I were going to make an uninformed internet rant about it, that’s the position I would take — not that Tierney Wolfgram shouldn’t have run a marathon.
She did, and she obviously knows what she's doing.