Time can be a funny, abstract thing when you're young. Weeks feel like months and months stretch out like seasons and it takes forever for anything to seem different. But to those watching, children are changing constantly, seemingly overnight, like chameleons on Red Bull.
In the 18 months since I first covered Kaytlynn and Heather Welsch, the freakishly speedy young distance sisters from Alvin, Texas, plenty has changed: Kaytlynn, now 13, started running marathons, and notched a PR of 3:17. And in January, Heather, who broke her toe chasing her sister around the house last year, set the single-age world record in the half marathon for 11 year-olds.
When the sisters broke onto the running scene in late 2012, after Kaytynnn became the youngest woman ever to win an XTERRA trail half-marathon, the news triggered a feisty online debate about the risks of distance running for young athletes. Bloggers, doctors, and journalists fretted that it stunts their growth, puts their bones and tendons at risk, and exerts an undo toll on their still-developing bodies. Their father and coach, Rodney, seemed unperturbed by the controversy, taking the girls in for regular check-ups from their family doctor, who pronounced them healthy and OK'ed their running.
Rodney hasn't let the virtual dust-up over his tween runners put a crimp in their racing schedule. If anything, it's gotten more intense. The sisters still compete every single weekend, usually in back-to-back races on Saturday and Sunday, sometimes with a third, night race thrown in for good measure. They're still winning a majority of these races and beating seasoned runners three times their ages. And Kaytlynn, who recently won the Zydeco Half Marathon in Lafayette, Louisiana, still refuses to lose to her younger sister.
These days, any controversial hubbub seems to have mostly subsided. "It's only smiles and encouragement lately," says Rodney, 44, an assistant manager at a local chemical plant who spends all his free time driving the sisters to races across Texas and the South. "They have both run so many races now, I think most people have seen them run. Once they see them run, they see how much they enjoy it and that there is something—I don't like the word special, so I will say different—about the girls and that they belong out there running the distance."
When you talk to Rodney, the self-appointed spokesman for his girls' running endeavors, many of his comments are followed by a goodnatured, baffled chuckle, as though he can't quite believe he's raising two of the fastest young distance runners in the country, either. It's hard to tell if this is genuine surprise or an unconscious tactic to deflect criticism and mask his own mixed feelings about his daughters' inexplicable gift for endurance running. Rodney's not an athlete himself, nor is his wife, Niki (though, he notes, "she did swim in high school").
"I sit at a desk all day," he says, guffawing a little in his loose, east Texas drawl. "I try not to run unless something is chasing me."
Kaytlynn and Heather's phenomenal talent might be a mystery in the Welsch household, but the division of labor isn't. Rodney drives and coaches and pesters the girls to do their weekly core strengthening exercises ("I'm not exactly sure what they are, except they lie on some kind of rubber mat, with their legs up in the air? It's almost like calisthenics") and keeps on them about their homework. Niki, 43, a nurse who has worked weekends since both girls were infants so she wouldn't have to send them to daycare, manages the home front during the week and while they travel. And the girls run.
Except when they don't. Neither Kaytlynn nor Heather trains or runs much at all during the week. This is another thing that confounds Rodney, who only partially blames geography. "If we lived next to a park"—cue the casual chuckle—"I'd probably never see Kaytlynn ever again."
But they live in a modest, single-story brick home in a nondescript subdivision 30 miles outside of Houston. And Kaytlynn, although fiercely competitive during races, prefers to spend her after-school time riding bikes or her skateboard, reading, drawing, or doing homework rather than training, which illicits from Rodney the following notably un-casual commentary: "I keep telling her, 'You've got to get your time down in those 5Ks." (Her PR is 18:32; she's run a 5:17 in the mile.) "And her half marathon time, she needs to just get that down. She ought to be able to do 1:20." (Her PR is 1:23.) "I keep telling her she's getting close to being a good runner. If only I could get her to commit to training."
If Kaytlynn represents unrealized potential, it's Heather who's the work horse in the family: pure drive to Kaytlynn's effortless natural talent. "Heather works at it every time," explains Rodney. "She has been faster than Kaytlynn every year, but she's younger. With Kaytlynn, it's like she's not even trying. Everybody out there is suffering, but she gets out and just enjoys it. She could run across America."
Closer to home, Kaytlynn's been lapping the eighth grade competition at middle-school track meets, but the Welsches haven't decided if she's going to run cross-country when she starts high school in the fall. "You have to do P.E. to run for the team, but we don't want her spending time in gym class when she could be doing academic activities," says Rodney. "As I always tell Kaytlynn and Heather, at this point, everything is academic. Your legs could fall off tomorrow, but schoolwork always has to come first."
And maybe this is what it means to be a superstar young student athlete: You love to run, but you don't feel like training. You're a seasoned competitor with an enormous future, but right now you're 13 or 11. You're still just a kid. So you learn to live with the mixed messages and conflicted feelings—your own and everybody else's. Except when you race. Then you run for yourself. You run to win.