Trail running is one of the few sports where the top women can compete with elite men, and often beat them—a phenomenon affectionately known among runners as “getting chicked.” Likewise, it's also one of the few sports that typically favors seasoned competitors, with many ultra trail runners not peaking until their mid 30s or even early 40s.
Katylynn Welsch can beat elite athletes three times her age. Photo: Welsch family
Which makes 12-year-old Katylynn Welsch’s victory at the XTERRA 21K Trail Run in Waco, Texas, on August 18, doubly impressive. Welsch, a Houston-area seventh grader, won the women’s field to become the youngest ever champion of an XTERRA trail half-marathon, placing 11th overall with a time of 1:39:31. Two minutes back was 42-year-old Claudia Spooner, an Ironman triathlete known for running away from the other females at XTERRA races across Texas ("I think she was sick that day," offers Katylynn). In third place after Spooner came Katylynn’s kid sister, Heather—the Serena to Katylynn's Venus—who’s all of 10.For most adult runners, racing for two years puts you firmly in the novice camp, but when you're 12 and have been competing since you were nine, you've already been at it for a quarter of your life. "We first noticed she was fast when she was six," recalls her father, Rodney. "Katylynn just took off running around the block. You expect a kid that age to stop, but she kept going. I was out of breath trying to keep up." Back then, Katylynn dabbled in all the usual after-school sports: softball, ballet, and soccer before entering her first kiddy triathlon. "She didn't put any effort into it all: no cap, no goggles, a single-speed bike. Another parent who saw her told us, 'Your kid is incredibly fast. So I put her in a 5k, and she won her age group. She's not the biggest character out there—she only weighs about 56 pounds."
The next year, Katylynn ran two marathons, including the Houston Marathon, which she finished in 3:45 before her result was DQed (you have to be 12 years old to officially run the race). And she went on to notch top-three female finishes at a 10k and 15k trail race and took second overall (with Heather hot on her trail) at another XTERRA Texas trail run.
One glance at Katylynn's athlete profile on athlinks.com gives you an immediate appreciation for her unrelenting pace. She's entered nearly 100 events in the past two years, including dozens of triathlons (she has qualified for nationals in Iron Kids every year she entered) and—lest you forget she's 12 years old—the Purple Monkey Fun Run and the Candy Corn Fun Run. "She and her sister will do a kid's tri on a Saturday, and then the adult race on Sunday, pretty much ever weekend," says Rodney. "I don't really know what I'm doing, but I just try to see what they're capable of. I think the schedule is harder on me than it is on them. I'm driving them all over, and they get to sleep in the car."
Heather Welsch on the Bluebonnet trail run. Photo: Welsch family
While both fast, the sisters—born on the same day two years apart—are already showing different temperments when it comes to competition. Says Rodney, "Katylynn doesn't train. She's a terrible swimmer, usually a minute behind the other girls, and no coach will even work with her. But she can run down the other girls on the course, though she'll only run fast enough to beat the person in front of her." Heather, meanwhile, has spent her life trying to keep up with her older sister, and only time will tell, but this makes her the real threat. "Heather is so competitive," says Rodney. "She's all muscle. She gives 100 percent at every race."
So how does a 12 year old who hasn't hit puberty train—and run—long distances so fast? "I ran nine half-marathons before I did my first marathon," explains Katylynn. "I read a chi running book that my dad got for me. It teaches you how to run in front, and gives you better posture."
When other runners started warning him about the risks distance running may pose to a growing kid's hips, ankles, and knees, Rodney got the girls checked out by a sports medicine doctor who works with a local pro basketball team. "He said it was fine, especially because they're not doing any running during the week. It's hard to get them to do anything. It's weird: They have the craziest talent, but no drive to train."
Winning, however, is another matter. When asked if Heather is fast, Katylynn answers like a true big sister: "Not as fast as me."
On September 23, Katylynn will head to Utah to compete in the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship. "I told her if she took first place, she'd get to go to Utah. And the little turd pulled it off," says Rodney with a laugh. "So now I've told her if she places in the top five women, I'll take her to Hawaii for the XTERRA World Championships." And, while she's there, why not run the Hawaii marathon? "I've been holding Heather back from running a marathon because she refuses to take any energy gels," explains Rodney (and, it's worth repeating, she's 10), "but if we go, I'm going to put her in it, just for fun. You have to watch that girl—she just doesn't give."
Explains Katylynn, "You're' supposed to be 12 to race a marathon, but my dad told me that a seven-year-old blind girl ran it."
And after that? "I'm trying out for the track team this year."
Watch out, world, the Welsch sisters are here.