When Sarah Cooke runs, it's with a goal in mind.
The 11-year-old Hilton Head Island resident isn't focused on getting through the next mile. Though her time is important to her, she's not watching the clock every day.
It's the 2020 Olympics. Sarah wants to run the 10K in them. Each day that she doesn't go for a run is one less day she has to prepare.
Of course, she's got shorter term goals, too. She runs five or six 5Ks a year -- races she's currently finishing in about 20 minutes -- and is working toward running a 10K eventually.
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But it's the Olympics on her mind when she runs a few miles nearly every day, her dad by her side -- on his bike because he can't keep up with her any other way. Watching the track and field events at in 2012 Summer Olympics inspired her.
"I thought, 'I want to be like them,' " she said. "I want to be on the podium with them."
These days, it's impossible to get on Facebook without seeing photos of friends completing weekend 5Ks, or -- why not -- a half marathon. Running in organized races has increasingly become a goal for adults -- a way to stay active and driven. Even those who might consider themselves couch potatoes are getting involved.
Children are making road races their goal, too. Increasingly, race organizers are adding fun runs for children and, in many cases, kids are competing in the actual runs alongside adults. Sometimes, events and programs are specifically created for young runners, such as Y Kids Run in Savannah or the national Girls on the Run, which has a chapter on Hilton Head Island.
"It's increased, I would say tenfold," Robert Espinoza, owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Savannah, said of the Lowcountry running scene. When he opened Fleet Feet, which helps put on nearly every race in Savannah, 13 years ago, there were four races a year in Savannah. Now, there are more than 50.
"Practically every one of those runs has a kids run, and the numbers in those continue to grow," he said. "And, the kids are transferring over and just doing actual 5Ks and 10Ks, or even in some cases the half marathons."
Some run races like any kid might run around the neighborhood -- they take off at the beginning but then start to lose steam, so they walk for a bit before they take off running again.
But other kids are taking it seriously. They practice before a race. They learn about pacing. They want to beat their times from previous races. Some, like Sarah, plan to race for years.
They run for the same reasons adults run. They want to get stronger and stay active. It clears their head or puts them in a better mood. They're getting closer to friends or family members through it. They feel proud when they finish a race. To put it simply: It's their thing.
A COMPETITIVE SPIRIT
It took a race for Sarah -- and her parents -- to realize she had found what she was good at.
In the last half mile of the 2011 Hilton Head 5K Shamrock Run, Sarah was gaining ground. She noticed signs a girl in front of her was starting to struggle. Her footsteps sounded heavy. Sarah could hear her breathing. She knew she had a chance to pass her -- so she did.
"She'd tried ballet, swim team, soccer -- which she quit but now plays again -- basketball, cheerleading," mom Kerri Cooke said. "... That was the first time we saw a true competitive fire in her. She took off. She wanted to win."
The Shamrock Run was all it took to spur Sarah's competitive spirit. She finished in second place for her age group at the race -- and, at 8 years old, was the youngest runner.
"She said, 'This is awesome, but I don't want to win second again,' " her father Bob Cooke said. "She wanted to win first."
Charlie Bowden, 9, of Beaufort, said running has become his favorite sport too. He plays soccer, baseball, basketball, tennis and swims. But running is the most important to him. He was one of only two children under 12 who ran both the 5K and the 8K at this year's Beaufort Twilight Run. He won his age division in both with times of 22:39 and 41:49, respectively.
"It's my best sport," he said. "I want to show that I'm very good at it."
He doesn't formally train, but he does try to run a little bit every day, he said. Sometimes, when his family goes out to eat in Habersham, he'll run the three-quarters of a mile or so from their house to the restaurant rather than ride in the car. Almost always, his mom AnnMarie said, he beats the rest of the family there.
During races, his competitive spirit really comes out.
In second grade, Charlie was neck and neck with a grown man throughout the 5K of the Beaufort Twilight Run. Charlie would close in on him, but the man would sprint ahead. Then Charlie would close in on him again. In pictures from the race, you can tell that it happened over and over, his mom said.
After Charlie made his move and sprinted ahead of the man -- who had to have been in his late 20s or early 30s -- AnnMarie noticed something else in the pictures: Charlie kept looking over his shoulder to make sure the guy was still behind him.
"Competition motivates Charlie. It always has," she said. "I do see more drive in him when it comes to running. The look on his face of determination is so acute. I wish I had that perseverance. I don't see (that look) in his other sports."
IS RACING SAFE FOR KIDS?
Like with any sport, there's a risk children could get hurt while running. But that risk is pretty low as long as kids train correctly and parents pay attention, said Shane Woolf, chief of the sports medicine service and orthopedics professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.
"I think the key principle is that, just like with adults, anything in moderation is relatively safe," he said. "Just like with adults, if they're not resting or letting their body heal or trying to ramp up their training too quickly, they're at risk for injury."
According to a study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital, running-related injuries among children are on the rise.
The study, which was published in 2011 in Clinical Pediatrics, said between 1994 and 2007, running-related injuries among children ages 6 to 18 that were treated in the emergency room had increased 34 percent to an average of more than 16,000 each year.
There is one possible injury unique to children: damaging their growth plates, which are areas of growing tissue at the ends of long bones. Also known as the epiphyseal plate or physis, growth plates can get irritated with overuse, which can happen in running or other sports. If that tissue is irritated, children will complain of aches and pains, Woolf said. If there's chronic or recurrent damage, it could disrupt their growth.
But injury to a growth plate isn't the most common among active children. Just like with adults, strains and sore muscles are more common, Woolf said. The Center for Injury Research study also found most of children's injuries from running were sprains and strains. Younger children, those under 14, were more likely to be injured if they fell while running, or while running at school.
Looking out for those sorts of injuries is simple: If kids have aches or pains or soreness, they should rest or cross train. If it doesn't go away, see a doctor.
Woolf recommended talking to a pediatrician if a child is regularly competing with specific goals in mind, especially if the child has heart or lung conditions, including asthma.
"It doesn't prohibit activity, but the parents need to be more cautious and communicate that information for other supervising adults or coaches," he said.
As long as they're training gradually -- a 10 percent increase in either time or miles every week -- have the proper shoes and stay hydrated, running is fine for kids, Woolf said.
"Most of the road races available in our region, it's not unreasonable for them to participate," he said. "Especially if they enjoy it.
"The nice thing about running ... is that it can be done just about anywhere, and it's easy to participate with other family members and other friends. There's no specific position; there's not a weight class; there's no significant training on how to throw a ball or bat or how make a basket. They can just go out and enjoy an activity with a family member or friends."
'IT HAS BROUGHT US CLOSE'
For some kids, if they're training with a parent, running provides time to focus on that relationship. It's a few miles, an hour or less, to talk about their days, unwind and get to know each other better.
Brooke Dalton, 7, of Beaufort said running with her mom is one of the things she enjoys most about the sport -- it's time away from distractions, and a younger sister, for just the two of them.
"It's fun. She helps me persevere," said Brooke, who came in first among girls in her age group in the Beaufort Twilight Run 5K this year with a time of 31:11. "I like spending time with my mom by herself."
Caroline, her mom, agreed. "It's nice to spend time with her. We talk, listen to music," she said. "We both have a love for it, and we're very different, so it's something we can share and do together. It's mother-daughter time."
The same is true for Sarah and her father, Bob Cooke. The time they spend together training nearly every day is just for them. When she prepares for a race, they review the course map and set goals for her times.
"I get to spend 45 minutes to an hour with my girl. I get to talk to her, I get to tell her how awesome she is, how well she's running," Cooke said. "I just get to give her all sorts of positive feedback. ... It has brought us close, it has brought us so close, spending that time together."
For some, it offers a bit of escape and solitude -- time to leave behind a bad day at school or a bad mood.
"I like that it helps clear my head," said Ella Hayward, 10, of Beaufort. Hayward, who won her age division of girls 10 to 14 in the 8K of the Beaufort Twilight Run with a time of 56:06 this year, said running helps her let go of fights she has with her younger sister, Sophie, 8. While running, Ella thinks instead about times or places that she was really happy -- or, she admitted, she thinks about what she's going to eat when the race is over.
"(Running) helps me feel better, especially when it's colder and the wind is blowing," she said.
A BOOST OF CONFIDENCE
Kids say running gives them a boost -- when they cross the finish line, they feel proud, but even when they're not racing, they can feel themselves getting faster or stronger.
The Cookes said they've seen Sarah's confidence grow each time she competes.
"She's in disbelief after every race. She's cried at the finish line before," Bob Cooke said.
"I think she overwhelms herself with her performance," Kerri Cooke added.
Parents hope that boost of confidence and drive to do well serves them for years to come.
"I think they both like the satisfaction of finishing something," Marc Hayward said of his daughters Ella and Sophie, who ran the Beaufort Twilight Run 5K. Both girls try to beat their times from the previous year.
"I'm just a little faster than some kids in my class," Sophie said. "But I want to get faster."
Ella sets specific goals for herself -- she wanted to complete a few 5Ks before she ran the 8K, and now, she wants to run three 8Ks before completing the 5K and the 8K in one day.
"I want to make sure I can do better," Ella said.
"They want to win. They have that competitive spirit in both of them; that's good," Hayward said.
"I am sometimes a little bit concerned that there's not enough competition because once they get out of school, that is all there is in the real world," he said. "It's not an everybody-gets-a-trophy world out there. I think it's good that they want to win. ... It's nice to see that they have that drive."
AnnMarie Bowden agreed.
"(Charlie's) setting goals and beating them. That's the part that makes me proud," she said, adding that she hopes that determination stays with him as he grows up.
"It's a good feeling to know he's got some of that grit," she said.
The kids don't really think about that though. They just want to keep running, keep beating their times, and maybe even surprise an adult runner or two.
At one race, Sarah positioned herself at the front of the starting line alongside the faster runners. A woman stopped her and urged her to move back, certain it was just youth and eagerness that made Sarah think she belonged there.
"She apologized when I beat her," Sarah said.
Follow reporter Rachel Damgen at twitter.com/IPBG_Rachel.
- Girls on the Run gives Hilton Head students tools needed for physical, emotional health
- Tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics on how to prevent running injuries in children
- Study on running-related injuries in school-age children and adolescents from 1994 through 2007
- Questions and answers about growth plate injuries