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Kid Cross Country: What My 8 Year Old Daughter Taught Me About Running and Competing

2014-06-09 16.03.10It’s at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys.”
-Emil Zátopek

This is not a post about men. It’s not a post about boys. It’s a post about my little girl.

My daughter Emma is 8 years old. She’s a kind-hearted, gentle soul who doesn’t have an aggressive bone in her body. But she taught me a lesson about competition yesterday, and in the process made me an incredibly proud Dad.

Emma started attending a new elementary school this year where they have both Fall and Spring cross-country as a sport option starting in the 3rd grade. It’s no secret that I’m a fanatical runner, but I try not to push my kids into things just because I enjoy them. However, in the Fall she decided on her own that she was going to do cross-country. I was pleased, but I never pushed.

After a few weeks it became clear that she was not enjoying it. She struggled with the runs, and was always finishing last. There also was only one other girl on her team, so she felt a bit isolated, and the stress of transitioning to a new school was taking its toll. My wife and I normally want our kids to stick with things that they commit to, but in this case when she asked if she could quit the team we let her do so.

Fast forward to this Spring and we were quite surprised when Emma told us she wanted to try cross-country again. She had fully integrated herself into the new school, she was coming off two sessions of indoor soccer with the school team, and many of her friends were planning on doing cross country.

As the season got underway, she again struggled with the runs. She and a few friends were consistently among the last to finish, and she was hinting again that she wanted to quit. This time we urged her to stick with it. She did, but she still got down on herself about being among the slowest on the team.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday was Emma’s end of season “race.” The 3rd and 4th graders competed informally among themselves, and the prize was a piece of candy for each finisher. Parents were not openly invited to attend (it was right after school, so many would still be at work), but I had hinted to her that I might try to come watch. I made good on that promise, and when she saw me walking across the field her face lit up in a giant smile. I felt like the best parent in the world.

When they started the race Emma took off in a flash. I waited at the end of the first loop, and was surprised when she came through as the fifth girl overall, and second 3rd grade girl. One of the coaches remarked that it was the fastest she had ever seen her run that loop, and she was well ahead of kids who were consistently faster in practice. I gave her a high-five and she was off.

I raced across the school grounds so I could catch her further down the course, and when I saw her appear on the field she was still holding strong. In fact, there was nobody in sight behind her, and she had almost caught up to two boys ahead. I took a few pictures and jogged along with her for a bit. She asked me to run with her. How could I say no?

Emma Running

As we were running I commented that she was cruising, that she had extra girl power today. I asked her what was making her go so fast. She told me it was because I was there to watch her. She melted my heart in that moment.

We ran the rest of the race together, just the two of us. She crossed the finish line as the 2nd third grade girl. She finished 13 minutes ahead of the girls that she usually runs with. I was astonished.

So what did this teach me? It taught me once again the power of the mind. When we think about running performance, we typically think about physiology, which is part genetics and part training. But as the Emil Zátopek quote at the opening of the post alludes, how you respond to the discomfort of running can be equally, if not more important. Emma ran her heart out today because I was there to watch her. That gave her the motivation to push through the discomfort that typically causes her to slow down. The effect was no different than the burst of speed I would get if I were to pass her and get a high-five on the way to the finish line of a race of my own.

Strength of mind and motivation can allow you to push beyond your normal limits. Today, for Emma, it was all mental toughness and guts. She wanted to perform for me, and she did. The little girl that always finishes in last place ran the race of her young life.

2014-06-09 16.03.38

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a biology teacher, track/soccer coach, and dad (x3) with a passion for running, soccer, and science. If you'd like to learn a little bit more about who I am and what I do, click here, or visit


  1. John Jackson says:

    I ran a mile fun run with my daughter last year. One of my proudest moments as a runner when I saw that she tuck with it to finish.

    Good job, Dad.

    • Thanks John :) Every once in awhile I see that little fire light in my daughter, and this was one of those times. It’s so fun to watch because she’s such a non-competitive kid most times.

  2. What an inspiration even to the most seasoned runner out there! Amazing!

  3. Great story! Congrats to Emma for being bonkproof!

  4. way to go – what an awesome run Emma – well done. and what an awesome post.

    I love running with my 9yo daughter – we’ve just hit the 5k distance together. I love how proud she feels at the end of a run. As a dad, I also help out at the school running club, and it is so good to see every achievement, no matter how big or small.

  5. Great post Pete!

  6. Altra Instinct Jr. ftw.

    Hoping to get my 8 year-old daughter running more this summer!

  7. Fantastic post, Pete! You’ve made this sappy dad even more eager to find a running group for his 8-year old.

    • I think the key with kids, or at least most of them, is to not push them too hard into distance running. My kids will sprint around on and off all day, but make them run slowly and continuously and they struggle. That’s why this meant so much to me, it was all her own doing, my only influence was being there.

  8. Awesome, really enjoyed reading this

  9. This made me tear up. I don’t have kids yet, but this is how I feel about all of my cross country girls. When they realize how tough they are, it’s just one of the best coaching moments.

  10. Love it. I watched my 12yo set a 2 min PR in a 5K this weekend, so I know how it feels.

  11. Awesome post! Congratulations to Emma~ Like Sarah I was also tearing up while reading it. Your reference to Emil Zátopek really hit me, I sobbed when I first read about him in Born to Run. You rarely find unkind people among runners~

  12. StephenB says:

    Great story Pete!

  13. Morris Pelzel says:

    Pete, I’m a long-time reader and first-time poster…I’ve really been inspired by this post and also your recent post on the joys of teaching beginning runners. My “little girl” is heading off to college this fall…she ran cross country a couple of years in high school, but now is big time into biking (she and her bf are doing a 1600 mile group ride this summer).

    I also want to say that I have great admiration for your courage in leaving a tenured academic position and striking out on your own. You are a great source of encouragement and hopefulness and finding the joy in running. Thanks for lifting my spirits!

  14. What a lovely story. I just finished reading Stan Beecham’s book Elite Minds, and this post reminded me of that mental toughness — something I struggle with a great deal. I think if my dad were running next to me like that, I might fly too.

  15. Wonderful story Pete. Passing on a love of running to your children is a great thing, especially if it’s done passively (they’re trying to emulate you).

    I love seeing how my own kids dig deep to grit out that final leg if a race. And then the excited “war stories” they tell afterwards, giving a full blow-by-blow. Man, I love it!

    My 9-year-old ran the Bolder Boulder 10k with a time goal (beat last years time) but that didn’t stop him from eating freezies, bacon, sausage, cupcakes, and Doritos on course, and even getting into a bit of a water gun fight. The little guy had an absolute blast! We should all run like that :)

  16. Brad Patterson says:

    This is one of the best posts I have ever read here on Runblogger, Pete. Thanks a TON for sharing it. As a fellow dad of young kids, I struggle with how to get them “interested” in running w/o pushing. My 5th grade daughter is considering XC for next fall, so I will definitely keep your thoughts in mind. Thanks!

  17. The love for your daughter shines through in this post. What a lucky little girl! And what a great run, kiddo!

    (PS. Love the Altras. A shoe hound in the making?)

  18. thanks for this post pete – just read it and am now going to skip out of work early to make sure that i can make it home in time to cheer my daughter on during her 5k wrap-up run for the “Girls On The Move” program tonight!

  19. Great post. Running with my kids has always been amazing, whether it’s track workouts with the jogging stroller or watching my 6 year old do his first 5k.

  20. That is great! Proud of my niece

  21. Shawn Slaven says:

    awesome post! And look at that powerful forefoot gait!!

    I am going to run a cross country team at my kids’ school in the fall. Do you know if Emma’s program has any resources or recommendations on how to develop kids’ running abilities?

    • To be honest I’ve tried to not get involved so I’m not exactly sure how they do it. Lots of running games, and they have trails on the school grounds so they have them run those.

  22. Nothing beats being a proud parent watching your kid doing something special – I totally recognize how you felt.

    Last week I attended our primary school sports day and got see my two youngest daughters compete made me equally proud for both having trying hard and making the most of the abilities.

    My less athletic daughter who’s always disliked sport and claimed to be slowest runner in her class came second in her class in the 600m distance race – quite a turnaround and a real pleasure to see her blossoming. My more athletic daughter won every one of her races, but the most impressive of these was the 300m one where she made her way to the front at the half way point and was 10m clear by the finish, seeing a natural talent in full flow was humbling. I was so proud of them both.

    I’m also proud when they do well at other activities, but doing something that I also share a love for is particularly rewarding to witness.

  23. As a parent of an 11 year old boy and 10 year old girl, this story that you perfectly laid out in words, brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. As a dad that often goes the extra mile (pun intended lol) this really hits home for me. Keep up the good work as a dad and a writer Pete.

  24. Great story.. Thanks for sharing.

  25. Brought a tear to my eye reading that Pete. Not so much about the running but the importance of being there for our kids and the impact it makes … even the smallest, simple things. My daughter is two and means the world to me. Pretty good running form as well :)

  26. Love the story. Like you, I get that extra boost at the end when I know my family is waiting around the corner for me near the end. It must’ve been super awesome for her to have her dad runnin with her.

    And nice to see her sportin’ some Altras. I can’t run in’em, but they are my daily walk-arounds. My kids are so small that Merrell is the only reasonable fit… but they are always wearing my ‘funny shoes’ around the house.

  27. Wow!! Thanks for sharing this story. I’m glad that Emma did so well and that you got to share this special time with her!

  28. Heather Thomas says:

    Thank you! This is what I needed to read! My son who is 9 has been running cross country for 3 years now. He is an amazing runner and has done well since he began. I did run, but just in Jr. High. I wanted to get back into running so maybe we could run together. This summer we have run 2 5K’s together. I hope to continue to run with him for a long time, and need just the right words to make me keep moving! And this is what I needed to hear! Thank you again! Best of Luck to you and your daughter!

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  1. […] friend Pete over at recently wrote a great post about his daughter running cross country.  He mentioned that despite being a fanatical runner […]

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