Mike Garritson Has Turned His Kids into Winners, but They May Be on the Fast Track to Burnout

Mike Garritson pulls out of his Fullerton, Calif., driveway and heads toward the Anaheim hills 10 miles away. In the back of his van, chattering excitedly, is his clan of galloping Garritson children: James, 13, Carrie, 11, Jarrod, 9, Heather, 7, and Bracken, 6. In the past five years these tiny terrors of distance running have smashed more than a score of records in their age categories and won a staggering 700-plus victories. Their performance, often against seasoned adult competitors, has left the running world in a state of awe—and dismay.

At issue is the training regimen prescribed by their father, a regimen both intense and demanding. Today, for instance, they are on their way to their special once-or twice-weekly killer workout—a gut-wrenching eight miles up and down a steep fire trail.

“Hills build character,” says Garritson, 37, as he winds through traffic. “The only problem we have is rattlesnakes. But the trail is wide enough so that you can see them in plenty of time to avoid them.”

For Garritson, avoiding the venom of his many critics has been considerably harder. “Running at that age should be for fun, for recreation,” says Jim Triplett, women’s track coach at UC-Santa Barbara. “He’s in a frenzy at the races. He’s created a lot of animosity and alienation by his criticism of runners and officials.” Runner’s World Senior Editor Bob Wischnia, who once went on Garritson’s mountain run (and, much to his chagrin, couldn’t keep up with 6-year-old Bracken), concedes that the youngsters are “incredible runners. They’re a thing of beauty to behold. But at what price to the kids?”

For fear of jeopardizing their brilliant futures, Garritson tries to keep his prodigies from kneeling on hard surfaces or tying their shoelaces too tightly. He won’t let them run unless they have been working out, and he even persuaded James’s principal to let him substitute an art course for his seventh-grade gym class. “I don’t let them climb on monkey bars either,” he says. Yet he bristles when accused of driving his kids too hard or depriving them of a normal childhood. “They don’t criticize young swimmers or gymnasts anymore, but they do us,” he says. “My kids want to run. I’m not forcing them.” As to motives for the carping, he says, “We think people are jealous, especially the parents of young runners our kids beat badly.” According to 7-year-old Heather, “The other kids cry a lot because they can’t catch up to me.”

At times it is Papa Garritson’s maneuvering that is hardest to keep up with. He somehow managed to enter 11-year-old Carrie, the best of his brood, in the 26.2-mile Los Angeles Marathon last March. Carrie led all 3,034 women for almost half the race and finished an astonishing 14th among them after 2 hours and 49 minutes—fast enough to have qualified for this year’s Olympic trials if the marathon had been held one week earlier. “No one, but no one, under 18 is allowed in our race,” says a still fuming Bill Burke, president of the L.A. Marathon. “An 11-year-old’s body just hasn’t matured enough to withstand that kind of punishment.”

Garritson, a former high school runner who now suffers from tendinitis in his ankles, insists that Carrie was doing so well in training that she decided to go the distance. “I had it in the back of my mind I still might be able to catch the leaders,” she says. “I’d like to be the youngest person to ever win a marathon.”

Among young Carrie’s idols is middle-distance runner Mary Decker Slaney, 29. The irony, say Garritson’s critics, is that Carrie and her siblings may one day share Slaney’s fate. “Decker was world class at age 12,” says Wischnia of Runner’s World. “[Like Carrie] she was breaking age group records at 10. But she’s had more injuries, more stress fractures and surgeries than most runners have. I don’t know if you can attribute that all to the insane amount of running she did as a kid, but I think it’s a logical conclusion.”

Garritson, a registered nurse who reads voraciously in the field of sports medicine, insists that his kids run no special risk. “We average just an hour and a half a day,” he says of their training schedule. “And that includes swimming, calisthenics, and bicycling as well as running. People who talk about burnout don’t know what they’re saying. Nobody really knows what kids can do.” Physically, perhaps. Serious sports training for children is still in its infancy. And Garritson does have allies as well as detractors.

“He’s very positive, encouraging, supportive. And he’s certainly made my kids good runners,” says Mary Lou Johnson, whose children, ages 13, 12 and 8, train with the Garritson kids. Says Dr. Gabe Merkin, CBS Radio’s fitness expert and the author of five sports medicine books: “Evidence shows that kids are far more resilient than adults, so injuries do not pose a major problem.” “But we don’t know for sure,” counters Dr. Sonny Cobble, medical commissioner of the L.A. Marathon. “So what could be worth taking such a risk with your children? The potential for possible damage is real.”

If the physical risk is worrisome, the psychological hazard to children seems even more so. Dr. Merkin, once a diehard advocate of road racing for children, has reversed his opinion on the subject. “I now believe it’s crazy,” he says. “My own son held nine age-group world records by the time he was 11. He never ran again. Probably because his father wanted to live and compete through him.”

That, in fact, is one of the dark suspicions that hover over Garritson. This unaccomplished racer is sending his kids into the world as surrogates, say critics, who charge that he’s after secondhand glory for himself and first-place gold (endorsements and prize money) for his kids. Wischnia, however, sees little chance of that happening soon. Sponsors are sensitive to controversy, and, as he points out, “the publicity the Garritsons get is not too positive.”

Also fueling such charges is the fact that Carrie has already accepted $500 for placing third in a race last October. The money was put in trust, but whether it jeopardizes her amateur status for high school and college is still open to question. “It’s all academic,” responds Garritson. “There isn’t anyone in high school that can compete with her. A college scholarship? She can make more in prizes and pay for college out of that.”

Certainly the family could use some monetary elevation. In the late ’70s Garritson lost everything when his once-lucrative RV business and other investments soured. He was forced into construction work to support his wife and three children. Then, in 1979, a 13-month-old child the Garritsons were baby-sitting suffered a fatal head injury. Although the death was at first ruled accidental, Garritson was later charged with second-degree murder and underwent three trials (two ended in mistrials) before being acquitted. At the third trial his wife was cleared of an accessory-to-murder charge. The ordeal, however, took a financial as well as emotional toll on the family.

These days Garritson and his wife, Linda, 33 and also a nurse, share a rundown three-bedroom tract house with their five running kids, their three toddlers and Linda’s parents. Despite the Garritsons’ combined $60,000 annual income, times are obviously hard. “We spend hundreds of dollars a month on equipment, gear, hotels, gas and shoes,” says Garritson, gesturing toward the discarded racing shoes that clutter the floor. “For the most part, it comes out of our pocket.”

Given the reluctance of advertisers to use the family for endorsements, Garritson’s expenses should continue for a while. “We think kids should be running for fun,” says a spokesperson for Nike running shoes. “Not for prizes, bonuses or contracts. When that happens, they begin running for the wrong reasons.”

—By Jack Friedman, with Dan Knapp in Los Angeles

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