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Emma Radley is 11 years old. She loves horses, llamas, spaghetti with meatballs, the color blue and ultramarathons.
On January 30, she finished the Skydive Ultra 50K, in Clewiston, Florida. Most kids aren’t interested in running, let alone running ultras, so when Emma’s father Justin invited her to run a 5K three years ago, he never suspected she would soon be beating him across finish lines at races several times that distance.
Justin started running 5Ks with Emma after her 9th birthday. “I took Emma and her little sister Quinn to the Grow for Africa 5K in Cape Coral, Florida,” Justin, an ultrarunner who directs several races in their home state of Florida, recalls. “Emma ran ahead of us the whole way.”
She continued to seek out 5Ks and fun runs at every opportunity, gradually increasing to 10Ks and half-marathons over the course of the following year, always accompanied by her father.
“Every race she runs is her own idea and her own decision,” Justin says. “I never push her to do anything she doesn’t want to. I am also very careful with what races she runs. She only participates in races that I direct, or on courses that I know with race directors that I trust.”
Justin and Emma in 2014. Courtesy Justin Radley
Justin directs Save the Daylight, an event with six- and 12-hour races that takes place on a 3.3-mile loop course in Englewood, Florida, as well as Eight Hours of Hell, a series of eight-hour races that take place on three- and four-mile trail loops throughout southwestern Florida. In November 2014, just over a year after her first 5K, Emma joined the Save the Daylight six-hour race, completing 19.8 miles. The following summer she participated in all six Eight Hours of Hell races.
“She runs with my girlfriend’s 14-year old son, Ian,” says Justin. “They stick together and feed off each other. It’s all on them. If they do a few laps, and then want to go to the playground, that’s fine.” Even with the occasional monkey-bars break, Emma finished that summer in the top 10 for the women’s series.
The following year, 2015, Emma and her father volunteered at the Skydive Ultras, a local classic where entrants can opt to literally jump out of a plane before heading out for 183 miles, 50 miles or 50 kilometers on the trail. “She ended up pacing several people 18 miles through the night, and made up her mind to come back to run the 50K,” says Justin.
Race director Eric Friedman welcomed Emma into this year’s race with one condition: that she never run alone. (She was also too young to do the skydive portion of the event.)
Emma and Justin ran together for 19 miles, until a recurring foot injury forced Justin to slow down. Emma found new pacers for the remaining 12 miles.
“We had a plan to run a mile, walk a mile,” says Justin. “And as I found out later on, she executed it perfectly, dictating pace with her running partners for the rest of the race.”
Emma coming into the aid station at the Skydive 50K. Courtesy Justin Radley
As always, she carried a handheld water bottle filled with electrolyte supplement, as well as gels, Swedish Fish and Skittles. Whenever she passed the aid station—the race is held on a single, 7.25-mile loop—she beelined for her favorites: orange slices and baked potatoes with salt.
Emma says she has learned about all of these “important running things like calories, electrolytes and pacing yourself” through conversations with the many experienced ultrarunners who have paced her—or been paced by her—at races in the last few years. When she finished, in eight hours 53 minutes, there were plenty of friendly faces cheering her on.
Next year, Emma wants to return to Skydive for the 50-mile distance, “but I don’t have any predictions after that,” says Justin. She is on student council and vice president of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) program at her middle school. She races a maximum of once per month (a limit her father enforces). Aside from that, she barely runs—her “training” consists of one four-mile jog with Justin and Ian every two weeks.
Most of her races are eight-hour events, where she can run as much or as little as she wants. “Emma deserves all the credit for her accomplishments,” says Justin. “She sets her own standards. All I make sure of is that she knows she can eat anything at an aid station, and that she has a running partner and a full bottle of water.”
Showing off the medal from her first 50K. Courtesy Justin Radley
In Emma’s Words
I don’t do a lot of training. Usually, every other Sunday, Ian and I go for a four-mile run with my dad. Other than that, I just like to do races once a month. When [Ian and I] go to the eight-hour race series, we run part of the course beforehand, to see what the trail is like—if it has a lot of roots or rocks.
The best part about ultra running is …
Sometimes you get sore, which doesn’t seem very motivating. But when you finish, you feel really glad and proud of yourself.
It is also great to meet other people of all different ages, because they can teach you about their running experiences. I like to find out what races they’ve done and what running means to them, especially if they started running as a kid or an adult.
I’ve heard about other, harder races, like Western States and Rocky Raccoon, and I am interested in the people who do really well at those races and what they did to get there.
When I started, it was just a little hobby. Now it is one of my favorite activities. It’s like playing an instrument: The more you perform, the more fun you have, so you feel motivated to keep practicing. The more I run, the more fun I have, so I want to get better!
Advice for other kid runners
I just say go for it.
When I started running I never thought I would be doing marathons and 50Ks. I’ve told a few of my friends and they think what I’m doing is cool. But they don’t think they would be able to run such long distances. I think they can. Start with a fun run, and see how you like it. If you don’t like it, that’s fine! It is still fun to help out at the aid stations or to crew.
Pacing and crewing
Before I started running, I helped out at the aid stations of my dad’s races, handing out water and snacks. I particularly enjoy pacing. When I am pacing someone, if I get tired, I just think about the fact that I have to keep going because this is that person’s race and not mine.
Then when I am participating in a race, and there are pacers helping me and people handing me water and snacks, I feel good knowing that I am not just taking help, I was also able to give help.
As part of a Future Farmers of America program, Emma works with llamas. Photo courtesy Justin Radley
When I grow up …
I want to get my veterinary degree and be a large-animal trainer. Specifically, I want to train and care for race horses. I prefer being with bigger animals, because it’s more of a challenge, but also more fun.
At school, I am very involved with the Future Farmers of America (FFA), and we show llamas at the state fair. You have to teach them to do obstacles, and then compete against other llamas and their trainers. It is a lot of fun to train the animals! Besides llamas and horses, my favorite animals are cows, donkeys and big dogs.