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NOT SO FAST : Critics Say the Garritsons Are Running Too Far, Too Young, but the Father Says the Kids Will Be Collecting at the Finish

November 01, 1987|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

Success is the answer but what is the question?

What kind of success? How much? At what price ?

Or, in the case of the Garritson family of Fullerton, at what age?

What the Osmonds were to wholesome singing, the Garritsons are to intense running, and winning.

Mike Garritson, 36, has eight children, five of whom train with him every day in a regimen that would wilt most of their elders. The children, ranging in age from 5 to 12, have been running and winning in Southern California for four years. They are national and world age-group record-holders. One of them, 10-year-old Carrie, has never lost a race to anyone her age.

The running success certainly is there for the family. But the consequences, and the criticism, are only now starting to catch up to Mike Garritson.

It is a bright and dewy Saturday morning and Carrie is running in an 8-kilometer race, open division. Her father, a sister and three brothers are also running. The racing Garritsons, as they have become known, are out in force.

At the finish line, Carrie, in her pink leotard, comes into sight, ponytail swinging, her anklets dotted with tiny hearts. She is straining to catch the two women ahead of her, two women who were scholarship athletes, national-class runners.

Carrie does not catch them. She walks immediately from the finish line and goes behind a trailer. She is crying. Her mother, Linda, comforts her. "You can't always win," her mother says.

Asked later why Carrie was upset, Linda says: "Carrie was upset at losing. She said, 'It's just not right. I can beat those two nerds.' "

In the next race, brother James is also straining to catch a runner ahead of him. It is a young boy near his own age, who seems fresh and is running in high-top basketball shoes. James, 12, catches the boy at the tape.

As soon as he is finished, he turns and points an accusing finger at the other boy and yells, "He cheated, he cheated."

James is quite correct, the other boy has not run the complete race.

The Garritson children run 50-60 miles and have two speed workouts a week. Once a week, they run up a hill in Anaheim that is 1 1/2 miles of steep grade. They run it three times each.

Mike Garritson does not believe in rest days or days off. "No one has shown me that they help," he said.

His children are rarely sick and seldom injured. He guesses they missed 5-10 days of training last year.

With one exception, all the children, boys and girls, do the same workout. Bracken, 5, is the exception. On the days when the other children run for 80 minutes straight, he runs for only an hour.

Such intense training for children has drawn heavy criticism. A recent article on the family in Runners World magazine brought a deluge of it. Garritson is ready for it.

"People forget that I was an experienced runner years ago," he said. He competed in high school track in Covina. "I keep myself current and listen to the jargon. If something works, I use it. If not, I throw it out."

Regarding possible long-term physical damage to his children, Garritson correctly points out that there is little conclusive medical evidence about damage to the development of bones and joints.

Dr. William Squires has studied the cardiovascular physiology of children and with others has developed the only childrens' fitness test that is approved by the American College of Sports Medicine. Squires, who teaches at Texas Lutheran College, thinks he knows why there are few studies observing high training loads on children.

"How do you find a sample size of these types of bizarre people out there to get enough to have a study?" he said. "It's not a recommended type of thing."

In the fitness program Squires designed, a child in fourth grade should be able to run for 20 minutes and cover 1.8 miles.

"That's reasonable," he said. "(Garritson's training) is not. There certainly is data to show that it could be dangerous to long-bone formation. The real key for me is the psychological damage. Kids who are coerced into these kinds of regimens are being robbed of their childhood.

"You hate to tell people how to raise their own kids. Aristotle had it figured out: 'In all things, moderation.' "

Garritson says he isn't forcing his children to run. Indeed, they seem to enjoy it. He says he has discussed with Carrie the likelihood that she will have delayed puberty, that she will not begin menstruating when other girls do.

"It doesn't bother me," he said. "Delayed puberty really hasn't caused any harm. We are only talking about percentages."

Mike and Linda Garritson are psychiatric nurses at Del Amo Psychiatric Hospital. Both work from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Linda's parents live with them and care for the eight children while she and Mike are at work.

They return home in time to see the kids off to school, then they sleep from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mike takes the children to work out in the afternoons and in the evening, around 8:30, they sleep for a couple of hours more.

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