When Xian Campbell was just 4 years old, he ran his first 5k, and he hasn't stopped since.
Over the past three years, he has racked up four first-place medals for Baylor Middle School's cross country and track teams. At age 12, he ranked 11 out of 50 in the Yeti Heartbreak Marathon in Lithia Springs, Georgia. And in February, at age 13, he became the second local kid that age to complete a 50k.
Besting the Mount Cheaha 50k UltraMarathon Race, which climbs to the highest point in Alabama, took discipline, support and every ounce of willpower the teen could muster, but he does not intend to make it the last of his accomplishments.
We spoke with Xian, now 14, to find out how he pushed through the 31.25-mile race, and what he plans to do next.
Get Out: What made you decide to run an ultra-marathon?
Xian Campbell: I wanted to challenge myself to see what I could do. My parents are very good runners, and they've run long distances before. Since I've grown up in this environment, I feel like I have to do something greater than what my parents have done.
Xian’s mom, Dreama, agrees with her son: Long-distance running is not for every child — especially those whose parents aren’t runners. Xian trains for long distances with his parents, who have each conquered their fair share of 50-milers. Now that the teen is too fast for them, Dreama says, they make sure he has a backpack with nutrition and that they are still on the trail in case something goes wrong. For parents unable to get out with their kids, Dreama suggests letting them train with local groups like the Cumberland Trail Runners or the Chattanooga Track Club.
What it means to be ‘ultra’: Marathons are 26.2 miles. Ultra-running refers to any distance longer than a marathon, though most define it as a distance of at least 50k, or 31.07 miles.
GO: Tell me about the race.
XC: The first 20 miles were kind of easy, but the next 5 miles were very challenging because I felt like I was going to fall asleep. The last 5 miles of the race were also very challenging because there is a mountain at the end of the race that's over 2,400 feet, and you had to climb all the way up. Then you still had about 2.5 miles left after you climbed up the whole thing.
GO: How did you stay alert for all seven hours of the race?
XC: We crossed a lot of streams during the race, so usually I put my face in the stream to wake me up and rejuvenate me for a couple of minutes. I'd also splash water on my face from my water pack. And I was falling asleep because I had a lack of nutrition, so I took energy chews as well.
GO: What pushed you to finish?
XC: I was really close to the end, and I wanted to finish it very badly. My dad was pacing me, he was right behind me, and he was a motivator to keep me going. And also, four or five of my mom's friends were doing it, and their presence helped me keep going. If I didn't have them, it would have affected my race time, which was seven hours.
GO: What was it like to cross the finish line?
XC: Everyone was cheering for me because I was the youngest person at the race. But mentally, it didn't cross my mind until about 20 minutes later and I finally realized that I ran the whole 32-somewhat miles. [laughs] Physically, I felt very tired and my legs were pretty sore, to the point where I was wobbling when I walked. I had a track meet the next week. It was a mile, and I won.
GO: Why would you encourage other kids to get into long-distance running?
XC: I don't necessarily know if I would encourage running long distance because it could have some long-term effects to your body. But I would encourage trying it out, and if you're willing to put your body through it, I would definitely try it out.
GO: What's next for you?
XC: I'm planning on running another 50k, the Upchuck 50k, later in the fall. In the next two years, I'm probably going to run a 50-miler as well. I'm planning to [run 100 miles], but I don't know when I'm going to do it. Maybe under the age of 20, hopefully.