The Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio, doesn’t take itself too seriously.  One of Runner’s World magazine’s “best first-time marathons,” the Flying Pig owns the comedy of its name, which derives from Cincinnati’s history as a pork producer. Among its myriad comic bits, volunteers are called “grunts” and the runners cross a “finish swine.”

But there was little humor to be found on social media when word spread last week that a 6-year-old had completed the 26.2-mile race on May 1 with his parents and five siblings.

Many people were horrified, including two-time Olympian Kara Goucher who wrote on Twitter, “I promise you this is not good for the child.”

Others accused the parents of exploiting their children for social media fame. Kami and Ben Crawford have 47,000 subscribers on their YouTube channel where they share their family adventures.

The controversy later expanded to the Flying Pig Marathon staff, which defended its decision to let the child run in violation of its own rules, but now says it will not let anyone under 18 run the marathon in the future. Meanwhile, in response to multiple reports filed, Kentucky’s child protection agency opened an investigation and interviewed the child and other family members.

For their part, the parents have said the child, named Rainier, had asked to run the marathon, his first, and they were prepared to take him off the course if he wanted to stop. In fact, in an Instagram post showing off their matching family attire (including red running shorts emblazoned with a “C”), the parents wrote, “Whether we finish the marathon or not, we’re gonna look good.”

“It’s sad that people who see our life for 30 seconds or read one fake headline, or one out of context social media post can have such an impact on our family when we work so hard to keep our home a healthy and safe place for our kids,” the couple wrote in a statement for the media.

While there’s no doubt that everyone in this saga is well-meaning — from the case workers, to those who expressed shock and outrage, to the family — it’s interesting that no one has discussed this case in the larger framework in which it sits, which is the obesity epidemic in America, particularly among children.

Prior to the pandemic, it was widely reported that over the past three decades, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents. Research is now starting to come in that shows the problem has worsened since the emergence of COVID-19.

While there is value in the “body positivity” movement that encourages people to love themselves as they are, excess weight and poor diet is one of six factors (including alcohol, tobacco and drug use) that contribute to mortality and morbidity in the U.S. And not only do overweight and obese children have associated health risks and a higher risk of being overweight as adults, they also are subjected to bullying because of their weight.

So amid the questions and stone throwing, it’s worth considering what is worse: encouraging and supporting a child to run a marathon, or contributing to obesity in a child by providing unhealthy food, allowing excessive screen time and not making vigorous physical activity a regular part of family life? The Crawfords alluded to this in an open letter about the controversy in which they said, “We do not believe marathons are for everybody. But we don’t believe eight hours of screen time is either.”

The Crawford family at the finish line of the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 2022.
The Crawford family at the finish line of the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1, 2022. | Crawford family photo via @fightfortogether on Instagram

A few years ago, I spoke with Joe De Sena, the founder of the Spartan Race, about the struggle to raise active children in a sedentary world. De Sena has four children, who at the time were 10 and younger. Two, he told me, had run marathons. Yet there was apparently no public outcry over this.

De Sena’s business, which specializes in extreme athletic competitions that can break even super-fit athletes, offers a children’s camp that promises to turn kids into warriors. He’s also written a book called “10 Rules for Resilience: Mental Toughness for Families.” De Sena is all about pushing boundaries, both physical and mental. He told me that he and his wife let their children watch television sometime, but only in Mandarin.

He also said, “One morning, my 10-year-old son was on the Great Wall of China in his pajamas at 2 a.m. We’d hiked up the mountain for five hours because we wanted to see the sun rise. If anyone had seen us up there, they would have said that was not socially acceptable. But that’s exactly what kids should be doing. All studies have shown that if you want kids to do better at school, be more cerebral, you’ve got to give them a physical challenge.”

There’s no doubt that many of the same people who criticized the Crawfords would also be aghast at De Sena’s parenting. But his explanation makes sense: “You only have a limited time with them to instill the values you want to instill. I say to always choose the hard route when making a decision. Ask yourself, is this the easy thing to do or the hard thing? Do the hard thing. You do your kids a disservice if you’re not exposing them to tough times.”

There is a fine line, of course, between parents who push their children past their physical limits and actual child abuse, and as outrageous as their involvement can seem, child protective agencies should probably err on the side of overreach. And it’s not the Crawfords’ first encounter with child protective services. In Ben Crawford’s 2020 book “2,000 Miles Together,” he writes that CPS also investigated as the couple hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail with children who were then ages 2 through 17.

That said, the photos the Crawfords posted on their social media accounts show a seemingly happy and obviously healthy family. Both parents ran the whole distance with Rainier, taking more than 812 hours to finish the distance, which they’ve pointed out is basically a walking pace. Their other children ran faster and waited toward the end of the course so the whole family could cross the finish line together.

Looking at the photo of the family crossing the “finish swine” together, it’s hard to think “child abuse,” although runners who briefly passed the child on the course might have real reason to have suspected as much. The parents have acknowledged that Rainier cried at times, which is not surprising. Marathoners of every age cry on the course, and highly trained athletes sometimes collapse or have to be carried across the finish line.

Assuming there was no actual abuse involved (and it’s of note that Rainier’s siblings are defending the parents), the Crawfords’ extreme adventures could be inspirational to many sedentary families. In a world where video gaming is considered a sport, anxiety and depression is rampant and obesity continues to rise, the vitriol directed at the Crawfords seems overblown, if not outright misplaced. But whatever you think of the parents, can we all agree on this? Rainier Crawford is one amazing kid.