Small But Mighty: Runner John Young Defies the Odds

Photo Credit: Matthew Muise

John Young never imagined that he would one day call himself an endurance athlete. Born with Achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, Young was constantly told when he was a child that wasn’t built for many physical activities. As an adult, a doctor told him not to run or risk damaging his spine. Today, not only does Young run, swim and bike, he has finished over 50 triathlons and a dozen marathons over the past decade, including the New York City and Boston marathons.

At 52, the high school math teacher has no major injuries, and plans to keep going as long as he can. “I was told so many times when I was younger, ‘You are too short. You are too small,’” said Young who stands at 4’4” tall. “It is proving to people that I can do anything anyone else can do—I just do it differently. These are the legs I was born with. I try to do the best I can with the body I have.”

That message has resonated with his 15-year-old son Owen who also has dwarfism. “With him running, I’ve learned that I can run as well, and it inspired me to start cross country and track,” shared Owen, a member of his high school’s running teams. He has also joined his father in some shorter distance races, and has no qualms about leaving him in the dust.

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Photo Credit: Matthew Muise
Photo Credit: Matthew Muise

“I think he enjoys the fact that he is so much faster than his father,” said Young. “I know he will always be faster, and I couldn’t be prouder of that.” He is also happy that Owen has embraced fitness early in life. It wasn’t until Young was overweight and suffering from sleep apnea in his early 40s that he decided to get active.

In 2009, he completed his first triathlon, which was a half-mile swim, 14-mile bike ride and three-mile run. “I had never run more than once around a track,” he said after his first race. “My legs hurt like crazy. I learned that this is what it feels like to exercise.” Still, he worried his body would break down from running, as that doctor had warned him. “There were lots of moments when I would get stiff, and think, ‘Is this it? Is the point where my body says, what are you doing?’” And it didn’t happen,” he recalled.

In fact, Young feels so strong and healthy these days that he has embarked on a new quest: run 12 marathons in a 12-month period. His challenge began in April with the Boston Marathon, where the cold, rain and wind got the best of many runners. Not Young though, a Toronto native who now lives in Salem, Massachusetts. While others fell apart in the extreme conditions, Young set a personal record, finishing in 5:58.

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Photo Credit: Matthew Muise
Photo Credit: Matthew Muise

“I knew I couldn’t control the weather, but I could control what I wore and my attitude,” he says. “I knew a positive attitude is really important.” Brian Hammond, a volunteer coach with Achilles International and Young’s coach since 2012, wasn’t surprised Young did so well in Boston. “Every single run he does is outside, year round,” he shared. “John PR’ed and that’s 100 percent because he trains in those elements all the time.”

When designing a marathon training program for Young, Hammond has to keep in mind that Young takes many more steps than the average runner to cover the same distance. Over 26.2 miles, Young estimates that he takes some 80,000 steps—more than double what a typical runner does. That means he is on his feet longer and the impact on his body is greater. For long marathon training runs, Hammond has Young break up the distance.

“Instead of doing a typical 18-mile long run that a marathoner would do, John is given a Saturday run of 2-2.5 hours, and Sunday he follows up with a 90-minute run,” Hammond explained. “He is getting the same amount of volume, but it’s spread across two days to reduce impact.” In addition to coaching Young, Hammond has enjoyed getting to know Young and his family.

“One thing I’ve learned [from John] is how to be a good father, how important it is to set an example that you want your child to follow,” stated Hammond. And it’s not just an example Young wants his own son to follow. He is especially moved when parents of other children with dwarfism tell him he is an inspiration. “It has given parents hope that their child doesn’t have to watch life—they can get out there and experience it,” said Young.

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