Kevin Knox of Wasco, Calif. may well be the most successful runner in the country, holding 16 national records at distances from 440 yards to two miles as well as in the one-hour run. What's more, he's only 5'1" tall and weighs a mere 87 pounds. Kevin (above), it must be said, is all of 11 years old and his records are in various age-group categories. For example, when he was 10 he ran a 64-second quarter mile and an 11:01.2 two-mile, while since his 11th birthday he has done a 2:18.9 half and a 5:05.4 mile.
Kevin belongs to a club known as the Wildkats, which is spelled with a "k" not in honor of Kevin's initials but simply for effect. He isn't the Wildkats' only prodigy. Not long ago, Patricia Dillingham set three national age-group records for 9-year-old girls in one race: 12:21.5 for two miles, 18:39.0 for three miles and 24:59.1 for four.
Dale Knox, Kevin's father, started the Wildkats in 1967 with Kevin as the sole member: 50 boys and girls now belong. "I remember my first workout," says Kevin. "I ran a mile and a half. Dad gave in and let me beat him." Kevin had just turned seven. He won the first of his 40 trophies and 50 medals in a Junior Olympic 440-yard walk when the winner was disqualified. "It came natural to me," Kevin recalls, "just putting that foot down and snapping it back." In his second race, a 75-yard dash, he was not as fortunate. His father was the starter and when the gun sounded Kevin fell flat on his face.
Last November, Kevin set records for the mile and two-mile in the same race. Was he surprised? "Yeah, I guess so," he says. "I didn't think I would run the mile that slow."
"He never ran anything that surprised me," says Dale Knox, a vice-president of H.M. Holloway, Inc., which mines gypsum. "Maybe him, but not me. I push him because I know his potential. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't push him because he was my son."
Most of the Wildkats are 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds and they are pushed—if that's the word—in a manner they are too young to be aware of. A 13-mile "marathon" is held once a year and Wildkat T shirts are awarded to those who finish. "Our whole idea of training," says Brad Tomasini, director of Wasco's park and recreation program and co-coach of the Wildkats, "is to make running fun."
"No one could run that much and be forced into it," says Andy Darby, the track coach at Wasco Union High, who coached Otis Hailey, the former national prep record holder in the high jump (7'1¼"). "It's just a big game to them."
Wildkats are frequently seen running 10 miles through the woods singing Old MacDonald and One Bad Apple. Says Dale Knox, "We want them to enjoy themselves. We would never make them run an extra lap as a punishment because that could kill their interest."
Of course, there isn't all that much else of interest in Wasco, which has a population of 8,319 and is located near Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley. The town has one movie theater—which recently bore a sign reading NOW OPEN ON FRIDAY AND SUNDAY—and the films are usually in Spanish. Two of the three new-car dealers have gone out of business since January. There are no traffic lights. "We had one up about two years ago," says Dale Knox, "but it confused people and had to be taken down after a few weeks."
Entering Wasco on U.S. 46, you are greeted by a sign reading WELCOME TO WASCO, THE BLACKEYE BEAN CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. On the other side of the road is a water tower with a large red rose painted on it. Wasco prides itself on its roses—and its 28 churches, one for every 300 people. "All empty," says a resident.
Wasco's newest source of pride is the Wildkats. The Wasco News, a weekly, gives heavy coverage to the club's exploits although it is handicapped by not having a sports reporter. The paper recently ran an ad offering $50 a month for the opening, but as one member of the paper's three-woman editorial staff admitted, "That's stretching it a bit."
The Wildkats do have a few, largely facetious, detractors. "Those girls run too much," says Timothy Calhoun, a high school sophomore. "You have to wipe the dust off their faces before you can kiss them." And William Stoutingburg, a 10th-grader, says, "I heard Kevin's daddy drove him 100 miles away from home in his jeep, put him out and chased him all the way back to town."
Kevin, who made all A's in his last grading period, generally wins his races by big margins. "There's just no one who can stay with me after a quarter," he says. Indeed, his greatest competition may come from his own family. His 9-year-old brother Todd ran a 71.8 quarter last spring to erase Kevin's 8-year-old record and more recently turned in a 66.8 and a 2:29.6 to break Kevin's quarter-and half-mile marks for 9-year-olds. Then there is 3-year-old Blair, who not long ago slipped away from home, jogged two blocks to the high school track and ran a half-mile before being missed. More usually, Blair races back and forth from the living room to the bedroom. When the Feb. 9 earthquake shook the Knox house, the chimes went off in the living room, awakening Mrs. Knox, who thought Blair had crashed into them during an early-morning workout.
Will Kevin Knox be burned out at 18? There are no answers. Age-group track, which has more than 100,000 active participants and a monthly magazine Starting Line, only got under way six years ago as a girls' sport (the boys "liberated" it in 1967) and few studies have been done. Dr. Timothy Craig, chairman of the AMA's National Conference on the Medical Aspects of Sports, thinks Kevin will hold up. In fact, Dr. Craig contends that because Kevin took up track at such a tender age, he "might actually live longer." Dr. James E. Counsilman, swimming coach at Indiana University, who has worked with age-group swimmers, concurs, "if it's a low-pressure program and if there's not too much psychological stress. Physically, he should be much better because of experience, be more fit and have a better cardiovascular system."
Dale Knox, who still holds the local high school 440 record (50.6) he set in 1952, leaves such matters to others. He's too busy working with the Wildkats. "Kim, you're doing fine," he shouted from trackside during a mass time trial he held the other day. "You're going to run your alltime best.... Atta girl, Pat.... Way to go, Mike.... A little faster, Sammy." After Kevin had gone a mile and a half, he yelled "8:15" to him, and to Todd "9:20. Keep it up and it'll be 18:40." Dale Knox turned excitedly, "Say, Kevin can do a 17"; then shouted to his son, "You're on a 17 pace, Kev! Now work that backstretch! Let's see what you're made of, tiger."
Kevin ran three miles in 16:38, almost three minutes faster than the listed record for 11-year-olds. His father leaped in the air. "Hot dog!" he shouted. "That surprised me."