Cowbells clanged. Spectators cheered and clapped. Runners threw their hands up in victory as they crossed the finish line of the San Joaquin River Trail 50K ultramarathon.
And then came 11-year-old Koda Holeman.
The Red Bank Elementary sixth-grader loped down the steep, rocky hill to the finish on Nov. 14, a broad smile spread across his face.
The cowbells rang harder, the spectators’ voices rising several notches louder.
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“People joke that you don’t want to cross the finish line anywhere near (Koda) because everyone will be screaming his name,” said Koda’s mom, Jodi Holeman.
Especially at this race.
Participants covered 31 miles — a feat in itself — combined with a brutal 5,500 feet of ascent and descent on a rocky, technical course near Millerton Lake.
Such a feat may seem impossible for an 11-year-old — or any child — to accomplish.
That is, if you don’t know Koda.
Koda certainly steals the spotlight at every long distance race in which he competes.
While adult distance runners line up shoulder-to-shoulder at the starting line, 61-pound Koda ducks his way to the front — his shoulders barely reaching most of the other runners’ midsections — and leans forward, fingers poised on his GPS watch.
At the sound of the gun, Koda lurches to the front of the pack. Most other kids his age fizzle out after a mile or two, often lacking the wisdom to pace themselves.
Whether it’s a 5K, 10K or half marathon, Koda moves along at a good clip, completing each race with a look of determination on his face and a quick sprint to the finish line.
“It’s exciting to watch him,” Jodi said.
He doesn’t care what distance it is, he just want to be the first person to cross the line.
Jodi Holeman, about her son’s ambition to win a race
Less than a handful of people knew he was going to run the 50K until they saw him line up at the start with a bib beside his mom.
“I didn’t want there to be any pressure on him,” Jodi said. “I would never have done (that distance) on a course he’s unfamiliar with. He knows almost the whole trail — and all of the support on the trail.”
The Holemans run with the local Bad News Bear Runners, many of whom were running the race as well or volunteering at the aid stations.
“It would have been easy to pull out because we knew there was going to be cars at some of the aid stations and we could’ve gotten a ride back to the start,” Jodi said. “If he at any time would’ve said ‘nope, I’m done,’ we totally would’ve just packed it up.”
But the word “quit” doesn’t seem to exist in Koda’s vocabulary.
In fact, each distance he completes only fuels his desire to run farther and faster.
His top running goal:
“To win a race,” he said.
“He doesn’t care what distance it is, he just want to be the first person to cross the line,” Jodi said.
Jodi started running just before her 30th birthday, in 2009, but had no desire to race for at least two years. Then a friend asked her to fill in as part of Fresno’s California Classic Half Marathon Relay after another person bailed.
I really enjoy him being around the whole running community. It’s just a really good environment for him.
Jodi came home with a finisher’s medal.
“That’s really what sparked (Koda’s) interest,” she said. “Was me coming home with bibs and medals and stuff. He would see them, and he was 8 when he first asked me if he could run a half marathon.”
“I thought that’s nuts; I said ‘no way!’”
Koda was 7 when he ran his first race — a Turkey Trot 5K on Thanksgiving morning in Colorado — but he didn’t exactly run the whole thing.
“Dad carried me on his shoulders,” Koda, said, calling into the next room for his father, Casey Holeman. “Didn’t we get, like, last place, Dad?”
The first 5K, or 3.1-mile race, he completed on his own two feet was the Jingle Bell Run in Fresno the following month. He tried to keep up with his mom, but couldn’t.
He did the Jingle Bell Run again the following year, when he was 8, and still couldn’t keep up with Jodi.
“I beat her at the third Jingle Bell Run,” he said. “The funny thing is I said ‘What happens if I beat you?’ and she said ‘Just meet me right there — but that won’t happen.’ But of course, I beat her! And I waited right there.”
Koda was 9 when he ran his first 10K — “I thought that was nuts,” Jodi admitted.
“I was expecting him to go out there and be miserable; I was expecting him to go out there and suffer,” she said of the SAR (search and rescue) Wild Run 10K. “But his dad and I were there with him, so I thought it’ll be fine, we’ll walk the whole thing if we have to.”
She told Koda to run whatever pace he was comfortable with, but was surprised to watch him take off at the start.
“I was like a horse out of the gates,” Koda said.
“Thankfully his dad was able to keep up with him (that day); he can’t keep up with him now,” Jodi said.
After that race she thought Koda might be able to run farther, but research proved futile. Jodi, a scientist at Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District, looked for case studies about young runners.
“There’s nothing in the literature that says it’s good, bad or the other,” she said.
Jodi said many people seem concerned when they see Koda entering long distance races.
“They question if it’s safe,” she said. “Even people who know that I run half marathons say ‘You’re nuts’ and they just say the same about (Koda).”
“If I hadn’t be out running with him, I’d probably think the same. I encourage any of them to just come out and see him and run with him.”
After months of Koda’s pleading, Jodi signed him up for his first half marathon — the San Joaquin River Trail Half Marathon in March.
“When I signed him up for the SJRT Half, I thought that will really deflate his balloon because it’s a hard course, it’s a long way for a kid, it’s 13 miles. I was kind of expecting him to do it and stick with the 5Ks or the 10Ks — I was not expecting him to say ‘Ok, can I go farther?’”
For the record, Koda ran the race in a respectable 2 hours and 36 minutes, placing 43rd out of 152 runners on a course that measured about 14 miles instead of 13.1.
I just want to be a superhero.
Koda Holeman, 11-year-old ultrarunner
Koda has been asking his mom to let him run a marathon for about a year. She decided to let him choose between running the recent Two Cities Marathon — 26.2 miles — or the 31-mile SJRT 50K.
Nathaniel Moore, the race director for both events, was confident that Koda could do whatever he set his mind to.
“I’ve seen kids younger than him, like 6- and 9-year-olds, running ultras, so I know kids are capable of it,” Moore said. “I’ve seen Koda run, so I wasn’t apprehensive at all. I knew he was going to be under the supervision of Jodi, and between the two of them they were going to make good decisions. She wouldn’t have pushed him and they knew they could pull out at any time.”
After Koda’s performance at the SJRT Half Marathon, another race Moore organizes, Moore added him as the youngest member of San Joaquin Running Team.
“I think it’s cool for him to motivate people in his age group, because I don’t think their parents, or the kids themselves, are aware of (distance running). So it shows them that they can get out there and do it, even if it’s just doing some 10Ks,” Moore said. “It’s a great hobby to have. Koda is a good person to get younger people excited about it.”
Koda’s parents agree that it’s a great hobby for him to grow up in.
“I really enjoy him being around the whole running community. It’s just a really good environment for him,” Jodi said. “It’s good for him to know people… who have done these incredible, physical feats. I just really enjoy him being around that.”
She also enjoys the bond they’ve formed while running together.
“You’ve got a lot of time; you can discuss a lot of things,” she said. “During our talks I find myself thinking ‘I wouldn’t have known that about you.’ It’s a big positive.”
They certainly had plenty of time to talk during the 31-miler, which took them 8 hours and 10 minutes to finish.
“We stopped a lot,” Jodi explained, noting that Koda took frequent potty breaks along the trail.
“We played 21 questions a lot. And then we played the alphabet game a lot,” Jodi said. “One was we had to name cars that start with each letter, and we still can’t come up with one that starts with Y. This one car game probably lasted us three miles!”
Koda wasn’t worried in the slightest about the race’s distance. The one thing on his mind during the race: “I was scared about the bull,” he said, explaining that he and his mom encountered an angry looking bull on the trail during a 17-mile training run weeks prior to the race.
The high level of traffic on the trail — there were 87 participants total between the 50K and the 100K (62-mile) race that day — ensured that the bull was nowhere to be seen.
Koda ran into each aid station to the cheers of his running buddies, who are all at least twice his age.
“They were telling me to eat all of this salty stuff, but I wasn’t in the mood for pretzels,” Koda said.
He fueled with sea salt kettle potato chips, candy corn, gummy bears, a brownie, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, water and electrolyte beverages.
“The aftertaste was like tacos de lengua,” he remarked.
Running downhill was Koda’s favorite part of the ultramarathon. Luckily for him, the course had plenty of descent.
Although his feet began to hurt during the race, he completed the last three miles without a single complaint, Jodi said.
I don’t want him to have a big ego about it, but at the same time I don’t want him to feel like what he’s accomplishing isn’t something special.
Jodi Holeman, on her son’s accomplishments
The day after the race, while participants older than him were walking around with difficulty, Koda was mobile enough to kick around a soccer ball and sprint outside to chase away some cats. He only complained of soreness in his thighs and lower back.
“I don’t think any 11-year-olds can wrap their head around what he did — even adults can’t wrap their head around someone running 31 miles,” said Moore, the race director. “That’s why it’s good to just invite people out so they can see it. It’s not something you can explain, but if you’re out there and you see it and you feel it, then you understand. As a runner, (Koda) already gets it. He just seems mentally more mature than other people his age.”
Jodi is careful to remind Koda that he needs to work on three things: work hard, be humble and show kindness.
“I don’t want him to have a big ego about it, but at the same time I don’t want him to feel like what he’s accomplishing isn’t something special,” she said.
Besides his long distance accomplishments, Koda placed 14th in the Clovis Unified School District championship cross country meet. Along with running, Koda plays soccer in the Central California Soccer Alliance and wrestles for Red Bank Elementary. He also sings in the school’s choir.
He has big dreams for the future.
“I want to be a famous soccer player, or a runner in the Olympics or a famous wrestler,” Koda said. “I want to go to St. Mary’s or Fresno Pacific University or Notre Dame.”
With his current 4.0 GPA and obvious athletic ability, anything seems possible.
“I just want to be a superhero,” he added, to which his mom answered:
“Don’t we all?”