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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 (7'1�"). "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.