How a 6-year-old marathoner ignited America's parenting debate

DISASTER STRIKES JUST past the 16-mile mark of the 2022 Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is, in Ben Crawford’s mind, the worst thing that can happen when you’re running 26.2 miles with your 6-year-old son. Rainier Crawford trips, skins his knee and drops his popsicle, which melts on the hot pavement. Rainier clings to his mom. His tiny shoulders heave with sobs.

“Oww,” he cries. “I hurt.”

A scrape the size of a quarter throbs on his right knee, and after a bystander volunteers to retrieve a bandage, Kami Crawford squats so she’s at eye level with her son, holding his hand. “I know you didn’t want to fall,” she says. “But it happens. Remember how it hurts for a little bit and then it stops hurting? That’s what’s going to happen.”

When the Crawfords started nearly five hours ago, the early May morning was dark and cool. Now sweat plasters Rainier’s blond hair to his forehead. He tells his parents he doesn’t think he can finish the race, a Crawford family tradition he begged to take part in after years of watching his five older siblings run it. In the months leading up to the marathon, Ben, Kami and Rainier ran three times a week, in the snow, rain and heat. Rainier liked it best when they stopped at a bubble tea shop along the route. He pictured crossing the finish line and coming home with a shiny medal.

“What do you want to do, Rainier?” Ben asks now.

“I don’t know.”

Rainier grasps Kami’s right hand in his left and takes the first of several steps. Every few paces he stops to stretch. “Go away, my sore,” he says. Three miles down the road, they shuffle upon a playground, and Rainier runs off course to scramble up a climbing wall. A few minutes later, Ben tells him it’s time to go. Rainier sees his friends holding posters decorated with his name, and picks up the pace. When the trio reaches an abandoned aid table at mile 20, Rainier cries again, and Ben promises to buy two cans of Pringles after they finish.

They keep inching toward downtown Cincinnati and at mile 25, he reunites with his siblings, who had been waiting so the family could finish together. Eight hours and 35 minutes after they started, all eight Crawfords cross the mostly deserted finish line, hands linked. Katy Perry blasts over speakers as a race volunteer places medals over their heads. Rainier grips his medal tightly, beaming. Kami kisses Rainier’s forehead. Ben pulls him in for a hug.

Days later, after the Crawfords’ marathon images go viral, after an Olympic runner tweets disapprovingly about them, after “Good Morning America” interviews the family from the backyard of their home in Bellevue, Kentucky, after someone eggs one of their kids’ windows, and after Child Protective Services visits their home, Ben and Kami are left to wonder how the story of a kid doing something extraordinary has turned into a story of a kid suffering under abusive parents.

“Our story,” Ben says, “became this kind of masthead for what a lot of people are really afraid of in parenting.”

BUILT FROM RED BRICK, the Crawfords’ home rises three stories in a historic neighborhood less than 10 minutes from the Ohio-Kentucky border. It’s a lazy Saturday morning in March 2023, nearly a year after the Flying Pig Marathon. Inside, blueberry pancakes pile high on plates scattered around the dining table, a 4-by-12-foot slab of wood.

Years ago Ben looked everywhere for a table that would fit a family of eight and noticed that most of the furniture from places like Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn came “distressed.” To him, the worn wood told an inauthentic story of hard work and creativity. He paid a friend to build one instead, and on the bottom they burned an inscription into the wood: “A place to create, write and tell stories.” The christening mark was made by placing a hot cast-iron skillet in the middle of the table, and after that, it was fair game for the kids to distress the table with whatever they could find. Ink, paint and dents now pockmark its surface.

A few feet away from the table, shoes of various sizes spill over their designated racks and scatter around the front door. On the right, coats, purses and two sets of keys hang on a wall partially painted fire-engine red. Swaths of it remain white, as if someone forgot to complete the job and let the paint drip dry. When the Crawfords moved in over a decade ago, Ben felt what he describes as a spiritual draw to splash the entryway with red. He worried at first it was ruining the house. But it set the tone — it was their home and no one else’s, and it should reflect the family living in it, which meant things would change and transform and that was OK.

To see their house is to begin to understand the Crawfords. Six years ago, Ben and Kami hiked the entirety of the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail with their family, ages 2 to 16 at the time. Most of their kids — Dove (22), Eden (21), Seven (19), Memory (17), Filia (13), Rainier (8) — have never attended school. They believe that children often know better than adults, that it’s OK to let them say “s—,” and to ride shotgun no matter how young, that it’s more than OK to let them paint on the walls, because art is a form of self-expression and allowing their kids to express themselves freely is more important to Ben and Kami than nearly anything else. They believe that the relationship between parent and child should be more collaborative than authoritative, and that when your 6-year-old asks to run a marathon, you let him.

Most marathons have a minimum age of at least 16 years old — the Flying Pig’s is 18 — but Ben and Kami say they will continue to support Rainier as long as he wants to run, even if it means defying race policies and critics. They believe that is what good parents do, that they are fighting for the same thing many other parents are fighting for, in ways small and large: the right to parent with freedom.

After breakfast, Ben sits at the head of the dining table with his slippered feet propped up against one of the benches. He pops on the glasses that had been on the table. “Wow, that’s much better,” he says. His vision is terrible, and without his glasses, Ben admits, my face had been a blur since my arrival nearly two hours earlier. The frames are clear and stylish. His dreadlocks, streaked with gray, tumble wildly past his shoulders. A few years ago, a psychedelic experience convinced Ben to grow his dark hair long, and when he decided to style it into dreadlocks, it felt to Ben that his hair had become an outward reflection of a transformation within, of a decision he made years ago to live more authentically, even if it felt counter to cultural norms. In his mid-40s, he is giving himself permission to do the things he wanted at 18.

Ben tells me he doesn’t really care what anyone thinks of him or his family, if anyone suggests he and Kami are terrible parents for letting Rainier run in a marathon, or for letting him run the next day in the 2023 Cincinnati Heart Mini-Marathon, when temperatures are supposed to drop below 20 degrees. A few minutes ago, Ben sent Seven to pick up the race packets for the half-marathon, an event his youngest child is not officially allowed to run but will anyway.

This stuff riles him up.

“If you follow everything that you’re supposed to do as a parent you get applauded,” he says, straightening his posture as the words rush out. “If you take your kid to the doctor, if you send your kid to school, if you take your kids to McDonald’s, no one asks if these things are good for you. It doesn’t matter. I’m not saying they’re bad for you. I’m just saying if you do what’s regular, if you do what’s normal, people are like, ‘Wow, you’re a good parent.’ But if you do something that you believe is better for your kid, the amount of risk … it’s so disincentivizing. It’s scary to parent in a way that you think is best for your child.”

Later, Seven returns with race bibs for Ben, Seven and Memory. Rainier will run unregistered, which many within the running community consider to be race banditing — essentially stealing. But Ben says they would pay for Rainier if they were allowed to.

“Kids are some of the most disenfranchised people,” he says, his voice rising. “They don’t have rights that adults do. If you said a Black person isn’t allowed to participate in this race, or a woman, you’d be f—ing crucified right now — and rightfully so. But if you say a 7-year-old can’t, people are like, ‘Oh, that’s smart and responsible.'” His two oldest daughters, Dove and Eden, are running in the Los Angeles Marathon the same weekend with their friends. He wants his 7-year-old to be able to make the same choice.

“Complete discrimination,” Ben says, shaking his head.

BEN AND KAMI call each other “Babes” a lot — “Babes, can you get the coffee?” — and grew up 45 minutes away from each other in the Seattle suburbs. Kami’s dad was an army chaplain and church pastor; Ben’s dad was a missionary in Korea during the early ’70s, which is where he met Ben’s mom, who is Korean. In Washington, the Crawfords attended a Plymouth Brethren church. In high school, Ben wore Christian T-shirts every day of junior year. Ben wanted to become a missionary in Africa and live off of nothing. When enrollment opened for Bible camp every summer, he was first to apply, and that is where he met Kami when they were 14.

Some of their fondest memories took place at Lakeside Bible Camp, and decades later, Ben and Kami took their kids to the same place, plying new memories onto the old ones.

“Ben was into me before I was into him,” Kami says, laughing. She sits to Ben’s right on a bench in the dining room after refilling their coffee. “I thought you were a cool kid, but you zeroed in on me.”

“All the girls were tan and trendy,” Ben says, sipping his coffee. “Everyone had a Bath & Body Works scent. What they wore, what they thought was important, it all seemed dictated by large companies. But Kami …”

“I was tone-deaf to those things,” she says. “I didn’t really care.”

“She would wear jean cutoffs with a Gap T-shirt. You weren’t bubbly, which made me interested. I was more attracted to quiet …”

“Mysterious,” Kami interrupts, and they both laugh before Ben continues.

“I would write letters to her and she wouldn’t write back.”

None of it deterred Ben, even after Kami told him she would never marry him. She was honest, which he liked, and wanted more of in his life. On Christmas in 1999, Ben proposed holding the engagement ring he bought for $229. He told her he wanted to follow Jesus for the rest of his life, and he wanted to do it with her. At the time he was interning at a church, helping with the youth and college groups. He still dreamt of becoming a missionary and believed that he had found the perfect partner in Kami, who was both gentle and kind. Crouched on one knee, Ben told Kami their life was going to be hard.

She said yes, and they married one month later, two 20-year-old kids. They lived in a one-bedroom student apartment, relied on food vouchers and push-started their Hyundai down a hill every morning. Kami was two years away from completing her nursing degree, which they believed would be valuable in their life as missionaries. Ben had dropped out of Multnomah University in Portland, quit a construction job he hated, and then found a job he loved, working at Red Robin for $17 an hour and free fries.

Dove was born a year after they married.

“Family life is all we’ve known,” Ben says. Friends and family members liked to heckle him, saying his life was over — “see you in 18 years” — and Ben watched as his friends shed their old lives for new ones as parents, which seemed to be defined by love, but also self-sacrifice.

“That never felt right to me,” he says. “There was something fishy about the way that parenting was done — change everything, put the kid in the center. We said f— it, we’re going to live our life and do the stuff that we think is interesting and we’re going to bring our kids along with us.”

When Kami was pregnant with their second child, Eden, Ben proposed a three-month cross-country bike trip. He quit his job at Red Robin, bought two Trek mountain bikes and outfitted them with road tires that would take them some 3,200 miles, from Virginia Beach to Seattle. Baby Dove rode in a trailer with a little red flag that hitched to Ben’s bike and off they went.

“We didn’t know what we were doing or anything,” Ben says. He tells me a story. Miles of rich open farmland stretched in front of them. A storm brewed overhead. “We had never seen rain like this,” he says. Ben, Kami and Dove raced across a field and hunkered down in a barn. Lightning blazed across a churning sky and painted the landscape with streaks of light. They were soaked to the bone and chilled, but safe, and witnessing something beautiful together. “I’ll never forget it,” Ben says.

They made it to Damascus, Virginia, and slept in a good Samaritan’s garage on bales of hay with Appalachian Trail hikers. The next day, they got back on their bikes and pedaled west. A car smashed into them some 100 miles later. They never saw it coming. They were cycling and then they were on the ground, bike wheels still spinning.

“We could’ve died for sure,” Ben says. “But we didn’t.”

They were injured and stranded with a 1-year-old in the Appalachian Mountains without IDs, money or their belongings, which had been left on the road when the ambulance came. The worst had happened and they were OK, forged by an experience they had shared together. Years later, Ben and Kami, scars on her back from the crash, returned to Damascus while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail with their six kids. “This is where it all started,” they told the children.

After the bike crash, the family returned home, but Ben no longer had a job and was wondering what to do next. Before the bike trip, he had bought a book — “How to Make $100,000 a Year Gambling for a Living” — and thought little of it beyond it being an interesting read. The bike trip unlocked a new way of thinking, a “mental freedom,” Ben says, that made him reconsider how a chapter about card counting might change their lives. He asked Kami if she trusted him, and after her blessing, took $800 — the last of their savings — to a casino. He tucked a credit card-sized piece of paper with card-counting strategies into his pocket.

His $800 grew to $2,000 in one night. Ben started playing with two friends, then three, which became a small team when word spread. “The bike trip, taking that risk of going against social norms, created this confidence for me to take other risks, Blackjack being one of them,” he says.

Starting in 2006, Ben co-managed a Blackjack team made up of mostly devout Christians. They called themselves the Church Team, and leaned into the novelty of card-counting Christians traveling to casinos across the country. NPR and the New York Times did stories on them, and they were the subject of a documentary, “Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians.”

“It was a team of predominantly Christians,” Ben says. “It was double weird.”

Card counting isn’t illegal, but casinos ask suspected card counters to leave. Sometimes Ben and his teammates dressed in disguises. There are pictures of Ben dressed in goth garb complete with eyeliner and painted black nails, one of him wearing a white turban with a fully grown beard, another photo of him dressed as a geek from MIT.

By the time the Church Team disbanded in 2011, Ben says he had begun to burn out. Playing Blackjack had fundamentally changed the way he saw money, and he was no longer interested in making it. He had bought a house with the money he made from casinos, but felt lulled into the trap of needing to make more, to fill their nice house with nice things for his kids, which felt like the dream of every parent and, for a while, his own. But it would never be enough.

“The bike trip, seeing that we could be happy on $10 a day, I was always like, if Blackjack doesn’t work, I can work at Wendy’s and have a happy life,” Ben says. “I could get paid $5 or $10 an hour and I can do s— with my kids. The things that are most important for me with my kids, you can’t buy.”

A FEW HOURS before dinner, Rainier sits at a table pushed up against the dining-room wall. An abandoned throw blanket pools underneath on the wooden floor. He swivels in his chair, legs scrunched up against his chest, and pulls up a YouTube clip from 2016 on the family desktop. His birth video — “New BABY! Home Birth with Family” — fills the screen and begins to play.

Kami peers at the computer and smiles. “Ah,” she says. “That’s a classic. It’s kind of intense.” The three of us watch as the video version of Kami squats inside an inflatable pool and breathes through a contraction. A midwife hovers nearby and offers encouragement while each of the Crawford daughters take turns holding Mom’s hand, brushing her hair back. Ben sits in the water with Kami. “The head’s right there,” he says, and Kami begins to push.

I sit on a bench and watch Rainier watch himself. “Mom?” Rainier asks. “Can I have a bowl of cereal?”

All of the Crawford kids were born at home or at a birthing center, a decision Kami and Ben made so they could be surrounded by family and friends. As Rainier took his first breath, Dove and Eden cried. Kami tucked baby Rainier into the space between her head and shoulder, right over her heart. “I love you,” she said. “I love you.” Seven cut the umbilical cord.

Birth, the Crawfords believed, was a gift from God, and meant to be shared, and so making a video and posting it for the world to see was an easy decision. It became, and still is, the most popular video on their YouTube channel, with 3.8 million views. It validated for Ben and Kami not only the need to reclaim the beauty of birth away from a clinical setting, but the feeling that we as a society, as families, are starved for this type of intimacy.

For years, starting in 2015, the Crawfords vlogged nearly every day — 10- to 20-minute clips of their daily life uploaded to YouTube. Ben named the channel “Fight for Together,” and in the early days of the vlog, he devoted hours learning how to edit. They started vlogging because they wanted to show what family life could look like when it wasn’t dominated by year-round sports, overnight summer camps, carpool schedules and school. (All of their kids were homeschooled at the time.) The vlog was also, Ben and Kami say, modern-day missionary work.

Ben posted the mundane. Coffee in the mornings and family meals, teenagers squabbling and making up, birthdays and holidays. He posted the outlandish, videos with titles designed to entice. “Our Worst Parenting Fears” and “Married Vloggers Fight.” “I crashed my parents mercedes” is another popular one. When people commented, asking about Ben’s former career as a professional Blackjack player, he made several videos about that too — “A Day in the Life of a Retired Blackjack Player,” and “FINALLY Back in a CASINO.”

Rainier likes to watch old videos, and quotes lines from his favorite ones like an old and familiar movie. There are hundreds of videos on their channel, documenting nearly a decade of family change.

In an early vlog from 2016, with the camera propped up on the table of a coffee shop, Ben explains that families were designed by God as a way to better understand God himself. “We wanted to show our life and let it speak for itself,” Kami says in the video sitting across the table from Ben.

That was when life was good. Really good. Ben and Kami were valued members of a home church led by Kami’s brother, Jeremy Pryor. Their family friends — many of them part of the same religious community — lived within a 3-mile radius. Some lived just a few doors down, renting properties owned by Ben and Kami. Friday nights meant shabbat dinners and communion at the Crawfords’ house. Birthday parties drew 30 or more guests. They hosted Bible readings for kids and adults. New husbands and new dads asked Ben if he would mentor them, and he took special pride in the requests. Epipheo, an internet startup that Ben had cofounded in 2009 with Pryor and two other Christian friends, was growing and creating explanatory videos for clients like Microsoft and Google.

Every morning Ben opened his Bible and saw in it validation of everything they had built, a manifestation of the life they had envisioned years ago when Ben proposed to Kami and said he wanted to follow Jesus, and he wanted to do it with Kami by his side.

He had always gravitated towards extremes. Ben could be obsessive almost about the things he felt drawn toward, and religion was the sun around which all other things orbited. In college, Ben and Kami agreed to take a break from dating because Ben worried he had begun to love Kami more than God. “One thing that’s absolutely true about Ben is that when he puts his mind to something, he can go after it,” says Mark Treas, a former Church Team member.

Vlogging about their life, the one that he and Kami had created together, became Ben’s new passion and obsession. It was about to unravel the very life he meant to share.

THIS PAST OCTOBER, Ben flew to Houston by himself to get his 16th tattoo. He got his first — a fish, to symbolize his Christian faith — on the day he turned 18. They represent to him who he was and what he believed at each juncture of life. His newest tattoo took seven hours to complete and covers his neck from his Adam’s apple to collarbone. “Man, it hurt,” he says. Boxes and straight lines form the edges of the tattoo and merge toward the center into a mandala drawn with softer lines and curves.

“It’s kind of a visualization of what it was like for me to transition from rigid, boxy, religious beliefs to more fluid, spacious and rounded beliefs,” he says.

Ben and Kami have spent years examining painful questions about the events that spiraled over a two-year span and left them separated from their church and faith community by 2018. One day, Ben says, Pryor gave him a multipage document containing Bible verses accusing him of pride, which then led to a spiritual discipline process. He was required to meet regularly with his mentor, and told to stop vlogging for a week. He spent his days upstairs in the family attic reading the Bible from morning until evening.

He also was ordered to see a therapist. He didn’t want to go, and picked the most expensive therapist hoping they would also be the most qualified to fix whatever was wrong with him as quickly as possible. But after an early session, Ben called Kami from the car. She could hear him crying. Maybe, he said, he wasn’t a monster. Maybe the problem wasn’t him or their family, but the religious community they were a part of. “Therapy was our saving grace,” Ben says now. “It actually saved our ass.” Eventually, Ben and Kami started going to therapy together. Having an outside perspective felt empowering, and those sessions set in motion realizations that made staying in their religious community impossible. They had become different people.

“Growing up in religion, spirituality looked very boxed-in and narrow,” Kami says. “Five or six years ago, that box just sort of blew open and it was like, ‘Oh, there’s a whole other world out here.'”

“We were basically in a cult,” Ben says.

Ben says now that he believes they were kicked out of the church in part because of the vlog, that the foundation of their community was based on submission to authority and the vlog epitomized the lack of control religious leaders had over Ben and Kami’s ability to share their own story.

The shabbat dinners, Bible studies and weekly gatherings all came to a stop. Ben says he ran into a good friend at the coffee shop only for the friend to say he wasn’t allowed to speak to him. Their friends moved out of the houses they had rented from Ben and Kami. Ben sold his shares in Epipheo and the Blackjack website he had started with his Church Team co-founder. Over email, Pryor asked his sister Kami not to contact him anymore.

“We were shunned, but we played a part in that too that I don’t regret,” Ben says. “We were kicked out, but also we didn’t comply. If I would’ve known…”

He pauses. Starts again.

“If I would’ve known, I don’t know if I would’ve complied or not. It’s hard.”

Two years after Ben’s meeting with Pryor, the Crawfords’ trip to the Appalachian Trail felt less like the family adventure they had planned than a time to heal and walk off a version of their past selves. It was an opportunity to reexamine everything they knew and believed, especially when it came to parenting. For years, the family had a set of rules written on the chalkboard wall in the dining room: “Work Hard.” “Crawfords Never Quit.” “Submit to Authority.”

I ask him to repeat the last rule — submit to authority. “You literally had that written down?”

“Oh yeah.”

“We viewed our job as parents to make sure our kids turned out OK, which basically involved a lot of rules. We felt like our job, as religious people, was to follow the rules.”

They had rules about showers — the kids were expected to shower once a day, for 10 minutes max, and every minute past meant paying 10 cents. Laundry days were assigned to each of the older kids, and it needed to be finished by 4 p.m. or else they had to pay $1 for every hour past, plus an extra $10 if they forgot entirely. Posted on the fridge, Ben and Kami maintained a chore chart and family schedule that mandated quiet time from 8:30 to 9 a.m. But the biggest rule of all was listening to Mom and Dad.

“Rules were the basis of our relationships,” Ben says. “They had become more important than other things.”

After returning from the Appalachian Trail, they did away with rules entirely for a year. When the kids wanted candy, they were allowed to have it. Bedtimes and screen time limitations were no longer enforced. Homeschooling, too, began to look different. Instead of a traditional curriculum focusing on science, math and reading, the kids followed their passions. Memory, for example, attended pottery lessons taught by a family friend. The kids were entrusted to decide when to go to bed, when to wake up, what they wanted to do with their days and what they wanted to learn.

The older kids talk about a “before” and “after” — there’s a clear distinction between the way they were brought up and how Filia and Rainier are raised today.

“I think they broke this cycle,” Memory says. “How they’re parenting us currently, it’s not how they were parented.”

“They just stopped believing that it was their job to direct us what to do,” Dove says.

The metaphor Ben uses to describe his ideal parent-child relationship is like having a boss you can drink a beer with. (Ben says he doesn’t care if his kids drink underage so long as they also understand the legal consequences.) Sometimes the boss has to make hard calls — “I’m not anti-rules, if my kid’s crossing the street and there’s a car I’m going to do everything I can to knock him down,” he says — but it’s mostly an equal partnership.

“Getting kicked out of our whole community and family, we started to shift our priority as parents from enforcing rules to just radically accepting whoever they are and listening to what they said, listening to who they are and what they want instead of shoving what we thought was right down their throat,” Ben says.

He is most proud of his kids’ abilities to express themselves, that they feel safe enough to do so. Dove is a photographer. Eden paints murals. Seven creates videos. Memory plays piano. When I visited last March, Filia showed me her drawings and her handsewn animals made of felt. Ben says his kids have a voice that he never had, and he feels like he is making up for lost time. It’s why he’s so passionate about his writing. He’s published four books in two years. He’s working on one now, about parenting.

When I leave the Crawford’s house later that afternoon, Kami is in the living room picking at a guitar. In 2021, she released her first album and has released two more since. The room next to Ben’s office has been fashioned into a recording studio of sorts. Her voice is feathery when she starts to sing.

Some people won’t sail the sea ’cause they’re safer on land / To follow what’s written / But I’d follow you to the great unknown.

ON THE DAY of the Flying Pig Marathon in May 2022, Ben posted a picture of the family at the starting line on Instagram. He posted again midrace — a selfie with Kami and Rainier. A day later, he posted a photo of Rainier at the grocery store holding the Pringles he had been promised at mile 20.

“He was struggling physically and wanted to take a break and sit every three minutes,” Ben wrote in the caption. “After 7 hours, we finally got to mile 20 and only to find an abandoned table and empty boxes. He was crying and we were moving slow so I told him I’d buy him two sleeves if he kept moving.”

The comments trickled in.

“Appalling child abuse. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

“This isn’t a lesson in resilience. It’s a lesson in manipulation and it’s gross.”

“6 year olds do not need to be running marathons …. ever heard of T-ball?”

Then they swelled into a flood when Kara Goucher, an Olympic distance runner, tweeted. “A six year old cannot fathom what a marathon will do to them physically. A six year old does not understand what embracing misery is. A six year old who is ‘struggling physically’ does not realize they have the right to stop and should.”

“It became a total s— storm,” Goucher says. It got ugly on both sides. Suddenly people were commenting on posts of Goucher’s son to criticize her own parenting. She says she blocked more people after tweeting about the Crawfords than she had in her entire career. “I wasn’t trying to judge, I was just trying to say, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea,'” Goucher says.

Ben refused to concede any ground to critics. In the week after the marathon, the Crawfords appeared on “Good Morning America.” Six days later, Ben told Piers Morgan in an interview that he believed his role as a dad was to show his children that anything was possible. When Morgan said at the end of the segment that Ben may have changed his mind, Ben gave a soft smile. The family also wrote statements on Instagram addressing what they call a wave of misinformation, compiled a four-page FAQ for anyone interested, and wrote an open letter that included subheads titled “Science and Medicine,” and “Parenting in Peril.” One section, under the subhead “Freedom and Health for All,” draws a connection between the decades-long bans against women in distance events to the ones today against children like Rainier.

“Ben just doesn’t do things in the way other people do,” says Ford Knowlton, a former Church Team member. “I think part of it is that he doesn’t want to. I sometimes make decisions to live differently than other people or change the way I’m living and I just do it quietly, but he loves to put it out there and cause tension and friction. I think he likes to help people wrestle with what they believe or how they live. He likes being a challenger.”

Still, the critics kept coming. Eden googled her family every day out of morbid curiosity. One national headline read, “Parents receive backlash for allowing 6-year-old to run a marathon.” Another, “Flying Pig Marathon: Controversy as six-year-old boy takes part.”

“It didn’t feel like they were describing us,” Eden says. “It felt like it was just another news article that happened to have the names of people that I knew.” Some of the comments on the family’s social media accounts spilled over into her personal account. The messages ranged from pity — “poor kids” — to accusing her of being brainwashed by her parents. “It felt really disempowering. What do you say to someone like that?”

Dove says someone egged their house, hitting Memory’s window upstairs. The worst was when Child Protective Services arrived. Someone had called saying they saw Ben and Kami drag Rainier along the course. The investigation found no evidence of abuse, but the events left Kami shaken.

“I knew they weren’t going to take away our kids, but they have the power to do that,” she says. “If you do anything out of the ordinary — which is really just out of the cultural norm — it can be really easily demonized.”

Kami told Ben she was afraid to run outside, and the family took three weeks off. Ben and Kami gathered the kids in the dining room and brainstormed things they could do instead of doomscrolling. Eden wrote the list on the chalkboard. “Go for a walk,” someone suggested.

“Call a friend.”


“Write a poem.”

Over the next few weeks, Ben and Seven worked on a documentary about the race. They wanted to show how Rainier encountered real struggles along the way but triumphed over each one. They also wanted to silence the family’s critics. Ben and Seven believed it would be one of the most important videos they would ever make. It played at a local theater and Ben posted it on YouTube in June 2022. Titled “Marathon Boy,” the 80-minute video has 1.1 million views and more than 2,600 comments — many of them positive.

“Kudos to the Crawfords for allowing their kids to be thinkers and doers. They’ll all be better adults because of their upbringing.”

“Rainier is a real life superhero.”

“All of what I saw here is what I aspire to be as a parent.”

The few medical studies on the long-term effects of distance running on children are inconclusive. The sample size is limited because children aren’t regularly completing marathons. There’s no definitive, ‘this is good,’ or ‘this is bad,’ says James Smoliga, a professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences in Seattle within Tufts University School of Medicine. “Every kid’s different. Every parent’s different. Of course they’re going to have different opinions, which is why it went viral.”

Many races, including the Flying Pig, offer shorter races for kids. The Flying Pig even holds a “Flying Piglet” for babies, a 15-foot crawl. Children over the age of 7 can participate in a mile race. Ben knows all of this, but isn’t interested in those options. He’s been running in the Flying Pig with his kids for a decade, since Seven was 8 years old. He didn’t know if they’d finish, but figured they’d try, and has been posting pictures and videos of his family running together on social media ever since. They wear uniforms — neon tank tops and red shorts with a letter C. The Crawfords aren’t trying to break records or send their kids to the Olympics — Rainier’s marathon time breaks down to a 19:41 mile pace — they’re running for fun.

Until 2022, no one seemed to care. But now that his youngest child had given him a platform, Ben was ready to use it.

RAINIER SEARCHES THROUGH his cubby in the dining room, hunting for the 2022 Flying Pig medal he earned 10 months earlier. He pulls out a T-Rex figurine missing its head, a duct tape wallet that Seven made, a Happy Meal toy from McDonald’s and a plastic Easter egg.

“S—!” he says. There’s a funky purple goo stuck to the bottom of the cubby. “How did this get in here?” The medal is somewhere in the back, and after passing it to me, Rainier goes about trying to separate his marathon race bib from the goo, which is pretty much superglued in place.

“Mom? Can you help?”

He’s small for his age, with freckles and long blond hair that drapes over blue eyes. He lost his two front teeth a few weeks ago, creating a thumb-spaced gap when he smiles or giggles, which happens a lot. Filia is nearby playing with the cat. A few minutes ago, Memory came down to ask Ben how to set up direct deposit for her new job at the Starbucks down the street.

Ben is sprawled on the living room couch reading a book when I ask for a house tour. “Sure,” he says. “Let me just finish this chapter.”

A few minutes later, we walk upstairs. A massive painting of a tree wraps around the stairwell, its branches stretching higher and higher until they curl around the ceiling, three stories up. “My brother did this mural,” Ben says. The leaves, painted in a lush green at the base, shift into golden shades of yellow towards the second floor. In Seven’s bedroom, there’s a mural of Mount Rainier that Eden painted. In Filia and Rainier’s room, Eden painted a forest landscape in hues of blue and green that spans the entirety of one wall. They once had six beds stacked in this bedroom. Now only three remain. Memory sleeps in the bedroom that Dove and Eden once shared.

“There’s a bit of Wild West vibes to the walls of the place,” Ben says. “I view the house as an art project, which has been an ongoing thing.”

We continue up to the attic. There’s just one window, and from it we can see the Crawfords’ backyard, which connects to the house of Ben’s parents. Ben points to his right and a house he and Kami bought in 2019. They gave it to their three oldest kids along with $45,000 to fix it up. “In lieu of college, my mindset was we’ll give you a house,” Ben says. “If you want to go to college you can sell it, or you can keep it, it’s kind of up to you.” Now Dove lives there with her boyfriend. Tucked between the main house and Dove’s, just out of view from the attic window, is a tiny home where Eden lives.

We pad back downstairs, the wooden steps creaking. Ben sits at the head of the dining table, alone. A balloon from somebody’s birthday idles by his feet and floats from one spot to the next. He’s lived in this house for more than a decade; Rainier was born in it, his kids were raised in it. Despite all the outside noise stirred up by Rainier’s marathon, Ben remains confident that he and Kami have done it right. A few months from now, Eden will move out of the family compound and into an apartment two miles away to start community college.

“Togetherness in our family looks different than it did eight years ago,” Kami says later. “It’s supposed to. All of our kids are in a different place and they have different needs. So do Ben and I.”

Ben and Kami raised their kids to believe in their autonomy. They know their kids can use those very lessons to one day leave and forge their own paths, the way Ben and Kami did when they created new lives outside of religion.

Ben wants his kids to know independence and freedom, to be able to run marathons and know that their legs are capable of carrying them 26.2 miles and beyond, to wherever they wish to go. He hopes that he and Kami have built the type of home that their kids will want to return to. Sitting at the distressed table, he faces the chalkboard wall where Kami used to write down the kids’ schedules. Now she writes plans for Filia and Rainier only — the older kids no longer need it.

“If my kid looks at me in 20 years and says, ‘You ruined my life,’ what am I going to say?” Ben says. “I don’t want to ruin my kid’s life.”

IT’S EARLY MAY 2023, about a week after Rainer finished his second Flying Pig Marathon. He peers into Ben’s phone, the screen pulled up to my FaceTime call. He swivels his tiny body in his dad’s office chair and sits cross-legged, his thumb popped into his mouth.

“Hiiii,” he says.

“Can you take your fingers out of your mouth so she can hear you?” Ben asks.

Kami and Ben spent weeks before the race fretting over what would happen if Rainier was spotted running, if he would be hassled or pulled off the course by race officials. In 2022, Rainier was allowed to register. Now, organizers said he was too young to run. Online, Ben said he wouldn’t engage with “haters,” but he reposted screenshots of the previous year’s tweets from Goucher and another Olympic runner. “Who I would trust to raise my children if I died, in order of preference,” he wrote, followed by:

1. Homeless Drunk

2. Pro Wrestler

3. Catholic Priest

4. Olympic Athlete

“Ben … I think he takes the social media thing a little too far,” Harvey Lewis says. He’s a professional ultra-runner and a Cincinnati local who’s run in every Flying Pig Marathon since it started in 1999. “Maybe he’s trying to change people’s perceptions, but I feel like there’s a cost to that.”

Lewis knows the family and likes the kids a lot. Eden recently reached out for advice on running an ultra-marathon. A high school history teacher, Lewis doesn’t want to say anything that would hurt the kids. He recognizes the hypocrisy of what he’s about to say — he was 15 when his mom signed him up for his first marathon, an experience that changed his life — but letting a 6-year-old run 26.2 miles seems extreme. He points out that Ben and Kami gave Rainier Children’s Tylenol midrace, a clear indicator to him that the distance is too much.

“Is it OK to just let your child sail around the world when they’re 6 or 7 years old?” Lewis asks. “Where’s that limit ever drawn?”

Rain poured the day of the 2023 Flying Pig. It made it hard to see, and Rainier held on tightly to Ben’s hand as his dad guided him through flooded streets. Kami decided not to run, but she met up with Rainier and Ben at various spots throughout the course. So many people gave Rainier midrace high-fives that Ben told Rainier he didn’t need to acknowledge every one if the effort was wearing him out. Ben and Kami’s worst fears never came to pass.

“I didn’t want to quit,” Rainier tells me now over FaceTime.

“Why not?” I ask.

“I like doing stuff with my family.”

Rainier repeats this a lot when you ask why he runs. “Our family does hard things.” Or, “This is what we do.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that none of his friends are running marathons. But they were there to cheer him on at mile 24, his favorite part. At mile 25, he says, they were going “really fast.” His grandma, aunt and cousins waited along the course with raspberries, grapes and watermelon. He stopped at every playground he saw, took breaks when he wanted, and then crossed the finish line in 8 hours and 15 minutes, 20 minutes faster than his time when he was 6.

“I want to run at least five marathons,” Rainier says. “So far I’ve done two. I think I’m going to do at least three more. But it kind of depends if my dad wants to do it. If my dad doesn’t want to do it…”

He pauses.

“I won’t do it.”

It’s 3 in the afternoon. He’s supposed to go on a training run with Ben. They have plans for a four-mile run, maybe five. Later he has a playdate with one of his best friends. Dinner is in a few hours.

And after that, he tells me eagerly, he’s been promised computer time from 8 to 9 p.m.

It’s his favorite part of the day.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top