MANCHESTER – At the crack of the starting gun for a 5,000-meter run, Aidan Puffer sprinted around a pack of 17 older runners and led the field for more than a lap. Seeing this, the announcer cautioned, “Just a reminder that this race is a little over three miles.”
But 11-year-old Aidan, a sixth-grader at St. Bridget Catholic School in Manchester, knew exactly what he was doing.
“I sprinted the first 200 meters and then paced myself the rest of the race until the end,” he said in an interview at the school, surrounded by his parents, his coach and his principal.
Starting a 5K with a sprint might mean early exhaustion for most runners, but Aidan clearly is not most runners. After he regained his breath, a second sprint of the last 80 meters put him in the record books.
Aidan now holds the 5K track world record for 11-year-olds. In this event at the Battle Road Track at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., on May 14, 2016, his time of 17:06.05 beat the previous record of 17:06.96, which was set in South Africa in 2014.
Kyle Puffer, Aidan’s father, said, “We told him, ‘Don’t try keeping up with the other people. Run your own race, and don’t feel bad if you come in last.’”
Out of the 16 who finished, last-seeded Aidan came in 12th, beating the next, older runner by more than seven seconds. None of those other runners mattered; Aidan’s time was better than any other runner his age since records have been kept.
The Puffers are members of St. Bridget Parish in Manchester. Martha Puffer, Aidan’s mother, said that the close-knit community at the church and the school has shown tremendous support both before and after the record run.
“His classmates have been so excited for him since the beginning, cheering for him and bragging about him after all of his important meets,” she wrote in an email.
Mary Alice Nadaskay, principal, said St. Bridget School doesn’t have a track team but she arranged for Aidan to join the cross-country team at St. James School, also in Manchester. There, under Coach Jen O’Neill’s guidance, Aidan won first place in the Connecticut Middle School State Championship Boys’ B Race East of the River in the fall of 2015.
“It’s nice to be able to work with St. James and other Catholic schools, and we’d like to be able to show what we have here at St. Bridget’s, as well,” Mrs. Nadaskay said. “I have seventh graders who tell me that they would very much like to have a running team.”
Aidan, now 12, is slightly built and is modest about his accomplishments, which also include All-American status in indoor track and a slot on St. Bridget’s soccer team. He also plays guitar and has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
On a day when he was scheduled to run both a 3,000-meter race and a 1,500-meter race, he woke up with a fever and an upset stomach. “We’re sorry,” his mother said. “You’re out. You can’t do this.”
But a runner is not a runner if he doesn’t run. Aidan, already rated among the top six runners in his age group, insisted on running in that United States Association of Track and Field (USATF) Hershey Youth Indoor National Championship event. He came in second in the 3,000-meter and fourth in the 1,500-meter, earning All-American status.
Aidan is a member of the Central CT Jaguars Track Club in Bloomfield, under the coaching direction of Arthur Jasper.
“Aidan is a self-motivator,” Mr. Jasper, a retired police officer, said. “When he came to the team we knew he was driven and something special. We were glad to have him. My first concern when I first saw him was not to break him.”
He said he tries to adjust Aidan’s training according to the physical needs of an upcoming meet. “If he’s going to run a mile in a race, we want to get his body used to running that mile,” he said. He might have Aidan run 800 meters, rest, then run another 800 meters. The combined times will be faster than if he had run 1,600 meters (about a mile) in one go, thus giving him confidence, he said.
Aidan’s first 5K was at Jaimie’s Run in Wethersfield in November 2014. He did well for his age (about 24 minutes), despite little formal training, and it whetted his appetite for running.
“I just try and break my personal bests, and every time I break my personal best, I try and break that again,” he said. “I pray before I run, to help me do good in the race,” he added.
“We pray for his safety, too,” his mother said.
“Kyle will take him on runs just so he’ll have the opportunity to do it,” she said. “Yesterday he went on an eight-mile run on Rails to Trails and back, and Kyle rides the bike behind him because no one can keep up with him.”
“I write down in my book and I keep track of how many miles I do per week and I try to build up miles,” Aidan said. His father said that was Mr. Jasper’s idea.
“Most of his meets, he runs with kids his age,” Mr. Puffer said. One of Aidan’s recent 5K runs was close to the world record, so Mr. Puffer looked for an officially timed meet with a 5K race that would occur while Aidan was still 11 years old. That record run took place five days before his 12th birthday.
“It was all adults. He was the only kid in that meet,” Mr. Puffer said.
Aidan may have inherited his athleticism from his parents. Mr. Puffer has a black belt in karate, and Mrs. Puffer was an elite gymnast who competed with future Olympians. Their other son, Luke, is also a member of the Jaguars, plays soccer, does gymnastics and has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Their daughter, Catherine, plays soccer and practices ballet.
Mr. Jasper said Aidan’s positive attitude inspires everyone in the Jaguars. “In every practice, Aidan gives 110 percent. Even when he’s sick, he gives his all,” he said.
“We encourage all of our students to strive to do their best,” said Mrs. Nadaskay. “Aidan is also excellent in academics, and he has a heart of gold, so he is a well-rounded child, which is our goal here at St. Bridget School.”
Is Aidan a future Olympian?
“It’s eight years away,” Mr. Jasper said. “I think he has a shot. I really do.”