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Coach Julie Spelman teaches Physical Education at Baldwin Elementary in Austin, Texas. She also heads up the Baldwin Bobcats—678 student runners spanning kindergarten through fifth grade, who run laps around their school’s outdoor track every PE class as well as during lunch and recess. PE classes are on a three-day rotation; this year, Spelman is teaching virtual learners via Zoom along with face-to-face learners at school.
It’s a challenge for the in-person learners to stay six feet apart, Spelman says, and using gym equipment can be tough due to the time constraint created by having to sanitize equipment between classes. “One nice thing,” she says, “is that we can all participate in Marathon Kids! I already have a lot of parents that have registered their children. When I get a notification that they have logged miles, I go into our Marathon Kids account and approve them. The kids love to tell me how many miles they have done at home!”
At the end of each PE class, when the virtual learners log off their class Zoom, Spelman heads out to the track with her face-to-face learners, where they run laps for the last 15 minutes of class. The Baldwin track is one-fifth of a mile long, and the students typically run three to five laps at a time.
“When running gets tough for them,” Spelman says, “I always try to keep pumping them up. I tell them that they are stronger than they think, and that they can do it! I tell them to walk a little bit and then pick up the pace if they are feeling it. I also let them know that power walking is good, too! If I see they are struggling, that is a great opportunity for me to walk and talk with them. I can pick up the pace, and before they know it, they are running again!”
GROWING WITH THE PROGRAM
Spelman is long experienced with Marathon Kids, both as a coach and as a parent. Her own children participated in the program years ago, in elementary school. “We would go to the kickoff and final mile every year,” she says. “It was always so much fun!” Now that she is a Marathon Kids coach, she focuses on breaking down big, ambitious goals into smaller, achievable steps with her students.
“I let my students know what their large end goal is—four marathons throughout the school year,” Spelman says. “Then I try to have them achieve that goal one mile at a time. If they look at the big picture, then it will be overwhelming, so we just concentrate on the miles that we do each day. When they can see them add up, it makes it easier for them to achieve their big goal. When they do achieve it, they are so excited about it.”
This year, for the first time, Spelman made a set of ID scan cards for her in-person students. “The cards are all organized on our wall, which has made it so much easier to keep track of their laps. It really helps to hold students accountable, too! Teachers bring their scan cards out at recess and during WOW time. A few teachers have their students wear their scan cards in a plastic cover clipped to their shirts, which makes it very easy to scan.”
In mid-November, the school reached its first big group milestone of the season—over 1,000 miles total and counting. “It’s so exciting!” says Spelman.
MARATHON KIDS HELPS KIDS DEVELOP DETERMINATION AND HEALTHY HABITS
Coach Spelman’s students are an active group. “The majority of our students participate in afterschool activities. There are lots of soccer players that are in club, baseball, some ice hockey, lacrosse, swimming, tennis, karate.”
She teaches them about the importance of physical activity not just for physical health, but for mental health as well. “Today I had a student who was not having the best day. After we did our three laps on our track, he was smiling and talking like nothing had been bothering him. I always tell my students that in under two minutes—about how long it takes to go once around the track—they can have an attitude change!”
The lessons Spelman teaches her students in PE class and through their Marathon Kids activities, and the bond of trust they share, extend beyond the school setting. “I just had a student yesterday tell me he was going to test for his next level yellow belt,” she says. “He said he didn’t get it the first time, and he was going to try again. I asked him what happened the first time, and he told me there were a lot of people watching him and that made him very nervous. I told him this time, if there are a lot of people watching you, just pretend they are not there. Show your coach everything you know.”
Her advice worked: “Today, while we were on the track, I asked him how he did, and he said he passed. He told me he took my advice. Hearing that made my heart so happy! I told him how proud I was of him and that I knew he could do it!”
The students are also absorbing lessons about how food affects their bodies and how it can fuel their workouts. “When I have lunch duty,” Spelman says, “I secretly check out their lunches. From what I can see they are pretty healthy! We learn about Go, Slow and Whoa foods, and they always show me that they have Go foods in their lunch!”
PHYSICAL ACTIVITY HAS BOTH MENTAL AND PHYSICAL BENEFITS
Spelman is a fan of the Marathon Kids program and mission. “I have always loved the Marathon Kids program and everything it stands for. I think it is a win-win for all involved. There are so many benefits. I love that it is research-based!” For others considering getting involved with Marathon Kids or becoming a coach, Spelman says, “I would tell them to do it! It is a win-win for all! You will definitely see a difference in your students and also in yourself!”
She recalls a teacher who would send her students out to the track whenever she could see they were getting tired or distracted in class. “She always told me that when they all came back in, they were so much more refreshed and ready to learn,” Spelman says. “I always tell my students that if they are tired, I guarantee that after they do their laps, they will feel so much better. The majority of them come back smiling after!”
For Spelman, physical activity is an important part of staying healthy. “I know it helps my stress level. If I’m having a not-so-good day, I go for a jog or a bike ride and end up feeling so much better! Those are the days when I find myself doing more laps with every class. I know that if I want to prevent heart disease, which runs in my family, I need to keep exercising. There can’t be any excuses not to!”
George Adkins teaches PE at River Ridge Elementary in Evans, Georgia. Together with his colleague Laura Paulos, he heads up the school’s Marathon Kids runners, a group of nearly 700 kindergarteners through fifth-graders who call themselves the River Ridge Racers.
“We have students who come from all corners of the globe, all socio-economic levels and various family make-ups,” Adkins says. “This is partially due to a large military base and medical field in our area. Activities before and after school get students moving either inside or outside on a daily basis. We have two recess periods each day for students to run and play. They have a love for PE and enjoy learning different ways to make and keep themselves healthy.”
MARATHON KIDS CONNECT MAKES LAP TRACKING A SNAP
River Ridge began holding a running track day 14 years ago. “We used coffee stir sticks to track the students’ laps, since they were plastic. For record keeping, we used Excel, which proved to be a lot of work—transferring students’ names to different classes each year and clearing the slate. It was work just trying to keep up with when a student earned an award.”
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Adkins knew he and Coach Paulos would have to change how they ran PE. “I realized handing out sticks was not going to work for keeping track records, so I put out a question to other PE teachers around the country on a blog I read, and a teacher in Wisconsin responded. She gave me information about Marathon Kids to research.”
Coach Adkins says the program is “the best I have found due to the ease of use, the data that is available on each student, and the customer service/technical support, besides being a free program. I have shared it within my county, and now we have another school that has started using the program.”
Depending on their ages, the River Ridge Racers typically cover one-and-a-half to three miles at a time during their track time. Adkins and Paulos use Marathon Kids Connect to track the students’ mileage on their iPads and iPhones. “The ease of managing 694 students in the program has been a breeze. I can do it quickly, replace their names/QR codes instantly, and see which students need more encouragement to increase their effort on the track.”
FIND A PHYSICAL ACTIVITY YOU ENJOY, AND DO IT FOR LIFE
Adkins has mostly in-person students this year, with just a handful of students learning from home due to the pandemic. He says their numbers will increase in January 2021, when more students return to in-person class. “Keeping classes separated from each other is a challenge,” he says, “along with sanitizing and masks.” But he and Coach Paulos are making it work.
When running gets tough, Adkins tells his students to keep moving and pressing onward. “Most of them want to keep up with their fellow classmates. We don’t let them sit down to rest, but encourage them to keep moving by walking until they feel better. Soon they start running again.” He also motivates them with shout-outs and awards when they hit distance milestones. “We also have a wall poster with the grade leaders for the month.”
Adkins has noticed several benefits in his students since starting the Marathon Kids program. “They’re more alert in classes and eager to go run on the track. They’re disappointed when it rains and they can’t go run laps.” He says obesity rates are high among Georgia children, so he and his colleagues try to instill healthy lifestyle lessons starting in kindergarten. “Artwork, posters and demonstrations help students see the importance of health and fitness. I want them to understand that fitness is a lifelong activity, so I tell them they should find something like running that they can do and enjoy.”
He recommends that other teachers and coaches give Marathon Kids a try. “This program is not intimidating, and will greatly help you and your runners enjoy the activity and increase their efforts.”
Isaac Zertuche is a PE teacher and Marathon Kids coach at Yarbrough Elementary School in Midland, Texas. His school’s Marathon Kids program, which is underwritten by H-E-B, consists of 780 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Zertuche describes his students as “very excited about health and fitness. We have a very diverse community from different working backgrounds such as the oil field, teaching, manufacturing, healthcare, finance, retail, and construction. Some of the kids’ extracurricular activities after school include playing at the park, riding their bikes with their friends and family, and walking and jogging with their parents after school.”
Zertuche, whose students call him Coach Z, first learned about Marathon Kids at a Midland ISD professional development meeting; as soon as he looked into the program, he knew he wanted to become a Marathon Kids coach. “Yarbrough was one of the first schools to try it out,” he says, “and we’ve loved it ever since.”
He says Marathon Kids was “a perfect partnership for the goals we had in PE for our students. Our students love to get active and to run. Our warmup in the gym consists of running laps inside and outside of the gym. For the primary grades—kindergarten through second—we would have them do locomotive skills such as hopping, skipping, galloping and side-shuffling. Our goal was to get the students moving from the time they enter the gym till the time they leave.” Marathon Kids programming supported that goal.
Motivation Is Easy with Marathon Kids
“Marathon Kids allowed us to run several marathons as an entire school,” Coach Z says. “The kids loved it! We would pretend and use our imagination as if we were traveling to several places with each marathon we completed.”
Every Yarbrough student participates in Marathon Kids. “Our students come to PE and participate in Marathon Kids four times a week,” says Coach Z, “whether it’s moving around and being active for 20-plus minutes or running laps.” The school has an outdoor, quarter-mile track where students run. “We allow the students to run their laps at their own pace and have fun doing it. Some students will complete four to six laps; other students will run 25 to 30 laps in a PE class.”
Coach Z and the other teachers and coaches keep track of the students’ mileage with Marathon Kids Connect, the program’s digital lap-tracking app and reporting platform. “Each student has a card in a plastic card slot on a lanyard. We print each ID card by grade level, and each teacher has their own color. Each time the student runs by, we scan their ID card. If we are unable to go outside and run laps, we will manually input laps the student runs inside.”
Once the students have run their laps, they’re allowed free play time. “Our students love this,” says Coach Z, “so they push themselves. We also remind the students of the amazing health benefits of running and being active daily, and that each lap is making them healthier and stronger.”
Marathon Kids Helps with Safe Distance Running
Coach Z says Marathon Kids has been “extremely beneficial” since the pandemic changed the structure of Yarbrough’s PE program. “In order to reduce the number of students in the gym and to help with social distancing, we have added Marathon Kids to our PE program since day one of the pandemic. One coach will keep two classes inside, while the other coach takes the other two classes to run laps outside. This has helped so much with social distance. We also have kids participating that are doing online learning for the year. Each day, those online students do a workout video or a walk or jog with their parents, and they add that to their lap total from home.”
The biggest challenge Coach Z and the other PE teachers are facing this year is making sure all students stay as socially distanced as possible and keep their masks on in the gym. “It gets hot and hard to breathe at times when exercising,” he says, “so I can definitely understand how they feel. We are just constantly reminding the students to keep your personal space and wear your mask correctly at all times.”
The Benefits of Daily Physical Activity
Coach Z has noticed that his students are more focused and have less behavior issues since introducing Marathon Kids programming. “The students go back to class tired,” he says, “so they are more relaxed in class and can focus better. I’ve also noticed how, as the year goes on, the students’ cardio endurance has improved. Our students are able to run longer and do more laps.”
He wants to make sure his students know the importance of their health at a young age. “Physical activity is very important because it can reduce the risk of several diseases and sickness in the future. Physical activity can improve the quality of your life. I strongly believe in the quote, ‘If you do not make time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness.’”
“Marathon Kids is an amazing program, especially for the pandemic. It is especially perfect for schools with big class sizes. It allows the students to run outside, stay fit and stay healthy while staying socially distanced.”
On November 24, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Oregon’s Beaverton School District launched a districtwide, virtual, five-day Turkey Trot as its official Marathon Kids kickoff event. Students and families from all 34 elementary schools in the district ran or walked along mile-long routes based in their neighborhoods—routes that had been created thoughtfully and specifically for each school, with safety in mind.
Nearly all of the Turkey Trot routes either began or finished at the elementary schools, or passed by them. This was special for Beaverton elementary school students, who haven’t set foot inside their schools since March. Due to the pandemic and rising virus case numbers in the Beaverton area, all Beaverton ISD schools have been 100% virtual.
Physical Activity Helps Students Feel Calmer and More Focused
Beaverton is a suburb of Portland, and its school district isn’t new to Marathon Kids. The district has had Marathon Kids programming and run clubs in its elementary schools for the past three school years. “Kicking off Marathon Kids has been in our plans for a long time,” says Cheryl Wardell, the PE Specialist at William Walker Elementary, who has taught Physical Education for over 32 years. “This is our fourth year of doing it as a district, first as clubs. Then, two years ago, we piloted it in one school, with nine teachers—what would it look like if we said any teacher that wants to provide Marathon Kids as a class could do it?”
That pilot went well, especially once Marathon Kids launched Marathon Kids Connect, its cloud-based physical activity reporting and tracking app. “You can record Brain Boosts now,” says Wardell, “or track your heart-pumping exercise. The data came back from both teachers and kids that they felt more energized, more calm and more focused.”
Based on such promising feedback, the district decided to pilot the program in more schools, focusing especially on schools with outdoor tracks that served students from lower-SES backgrounds. “About seven schools piloted,” says Wardell. “Three of those were all-schools, meaning all teachers jumped on board. That also was successful. With the new changes in the platform and the app, it makes it really easy for a teacher to download and track the miles. That was the game-changer for classroom teachers—that now, it’s not nearly as much work.”
When it comes to setting Marathon Kids goals for her students, Wardell always cites four complete, cumulative marathons by the end of the school year, but “I tend to try to make it very individualized. Our biggest thing is getting to the first marathon. If a kid really wants to go, they have an opportunity to do it all the time at home—and they don’t really have that opportunity at school, where they’re only tracking one or two days a week with their club and during classroom time.” She expects plenty of students will exceed the four-marathon goal by May 2021, especially if they go for daily walks or have parents who are runners and set that example for them.
Pandemic Changed PE Classes, But Marathon Kids Kept Running
While everything slowed down in March 2020, when shutdowns occurred due to the pandemic, Beaverton ISD’s Marathon Kids initiative continued. “With the pandemic and our kids being virtual for the foreseeable future, we decided we would open [the Marathon Kids programming] for parents to be able to track miles from home,” says Wardell. The district established its PE teachers as ambassadors at each elementary school and invited all classroom teachers to track their students’ activity during Brain Bursts or active time during virtual classes. “The biggest thing,” Wardell says, “is really trying to get parents on the platform.”
There has been increasing excitement and involvement from parents thanks to the virtual Turkey Trot. Before the kickoff event began, one school in the district had 200 parents sign on within just the first few days. “They have a robust Marathon Kids running club,” Wardell says about the school. “They did their own video about it for parents, they’re a very community-oriented neighborhood, they do their own neighborhood Turkey Trot… so they are just onboard.” The excitement spread to the district’s teachers and staff as well. One staff member, Kris Damiano, ran all 34 one-mile Marathon Kids Turkey Trot routes in a single day!
For the Turkey Trot, the district made it as easy as possible for families to participate, with no need to register for the event and by providing the routes for each school community. Parents and guardians logged their students’ miles—“which is so exciting,” Wardell points out, “because we can all see it. The parents can see it, the kids can see it, the principal can see it, the teachers can see it…”
Of course, the district’s PE and classroom teachers had already been logging kids’ miles on Marathon Kids Connect throughout the fall semester. Wardell says the Turkey Trot event brought in the rest of the community. “It was kind of our way to say, ‘Hey, come join us,’ to help people feel a part of their school community and part of the larger community by doing the Marathon Kids run in November.”
ABOUT MARATHON KIDS
Marathon Kids is on a mission to get kids moving. The nonprofit organization offers free physical education programming through Marathon Kids Connect, a cloud-based PE and run club management platform that includes a mobile app for digital activity-tracking.
Cindy Samok was instrumental in bringing Marathon Kids programming to Austin schools. Consider making a donation in her name to sustain the future of free physical activity programming for children.
Cindy Samok, Early Marathon Kids Coach
In the mid-1990s, Cindy Samok was a PE teacher at Casis Elementary School in Austin, Texas, where she’d been teaching since the early ’80s. Also an avid runner, she started an afterschool running program with her students. Together, they kept track of laps and did workouts as a group.
Around the same time, she learned about Marathon Kids when our founder, Kay Morris, was starting the organization’s first run club at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Children from that school would come to Casis with their PE teachers to run laps on the elementary school’s track; Samok’s students would pair up with them to complete laps together.
Buddying up was key to making running fun, and fun was key to keeping kids engaged for the long haul. In fact, for Samok, starting a run club was all about passing along the joy of running to her students. “When I was little, running was used as a punishment. I had strict PE teachers, and if you misbehaved, you had to run laps. But I wanted to teach kids about using running for health, as a way to relieve stress, to do buddy laps—talking to their buddy while they were jogging. I wanted them to use it as a way to have a good time.”
Bringing Marathon Kids to CasisElementary
When Samok decided to launch a Marathon Kids run club at Casis, she knew she wanted to head it up alone, “because I was a pretty competitive runner.” But she also knew she could use some help from the running community, starting with Kay Morris and extending to others in the local running scene. “I knew Paul Carrozza, who owned all the RunTex stores” (a specialty running store popular among Austin runners for 25 years, until it closed in 2013). “Paul was very on board with kids running,” Samok continues. “He designed tee shirts for my running club, and he was instrumental in coming up with the first Marathon Kids shirt as well.”
It was all about passing on that love of running to children, so they could benefit from it in all the ways Samok had. “It was my joy that I always loved doing. When Kay came on board with this free opportunity for all the kids who wanted to run, I wanted that for them—to experience the joy of it. They run so carefree! You run or walk, you run with another kid or alone, you don’t need any equipment. I just wanted to pass that joy of running along.”
She also drew on her students’ natural competitiveness. “During field days at the end of the year, we would have timed miles with third- through fifth-graders, and the fastest runners would get to carry the flag for their classes. We would have kids participate in competitive runs all over town.”
She has many fond memories of her years at Casis and running the Marathon Kids club. “It was really fun! The final mile after the big Austin Marathon—that was really cool. And the kickoff at the Mike Myers Stadium at UT, with the torchbearers and the UT athletes handing out posters and water bottles. It was a big thing.”
Running Is “Epic Stress Relief”
Samok retired from public school teaching in 2011 but knew she wanted to continue teaching in some capacity, and decided she wanted to work with older people. She became a certified fitness trainer through the American Council on Exercise, and now she leads senior fitness classes at Westminster, a senior living community not far from Casis Elementary. She also has a personal training business called Mobile Fitness 2-U. “I’ve worked with all ages,” she says, “including after-school one-on-one training with kids. I just really have a passion for fitness, and especially for lifelong fitness.”
Samok calls running “epic stress relief. When you run, your body produces endorphins to make you really feel that joy. People run for all different reasons: to relieve stress, to get your head clear, to think.” She points out research about running stimulating the brain and helping students perform better on standardized tests. “It helps them concentrate,” she says.
Simple Ways to Keep Moving
Running isn’t always joyful, of course. For every runner, even experienced ones, there are times when getting out there and hitting the pavement or the track is a serious challenge. When Samok was teaching PE, she tried to pass along basic, good advice to help keep her students engaged. “I would tell them to run when it’s not so hot, and to always get water, and that it’s okay not to push yourself. Listen to your body! I tell that to my older clients as well: It’s okay to just walk some days. Just keep moving! That was always my motto. You may not run as far or as many laps, but just keep moving.”
Her advice for others who are thinking of starting a Marathon Kids run club or becoming a coach is simple: “Just make it fun! It’s not just running laps—it’s playing games and having kids come up with games. If I could say just one thing, it’s to make it fun and incorporate games and a lot of interaction among the kids, so they can develop friendships and make it more of a social thing.” Buddying up makes running more enjoyable, and when children enjoy something, they’re more likely to do it for the rest of their lives.