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Chris McClung has been supporting Marathon Kids for 16 years. Please consider making a donation in his name to sustain the future of free physical activity programming for children.

Chris McClung—Co-Founder of Rogue Running and Marathon Kids Board Chair

In 2004, Chris McClung was in graduate school at the University of Texas. “We had a project to do associated with the governor’s initiative to promote health and fitness in the state,” he recalls. “We were supposed to figure out how to market that initiative, particularly to the Hispanic population, so a couple of my fellow students and I went to a health fair.”

Marathon Kids happened to have a booth at the fair, and McClung was talking to a representative about their running programming in Austin schools when a woman came up and interrupted the conversation. “She was just profusely excited about the Marathon Kids program. She was talking about how her kid was doing it through his school, and they had started running laps after school together. She talked about how she had lost 30 pounds and was feeling better and healthier because of it, and how her relationship with her son was improved because of their ability to do this activity together. I thought that was pretty cool.”

McClung had played soccer in college and then taken up running after graduating in 2000 as a way to stay in shape. He’d quickly fallen in love with the sport, and by 2004, had run several marathons. He had yet to conceive of running as a career, but “I knew it was something I would be doing for a lifetime. As a runner myself, I already knew the impact it could have on someone, but to see it in action in the community made me want to get involved with Marathon Kids. I knew what it would have done for me if I’d been involved in it earlier in my life, so I wanted to give that back to others.”

Soon after the health fair, McClung was directing a race in Austin on the UT campus, and selected Marathon Kids as the race beneficiary. “Then,” he says, “Kay Morris, the Marathon Kids founder, pulled me in, and I’ve been involved in almost every way possible since—as a volunteer, as a sponsor through Rogue Running, and now as chair of the Marathon Kids board. I’ve got three kids who are Marathon Kids. It’s been a cool ride over the last 16 years.”

The Impact of Running Extends Far Beyond Physical Health

Becoming co-founder and owner of Rogue Running has given McClung a deeper understanding of the impact running can have on someone’s life. “I coach adult athletes because I believe running is a vehicle for life change that extends well beyond the sport itself. I see that in adults all the time: how they build confidence, how they build self-esteem, how they relieve stress and find an outlet for so many things in life. And then it facilitates this change in life that affects their work life, their relationships and everything else.”

He believes the impact running can have on children’s lives is also profound, including building confidence in school. “Obviously there’s a physical benefit as well, but for me it’s more about confidence, self-esteem and the things it will open up in kids’ lives beyond just moving one foot in front of the other.”

One of the things that originally drew him to Marathon Kids was the fact that it was free and accessible to all.

It’s free, it’s incremental, it’s easy, and everyone can really have access to it. Those were core principles that Kay brought to the program early on. She wanted to make sure that not only can kids do it, but any kid can do it, it’s easy to facilitate, and you have kids of all activity levels and all backgrounds who can access the program. Those were pillars of the program early on, and still are pillars today.

Chris McClung

Favorite Memories from the Early Days of Marathon Kids

McClung moved to Houston after graduate school and helped launch the Marathon Kids program there, and was also involved in the organization’s early expansion to Dallas and other cities. “To see the first event they had in Houston was a pretty cool experience.”

Before that, when he was still in Austin, he would assist with Marathon Kids kickoff events at the University of Texas. “Kay was really big on getting kids onto college campuses,” he says, “not only to experience the kickoff event and get excited about the program, but also to see the University of Texas and to hopefully be influenced to want to go to a place like that someday.”

He remembers being a volunteer at one of those early UT events. “They would bring the kids down out of the stands in waves, and they would come through after finishing a lap and get autographs from University of Texas athletes. Just seeing the look on their faces after running and then getting to see those athletes, and being so excited to get autographs from these people that they maybe didn’t know, but who were obviously role models for them—you only have to see that once to think, This is a big deal.

The Future of Marathon Kids

These days, McClung is excited about taking Marathon Kids into a new digital era with Marathon Kids Connect, a cloud-based physical activity tracking and reporting app that launched in 2020. “I think it will only make it easier for people to reach us. We’ve been a very school-based model, which has served us well and has been a great way for schools to engage in it. But now, with the digital platform, pretty much anybody can do it. A family, a neighborhood group, a church group—anyone.”

Marathon Kids is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and though the organization now has a national presence, McClung still sees it as quintessentially Austin. “It’s cool to be part of something that was built here 25 years ago,” he says. “To me, the organization represents what Austin is—a physical activity-oriented community, where people like to get outdoors. And Marathon Kids was very grassroots. Early on, Kay was driving around in her car from school to school, helping teach the PE teachers how to facilitate the program. It was a very grassroots, low-key, scrappy, entrepreneurial spirit that built Marathon Kids, and that is still embedded in the organization today, and it still represents what Austin is really all about.”

McClung looks forward to another 25 years for Marathon Kids, and a reach that extends even further, to kids everywhere. “We would really like to see the community continue to embrace Marathon Kids as this organization that is Austin-grown, but that can also reach much further beyond Austin. The University of Texas has the motto that ‘what starts here can change the world,’ and in Austin, there’s a lot of that happening with businesses that are coming here or that started here, and with the entrepreneurial spirit that this city has. We have this opportunity now to take something that was born here and to take it much further. I think that’s very much what Austin is about.”

To keep Marathon Kids free for all children, please consider a donation to Chris’s 25th-anniversary fundraiser.

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We invite you to join the movement for more movement by becoming an Active Schools Champion!

Parents, schools, and organizations are invited to become Active Schools Champions and join a network of passionate people who are changing the way we prioritize physical activity in schools. As a champion, you will make connections, have access to valuable resources, and help create healthy habits in kids that last a lifetime.

Joining is free. So, please sign up and add your voice to the cause!

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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

Coach Julie Spelman

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!”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

Marathon Kids at Jacob Wismer Elementary in February 2020.

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!

Kris Damiano ran 34 miles in one 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.

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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 Casis Elementary

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.

To keep Marathon Kids free for all children, please consider a donation to Cindy’s 25th Anniversary Fundraiser.

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At Marathon Kids, we’re all about getting kids moving, both in school and at home. So, we were thrilled to partner with Austin Active Kids on a guide full of active, outdoor experiences in Central Texas that families can enjoy together.

If you live in the Austin area, or hope to visit one day, check out the free Austin Active Kids Outdoor Adventures Guide presented by Victory Medical by clicking on the image below!

Austin Active Kids Outdoor Adventures

All ads on the Austin Active Kids website, and in their guides, benefit Marathon Kids, putting more kids on the path to a healthy and active life! If you’re interested in advertising in one of the upcoming guides, please email hello@austinactivekids.com or visit the website’s Advertising page for more information.

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With H-E-B’s generous support, Marathon Kids now offers free physical activity programming for all Texas students.

Lesley Havelka teaches physical education at Bill Burden Elementary in Liberty Hill, Texas. Havelka and her two co-coaches, Coach Chadney and Coach Greene, use Marathon Kids programming to run the Burden Panthers run club—a group of 750 students, ranging from pre-K to fourth grade. “Most of our kiddos here in Liberty Hill are excited and enthusiastic about health and fitness,” says Havelka. “They enjoy our weekly track days and are always working toward hitting their running goals.”

Marathon Kids coach Lesley Havelka

Havelka first learned about Marathon Kids when she was a PE teacher in Austin ISD, before transferring to Burden Elementary. “I was lucky enough to attend the Marathon Kids kickoffs each year with my running clubs there.” Starting in 2020, Marathon Kids programming became available for free to all participants, thanks to a partnership between Marathon Kids and H-E-B.

Keeping Kids Motivated to Move

Havelka says the Marathon Kids program has always been a great source of motivation for the student athletes. “Marathon Kids is always coming up with new and innovative ways to continue to keep students interested in their own health and fitness.”

The Burden Panthers run club meets weekly for track days; the students typically cover anywhere from one to four miles in their 25 to 30 minutes together. Their miles are tracked digitally using Marathon Kids Connect, the cloud-based physical activity tracking and reporting app. “We currently use the lap tracking and time feature as well as all the data features available,” Havelka says.

This fall, she has both in-person and virtual learners; at school, PE has been held outside every day. “We have managed being outside daily very well, in my opinion,” she says. “The coaches and students have all worked together and been flexible, which has made our PE classes successful even in the midst of the pandemic.”

When running gets tough, Havelka says, the coaches make sure to offer words of encouragement. They also host friendly competitions to keep student motivation high. Most of all, the students keep each other going. “We always see students pushing each other in kind ways to be their best, even when it gets tough.”

Running Teaches Kids They Can Do Hard Things

Havelka sees definite benefits for her students in Marathon Kids programming. “The running club has shown many of our students that they can do hard things, and they can push themselves when it gets tough. We have seen increases in their cardiovascular health and endurance over the school year. We have also seen some students branch out into real-world races and even get family members involved in running outside of school.”

She believes physical activity is one of the most important things a person can focus on. “It can affect mental health,” she says, “and it directly affects how your body feels daily. Physical activity can have a positive impact on mood and relationships as well as prevent diseases later in life.”

To others interested in implementing Marathon Kids programming or becoming a coach, Havelka says, “I would definitely recommend it. There are so many positives that come from it for the students, coaches, and community.”

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Cindy Miniard, a physical education teacher at Crab Orchard Elementary in Crab Orchard, Tennessee, had been searching for ways to involve more of her school’s younger students in daily physical activity when she happened across Marathon Kids online. Immediately, she says, “I thought it would be a great fit for my school. After learning about the program, I knew it would involve a lot of students who weren’t otherwise involved in sports or activities. It also seemed like a great fit for classroom teachers to implement.”

Together with another coach, Coach Kayce, Miniard coaches the Crab Orchard Marathon Kids Club. The group has 293 registered students, with third through eighth grades participating. Miniard also hosts an after-school run club with 62 pre-K through eighth-grade students registered. “We partner with Tennessee State Park Run Clubs,” she says, “and Cumberland Mountain State Park is our home park. The goal of the program is to get the students outdoors and in the parks. They are helpful in promoting running with the kids.”

Crab Orchard is in rural Cumberland County, and many of the elementary school students come from low-income families. The nearest larger town, Crossville, is several miles away. “It’s difficult for some of our students to do any type of extra-curricular activities in Crossville,” Miniard says. “Our students enjoy physical activity and thrive on challenges, but healthy eating becomes difficult in some families, and it shows in our yearly BMI reports.” The school has implemented ways to teach students and their families healthy eating habits, including cooking classes for parents on a budget, but attendance has been low.

Students Learning to Challenge Themselves

In a normal school year, Crab Orchard Elementary classroom teachers facilitate daily physical activity for their students, whether running or walking outdoors or doing some type of indoor activity. The school was built recently, and the surrounding grounds and roads are still under construction, which has limited outdoor activity to the school’s parking area. Still, Miniard and her students have been making it work, running one to two miles at a time. “Many run club students recently participated in a 5K,” Miniard says, “a first for some of the runners!”

One of those first-time 5K runners was Sawyer, a fourth-grader who has been in Marathon Kids since Miniard first implemented the program at Crab Orchard Elementary. Sawyer and her family enjoy doing fitness activities together, and often spend time hiking trails or playing basketball. This year, Sawyer made a goal of setting a personal record in a 5K run, and began working on pacing with Coach Kayce.

Soon, Sawyer was winning in her age group in multiple 5K races. Coach Kayce is a fast runner who is used to winning medals in her own age group, but she was happy to run at Sawyer’s pace to help Sawyer meet her goals. “Sawyer’s success was more important than Kayce’s finishing time,” says Miniard. “We are so proud of Sawyer for her dedication to running and working on her goals to achieve more.” Coach Kayce says, “Soon Sawyer will be leaving me in the dust!”

Running During a Pandemic

Since returning to school in August, Miniard and the Crab Orchard classroom teachers have worked together to tackle the challenge of getting both in-person and virtual learners moving with all social guidelines in place. “The virtual students send in their Marathon Kids mileage through my Google classroom, usually in the form of a picture of their phone app or Fitbit. For virtual learners, I attach running tips and videos from the Marathon Kids website as lesson material, which has been very helpful.”

Miniard also hosts a virtual running club with 45 students; their parents submit documentation of the kids’ miles via weekly reports. “We are able to meet in small groups on Wednesdays for in-person practice, for 20-minute sessions during school. We have also participated in virtual races with our Tennessee State Park Run Club program, and we’ve been able to do the runs at school, since it is a smaller group of students.”

Crab Orchard Tennessee Marathon Kids

In-person students run with their classroom teachers as well as doing running activities in PE class. Any in-class physical activity breaks are also added to their mileage. Miniard says Marathon Kids Connect, the free cloud-based lap-tracking and reporting app, has been helpful with safe-distance running during the pandemic.

“I absolutely love the Marathon Kids Connect online tracking for keeping up with our mileage,” Miniard says. “I love being able to scan the students’ ID cards and add mileage to their accounts. Since we are doing a virtual/in-person run club, it is easy to add at-home miles for my in-person students as well as my virtual at-home students.” She also reports that the technical support team has been very helpful with working out any technical difficulties. “I love the reports that the program generates, and being able to give feedback quickly to my group. It’s becoming a little competitive among grades and classes because we are able to announce the leaders.”

COVID guidelines don’t allow for large group activities, Miniard says. Still, “we are finding ways to implement running activities with our students. We are thankful to offer this program to our students and see the benefit that Marathon Kids brings to their health and wellbeing, and are seeing kids develop a love of running.”

Building Motivation with Buddies, Celebrations and Dogs

For some students, the joy of running seems innate. For others, extra motivation is needed from time to time. Miniard designates student running buddies to help each other with pacing, and frequently discusses with her students the way the body feels when it’s challenged, to try to help them understand how to push through a tough run or workout.

The 26th of each month has been dubbed Marathon Day at Crab Orchard Elementary. “The school community is encouraged to wear fitness attire and add extra mileage on that day,” Miniard says, “and our principal has started announcing the mileage leaders by classrooms and individuals. We take rewards to classrooms or present at school assemblies.”

The school also utilizes school-wide assemblies every nine weeks, including Honors Day to parent nights, to promote the Marathon Kids program and acknowledge the students’ accomplishments. “Fitness and personal success are rewarded just like academic successes,” says Miniard.

Also serving as motivation for the student runners? Miniard’s black lab, Lucy. When Miniard started the Marathon Kids program at Crab Orchard, Lucy served as the run club mascot. “Since we used to practice mostly at the state park, and did many state park and community races as a team, Lucy was always with us. She has even been able to go to school on many occasions as our mascot! The kids and parents love her.”

Marathon Kids coach Cindy Miniard with her dog, Lucy

The Physical and Emotional Health Benefits of Staying Active

Miniard has noticed increased self-respect, self-assurance, pride and self-control along with improved behavior and academic performance in her students since they started running with Marathon Kids. For herself, she says, “I feel more capable of being a leader. Typically a shy person, I feel more confident speaking in front of others about the program. It has opened other opportunities, such as the state park running program, for my kids.”

As someone who has dealt with ongoing health issues, Miniard understands the benefits of being active. “As I get older, I understand that if you are active, you can fight the challenges that come your way. With our students, we talk about health issues they might face as adults, and the fact that being unhealthy will bring on more challenges. They can relate to this, as they have adults in their lives who have been sick.”

Miniard says she grew up playing sports and being active, and truly enjoyed her childhood. “Being physically active is just a lifestyle, and I wouldn’t know what else to do with my time. I want to instill a love of physical activity and an understanding of its importance with my students.”

Getting Involved with Marathon Kids

Last summer, Miniard traveled to Austin, Texas, to complete the Marathon Kids Leadership Training course. When she returned home to Crab Orchard, she says, “I was pumped! I couldn’t wait to share with my colleagues.” She presented the Marathon Kids program at regional physical education conferences, and is excited that schools in surrounding counties have been getting involved.

She also notes that more students at her own school are starting to sign up for cross country after having been part of the Crab Orchard after-school Marathon Kids running club. “I am proud of that,” she says. “Last year, cross country couldn’t even compete as a team because there weren’t enough students signing up.” (She did note that delays in the 2020–2021 cross country season were expected due to the pandemic.)

Miniard encourages others interested in Marathon Kids not to hesitate to get involved. “This is one of the best programs I have ever been involved with in my twenty plus years of teaching physical education,” she says. “It is a great community activity or in-school program. Finding time can be a challenge, but doing schoolwide events builds excitement and gets the adults in your building involved.” She recommends challenging coworkers and school staff to become part of the program. “Getting them to get involved is the key to success.”