We were excited for the opportunity to catch up with Marathon Kids’ DaCoach this spring! As the Health and Wellness Coordinator for Belmont Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland, leader of the Marathon Kids run club the Belmont Ballers, personal fitness coach and owner of GameOn!Fitness, he is a man of many hats. He’s also a man of many names, known to his Belmont students, Marathon Kids runners and personal training clients as DaCoach, King Coach or simply his given name, Donte Samuel.
DaCoach has headed up the Belmont Ballers for nearly 15 years. He’s been vegan for five, ever since discovering he had a serious heart condition. The revelation pushed him to reconsider his own approach to health and wellness, including adopting a vegan diet, and the results have been better than he’d hoped: When he visits the doctor, his bloodwork and other tests routinely show him to be in excellent health.
“It’s been a ride,” he says of being vegan, especially in his area of Baltimore, which he considers a food desert—a region without adequate access to fresh, affordable produce and other healthy foods—and where the chicken box is one of the most popular meals around. “Sometimes people ask me, hey, how can you eat that? But I cut off bites for them and it’s so good.”
The Pandemic Made Health and Wellness More Important Than Ever
Exactly one year since the pandemic caused shutdowns across the U.S., Samuel’s students have finally returned to in-person learning. He is philosophical about the pandemic as well as the ongoing shifts in schooling. “We have to learn to be patient and go through the trials and errors. The students have their laptops with them now, and when it’s time for me to teach their resource class, health and wellness, they stay right there in the class. Everything has to be done inside the class.”
The Marathon Kids program counts 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity as equivalent to running one mile.
“We get up and moving. We’ll do a TikTok dance, running in place, jumping rope, lunges, jump-lunges—it all counts as distance.”DaCoach
The same principles extend to the students’ time at home, where DaCoach always recommends Marathon Kids running for staying active and resolving the challenges associated with long hours spent together indoors. “The beauty of Marathon Kids is, when the kids are in the house with their parents, sometimes they’re getting on their nerves. I’ll say to them, ‘Why don’t you have them run in place for ten minutes, even five minutes?’ Some of the parents are burned out with electronics, so for the tracking, I’ve had the parents write it down and send it to me.”
When he’s working with students at school, he always reminds teachers to take the kids outside. “The track is right there. We’ve worked out how many times around the yard equals a mile. I’ll post it up, so people have the opportunity to see what they’re doing.” Other times, he encourages the teachers to use Marathon Kids as motivation. “Tell the students they’ve got to run their laps before they can take part in the games we’ve set up, and the kids are ready to go. Let’s go!”
Holistic Health and Wellness: Not Just Physical Fitness
DaCoach’s approach to health and wellness extends well beyond physical activity. “At our school,” he says, “I want us to be the healthiest possible, inside and out. One of the things we talk about is roots, branches, seeds and soil. If you eat properly, that’s going to help ward off some of the health issues that may arise. I always say, when you get to dirty thirty, all the oils, salt, sugars, all that stuff comes out of you. So how do you come back from it? You want to make sure that you take care of yourself.”
His students, growing up within a food desert, learn from DaCoach about all sorts of things related to the foods that are most readily available to them. “When they come to me and say, ‘Coach, I opened up this bags of chips and it’s almost empty’—I tell them, you know, that’s nitrogen holding it down. ‘What? What’s nitrogen?’ And that starts the conversation about all these foods, full of salt and sugars.”
He has maintained the school’s relationships with Great Kids Farm, where the students go for hands-on learning about working with plants and raising food crops, and with the Nutrition Lady—Lauren Williams, who brings fresh vegetables to Belmont Elementary for the students to take home to their families. As always, DaCoach continues his years-long focus on the many different aspects of living a healthy lifestyle. “I tell the kids about keeping their hands clean, keeping their noses clean, sneezing into their elbows. I’ve been talking about this for years. Belmont Elementary in Baltimore is one of the healthiest schools in the country, and that’s because we just continue to do it and continue to say it.”
Sticking with Marathon Kids for the Long Run
DaCoach says his longevity with Marathon Kids stems from the fact that the program works—and from love. “I’ve stuck with Marathon Kids because they have shown me so much love. So much love! Another teacher at Belmont had told me about it and introduced it to me, and I thought it would be a great idea. I took it and ran with it.”
The Marathon Kids program encourages kids to complete the distance of four full marathons, or 104.8 miles, over the course of a run season. From the beginning, DaCoach appreciated the way the program teaches kids to reach a big goal in one-mile increments: “Wow, we’ll be able to finish up the 26.2 miles and then the maturation process to the full 104.8—and I just saw how they kept going.”
Plus, there have been some incredible milestones along the way. “Almost five years ago, the First Lady Michelle Obama came to run with us. That was ree-donkulous! I was running with a GoPro on my head.”
Find Your Wheelhouse, and Keep Improving
DaCoach’s Marathon Kids experiences also inform his work as a personal fitness coach, and vice versa. “I had a client the other day, she’d been eating all the bad foods. She wasn’t feeling good. She kept saying, ‘Coach, I want to stop.’ I was thinking of one of my students saying the same thing, and I always tell them—this is what we train for.”
The Marathon Kids program makes running fun and accessible for kids of all backgrounds and abilities, and emphasizes celebrating every milestone. “With so many people with flash bulbs and cheering for us,” says DaCoach, “it keeps it going.”
Most of all, he’s all about helping raise the kids right. “Whatever I do, whether it’s with GameOn!Fitness or anything else, it’s to help thousands of students. Students eventually become adults, and they come back and help.” With anything you do, he says, “you want to find your wheelhouse, and continue to churn the bottom of that barrel. Do the things you do great, and do them better. Find your weaknesses and figure out how to do them best.”