Hailey Walker’s last name is ironic, considering that she prefers running to walking. “I always wanted to run. I thought it was fun to run, plus I could get where I wanted to go faster than if I walked.” Eleven years old and in fifth grade at West Lenoir Elementary in Lenoir, North Carolina, Hailey has been a runner since she was very young, but she didn’t start tracking her mileage until her PE teacher, Coach Abee, told the class about Marathon Kids.
Sharon Abee has taught PE for 24 years and has been involved with Marathon Kids for two. “I felt like this program would help my students get in better shape,” she says, “and help them set goals and reach them, improve overall school behavior, and allow them to make new friends.”
When school is in session, the West Lenoir run club students run every morning from 7:20 until 8:00 a.m., when they head in to start their school day. “My students have PE every day,” says Coach Abee, “so they also run at the beginning of every class. We try to average three-quarters of a mile a day. With 180 school days, that puts you on track to finish all four marathons”—the standard Marathon Kids goal for student runners to cover in one school year.
Once a week, Coach Abee says, “we have a running day on the track, so students can catch up and stay focused on completing 104.8 miles”—the cumulative total of those four marathons. Some students wind up exceeding the four-marathon goal. Hailey, a natural and dedicated runner, loves running so much that she left that goal in the dust months ago.
Setting a Goal to Beat Another Marathon Kid’s Incredible Record
Two years ago, a Texas third-grader named Kelbie Black became the top Marathon Kids runner in the country when she covered over 550 miles during the 2017–2018 school year. When Coach Abee learned about Kelbie’s incredible accomplishment, she asked Hailey if she was interested in trying to exceed it. “Of course, she said YES!”
For Hailey, beating Kelbie’s record wasn’t about personal glory. It was about showing herself and others that dedication gets results. “I wanted to show other kids my age that you can do it. If you work hard, then you can accomplish anything.”
With her coach’s help, she set a goal of running 600 miles before the end of the school year. “Hailey and I sat down and did the math on how many miles a week she would need to break Kelbie’s record,” says Coach Abee. “She looked at the runners’ report that I printed every morning, so she always knew how many miles she had and if she was on track.”
“When my mom would drop me off at school in the mornings,” Hailey says, “I would go to the gym, put my stuff away and get my scan card, and head out to the track to run until I had to go in to school. I would usually get in at least two or three miles in the morning, sometimes more, and I’d get to do more laps on days the teachers took us outside. Mrs. Abee would scan my card; it would keep track of what I ran for that day.”
With Distance Learning, Run Club Shifted from School to Home
Then the global pandemic hit, and schools across the country closed, including West Lenoir Elementary in mid-March. Hailey had to shift to logging her miles alone, at home. “My goal that I had set for myself was 600 miles,” she says, “but I didn’t quite make it before they had us doing school at home. But I am proud of the miles I did accomplish, and I am wearing my Fitbit at home to keep track of my miles to get there.”
Coach Abee wasn’t worried about her student reaching her goal. “Hailey has perfect running form, and running seems effortless for her. She is also one of the most driven students that I have had the pleasure of coaching. I never had to push her or remind her what she needed to do in order to break the record. She took it upon herself to ask me where she was and how many miles a day she needed to reach her goal.”
When Hailey started logging miles from home, Coach Abee worked with her student’s parents to keep track of her progress. “Hailey’s dad used GPS to measure a track at their house. She is now close to 700 miles. She has been using a Fitbit and sending me her daily activities.”
That’s right—Hailey broke Kelbie’s record at the end of April, and she’s kept on going since. And her “new normal,” including distance learning and running on her homemade track, doesn’t seem to have thrown her off much. “I’ve enjoyed getting to spend more time with my family and getting to play outside longer,” she says. “Staying at home has not changed anything for me because I’m still running as much, if not more. I think my speed has picked up.”
She is already looking ahead to next year and beyond, and is seeking new ways to challenge herself. “When I go to middle school, I want to join track, and I have been told by many of my teachers that I need to do long-distance runs.”
Staying Motivated Is Simple: Just Keep Going
Running isn’t always easy, even for naturals like Hailey. When asked what she does to stay motivated on the tougher days, her response is simple: “Sometimes it does get hard, but I just keep going. I enjoy running because it keeps me active and healthy. There’s nothing I dislike about running.”
On those tough running days, Coach Abee has some savvy advice for her students that can be applied to many areas of life, not just physical fitness. “I tell them that setting and reaching a goal is not meant to be easy—that it is supposed to challenge them. I have also told them that when they reach that goal and look back at the work that it took to get there, they are going to be extremely proud of themselves.” She also shares her own experience with and love of running, showing her students inspirational videos and telling them stories about what running has meant to her over the years.
Staying active has helped Coach Abee adjust to her own “new normal” caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Along with teaching online classes full-time every weekday, she’s been prioritizing exercise even more than she did before. “I think many of my students have been outside more, too,” she says. “COVID-19 has people outside exercising with their families. I’m happy about that!”
She’s encouraged her students to keep up with their mileage from home by logging it on an assignment she set up specifically for her Marathon Kids runners. She’s also following her own advice. “I have kept my sanity by going to the local greenway every day and either walk/running or riding my bike. It is the highlight of my day every day since the stay-at-home order went into effect.”
The Numerous Benefits of Exercise: Feeling Good in Body and Mind
Hailey and Coach Abee are of twin minds about the benefits of exercise. “Physical activity is important to me because I want to have a healthy lifestyle and stay fit,” Hailey says. As for Coach Abee, “I know that the more I move and stay active, the better I feel. I want to be running, hiking and biking until I am a very old lady.”
Coach Abee has seen significant positive changes in her students due to their Marathon Kids running. “All of my students’ confidence levels have soared, and their overall school behavior has improved,” Abee says. “Recess now has a purpose. I feel as a teacher that Marathon Kids has enhanced my PE program tremendously. My students are setting goals and reaching them!”
As for Hailey? “She has become so much more confident in herself,” Abee says. “She is so humble about her accomplishment, and she encourages her classmates. She is going to do something great in life!”