In 1995, an Austin public relations consultant and avid runner set out to bring her love of movement to a younger generation. Now 25 years later, Marathon Kids founder Kay Morris is both humbled and awestruck by the impact her creation has had on so many young lives. “It still feels unreal,” she said.
The idea began when she heard media reports about increasing rates of childhood obesity along with decreasing physical activity. She learned that American children were running considerably less than their global peers.
A magazine article about a teacher who created a “run around the world in increments” program helped clarify Morris’ vision: she believed young kids would enjoy running a marathon in the same gradual way. Morris created a chart where kids could color in every quarter-mile and track their progress until they completed the whole 26.2-mile course months later. The idea was simple and straightforward. Since it rewarded completion, not speed, it was an endurance race that everyone could win.
“One thing I’ve learned as a runner is that it’s not just about muscular well-being, it’s about psychological well-being,” she said. “I thought this feeling that ‘I’m vivacious and I can do something!’ would adapt well to children. So I took what was beautiful to me about running and adapted it to young people.”
Once the seed of the idea was planted, Morris reached out to Austin ISD and their PE teachers, who embraced the idea with gusto. She teamed up with Paul Carrozza, owner of local running store RunTex, who became Marathon Kids’ first sponsor.
It was important to Morris that they capture the imagination of children of all skills, shapes and backgrounds.
That first year, Morris expected about 200 elementary kids to join. More than 1,600 signed up.
“It was the elementary school PE teachers who built this program with me. I drove all around to each of their schools in my little Honda Civic,” she said. “There were no texts, nobody using emails. Honestly the fax machine was almost always broken. It was an adventure!”
In addition to inspiring individual students, her team of supporters wanted to build up the entire community, so they planned kick-off events and finisher celebrations, giving kids free T-shirts, medals and the opportunities to meet professional and Olympic athletes.
“The key was to keep it simple and to celebrate in a joyful, colorful, inexpensive way,” Morris said. “I wanted university track & field venues to host the celebrations because it’s so important that children of all income levels get to be on a college campus. Just being on a campus with their parents can ignite their dreams of higher education.”
Expanding the Dream
Morris soon realized that her simple Austin prototype could be easily expanded to other cities. With the help of corporate sponsorships, Marathon Kids hired a small staff and began thinking big. Volunteer ambassadors would travel from city to city to present their mission and set up free programs. “Our first year in Austin, we had 1,600 participants. When I left Marathon Kids in 2012, we were in major cities across the country and there were 275,000 Marathon Kids.”
Today, Marathon Kids serves kids in all 50 states—and now with the virtual program, parents can support their kids’ physical activity goals during periods of remote learning. Morris has been thrilled to see everything her small idea ignited, but she refuses to take all the credit.
“Never do I have a sense of ‘I did this!’ It was truly a step-by-step journey with teachers, sponsors and eventually staff. I’m most proud that we decided to keep the program free. I’m proud that Marathon Kids has good bones and has endured. I’m proud of all the people who came forward for these children.”
And when asked how she feels to know how many young lives she impacted? “I confess when I see little children running with their parents, I have a little light shine inside for them, hoping maybe our efforts will carry them through a lifetime of vitality.”
To keep Marathon Kids free for all kids, please consider a donation to Kay’s 25th Anniversary fundraiser.