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Coach Ray Longoria Helps Kids Engage with Healthy Lifestyles at Kearney Family YMCA

By MK Editor, May 23, 2021

Coach Ray Longoria has worked for the Kearney Family YMCA in Kearney, Nebraska, for over a decade, where he’s coached a Marathon Kids run club for four years and counting. “We’ve had a running club at the Y since 2012,” he says, but when he discovered Marathon Kids, he knew he wanted to switch over. “I liked the awards and incentives, and thought it was a great way to keep kids motivated and excited about running.”

Longoria is a longtime runner who loves to share his passion for the sport with kids, but he emphasizes that it’s not just about being competitive. It’s about becoming healthier, no matter what your background or athletic skill level might be. “I ran cross country and track in high school and college,” he says, “so Marathon Kids has given me a way to share a passion of mine with kids through running—to show the benefits of what that can look like, and present it in a fun manner for kids.”

He admits that sometimes, running isn’t fun—it’s hard work and it can be repetitive at times. Still, he says, “we want to show kids that it can be fun, and show them the physical and mental benefits of staying active, gaining confidence, helping a teammate or a classmate have success—everything that ties into group sports in general. At the Y, we are trying to create a healthier community, and this program helps us do that through running.”

Tailoring Run Club to Each Child’s Needs

Longoria used to be the Program Manager at the Kearney Family YMCA before his colleague Courtney Burbach took over that role, including coordinating the Marathon Run Club—the Y’s Marathon Kids club. But Longoria knew he still wanted to be “right in there with the kids,” so he continued coaching the run club. As overseen by Burbach, he coaches two separate age groups so the running curriculum can be tailored to each group.

The younger group, serving kids from eight to 10 years old, focuses on having fun and using running as a great way to stay active. “Running can be a healthy activity that kids can keep doing throughout their lives, even if they don’t decide to do it competitively,” Longoria says. “Anyone can do it, regardless of your skill, background or anything else. And we try to make it fun regardless of skill.”

In the older group, which comprises 11- to 14-year-olds, many of the kids will be participating in cross country in the fall, so much of the curriculum is tailored for them. “But we still want to make it fun,” says Longoria, “so we incorporate a lot of the Marathon Kids curriculum for the ones who are just using the club as a way to stay active and have a healthy lifestyle. We want it to fit for them as well.”

“We want to be very inclusive and really give kids an opportunity to participate in a program that highlights healthy habits, and where the coaches we have in place, including me, are positive role models.”

The kids in both groups of the Marathon Run Club come from varying backgrounds. “It’s a diverse program that anyone, regardless of income, background, skill or ability, can participate in,” says Longoria. “We want to be very inclusive and really give kids an opportunity to participate in a program that highlights healthy habits, and where the coaches we have in place, including me, are positive role models.”

Setting a Good Example for the Kids

“I tend to live a healthy lifestyle,” Longoria says, “and running is a part of it, so being able to run more and share my discipline and passion for running with the kids is special to me. I tell the kids, ‘If I can share a workout with you, I’ll do it.’ I can’t always do that, but I do it when I can. I’m happy to go through this journey with the kids, even if it’s at a different pace. I tell them, ‘If you’re running and you’re tired, I’m probably tired too.’ It’s awesome as a coach to be able to share that with them.”

Each Marathon Run Club group meets twice a week, though members from the older group also have the option of meeting a third time each week. Some kids will run four or more miles in a session, Longoria says, while others walk or run shorter distances. “The distances covered vary depending on the athlete, and that’s something we promote. You go at your own level, and don’t worry about competing with another kid, as long as you feel good. If this is a first-time activity for you and you really need to walk, that’s great—we’ll build up to running.”

Each time the groups meet up, they start with a dynamic warmup and end with stretching after the run. The group also discusses other aspects of healthy living and staying active, such as the importance of proper hydration and how to fuel the body properly through healthful foods.

“We also try to incorporate some community events like 5Ks, to give the kids something to do to put their training to work,” Longoria says. “Community organizations are doing it for a good cause, so we go to support them, but also to showcase the kids’ hard work.” He always posts photos of the kids with their mileage logs on the Kearney Family YMCA Facebook page to celebrate when they meet their milestones.

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Using Marathon Kids Connect to Make Run Clubs Run Smoothly

The mileage logs are just one of many resources available on Marathon Kids Connect, a free, cloud-based platform that makes it simple to track and report on kids’ active time. “Parents have access to their own Marathon Kids Connect dashboard,” Longoria says, “so they’re able to gauge how many miles their kids are doing and how many miles we’re doing as a group. The kids can also see how many miles they’ve gone or how many they need to go to hit a milestone.”

Longoria says the Marathon Kids mileage logs are key to keeping kids motivated and engaged. “They let the kids have ownership and go on their own journey. We talk about that a lot—that they aren’t necessarily competing against the kid next to them. Going 26.2 miles might take you a week, or it might take you a month, and either way is okay.”

He sees many benefits from running in his Marathon Run Club kids. “Confidence is something you notice right away, and a little attitude changes once they accomplish their goal. That’s fun as a coach—you always love it when kids get that ‘Aha!’ moment. Especially when they hit their first marathon, they’re like, ‘Okay, this is fun!’”

Kids Who Engage with Running Often Stay Engaged for Life

Longoria loves it when the kids get engaged with their running journeys, and he really loves it when they stay engaged over the long term. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Hey, I just need one more mile, do you mind if I stay late and run one more lap?’ We always say, “Hey, that’s great!’ It’s fun to watch as they get a reward or get praised for their progress.”

He recalls one young runner in particular. “I had a young lady in the run club, probably in seventh or eighth grade at the time. We had finished one of our seasons, and I got a thank-you card from her, but also one from her mom and dad. The one from her parents was really impactful for me, because they said she’d always struggled to find her thing. They said, ‘We tried basketball, volleyball, a lot of sports, but she had a hard time finding something she could own.’”

Being in the Marathon Run Club, Longoria says, had allowed the young runner to find “something she could do and own and be passionate about. Other programs hadn’t been able to do that, but the Marathon Kids program was able to let her find her ‘thing’ and also develop some confidence, see some performance gains and just be able to establish a healthy lifestyle and use that moving forward.”

Now, Longoria says, the same young woman is running track in high school. “She recently qualified for state as a freshman in the 4x4. We still see her running at the Y, and it’s cool to see she’s still doing this every day.”

Anyone Can Coach a Marathon Kids Run Club—Even Non-Runners

For others who are considering starting a run club, Longoria advises using the resources Marathon Kids provides, such as the mileage logs and the Marathon Kids Connect Scanner app. “It makes it really to use with the resources.”

Another important piece of advice from Longoria? You can do it—even if you aren’t yet a runner, yourself. “A barrier people may have is they think they’re not runners, so they can’t start a run club, but you don’t have to be a great runner to be able to implement a program like Marathon Kids. At any level, anyone can do this. It’s just about being passionate about helping kids get moving at any level or athletic ability. You don’t need to have a running background, just a passion for giving kids the opportunity to try something different. That’s really what it’s about.”