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A Marathon Kids Virtual Run Club Enhances the Lives of Nebraska School

By MK Editor, May 23, 2021

Donnia Behrends, an Extension Educator with Nebraska Extension, was looking online for a physical activity-based program that would work well in after-school settings when she came across Marathon Kids. “What originally drew me to the program is the fact that is open to a wide variety of ages and genders,” Behrends says, “and it’s very nimble in how it’s delivered.”

A community organization that works with schools and individuals in the state of Nebraska, Nebraska Extension is a nationally respected educational leader. “NE Extension helps Nebraskans enhance their lives through research-based education,” says Behrends. “We have a responsibility to our clientele and colleagues to maintain high-quality educational programs and a relevant and responsive organization.”

The Marathon Kids program fit the bill, so in 2019, Behrends and her colleague, Mariah Newmyer, another NE Extension Educator and member of the organization’s Marathon Kids team, traveled to the Marathon Kids headquarters in Austin, Texas, to learn more about best practices for implementing the program. Fall 2019 marked the start of NE Extension’s first Marathon Kids run club, but then the Covid-19 pandemic hit just a few months later.

Adapting to Safe Distance Run Clubs and Helping Kids Stay Active

“Nebraska Extension responded by launching a virtual running program to help families at home stay active, in the midst of social distancing,” Behrends says. Marathon Kids Connect, a digital lap-tracking and physical activity reporting platform, eased the transition from in-person to virtual running, as did a Facebook group that grew to 308 members.

“The Nebraska Extension Marathon Kids Facebook group launched in April 2020 and concluded on July 31, 2020,” says Behrends. Families that joined the Facebook group began logging their miles, with the goal of running, walking, jogging or even skipping a cumulative 26.2 miles—the distance of a full marathon. They could also accumulate miles by tracking their active minutes. (Marathon Kids programming considers 20 minutes of physical activity as equivalent to running one mile.)

“The NE Extension team shared resources to help encourage and motivate families to get and stay active,” Behrends says. “They also shared their personal stories of keeping their own families active during quarantine.” The encouragement worked: “Families flooded the Facebook newsfeed with posts, photos, comments and reactions showing how their families were accumulating miles.”

Behrends says the Facebook group was “a great method of communication to encourage moms and other primary caregivers to get their kids active.” During the 16-week program, the group’s members, which included 56 youth runners and 28 adult runners, together logged a total of over 4,187 miles. Runners who completed a full marathon were rewarded with a digital certificate of completion and a congratulatory Facebook shout-out.


Quantifying the Benefits of Marathon Kids Running

The Marathon Kids team at NE Extension asked all runners who completed a marathon to provide feedback through a finishers survey. Behrends says, “The survey results revealed that 32% of runners enjoyed Marathon Kids because they increased their physical activity.” Another 29% reported they enjoyed it due to spending more time with their family, and 35% reported they had enjoyed it because of the increased time outdoors. “Another fun finding was that before MK, 92% of the participants reported that they enjoyed running, but after MK, 100% reported that they enjoyed running.”

As of summer 2021, Behrends and Newmyer, along with their NE Extension colleagues Beth Nacke and Hannah Guenther, are running both in-person and virtual running clubs with Nebraska Extension through Marathon Kids Connect. The virtual program, which opened May 1 and will close July 31, is another group challenge open to anyone of any age living in Nebraska.

With funding support from the Nebraska Department of Education, the NE Extension Marathon Kids team mailed physical activity-based May Day packages to every kid who enrolled in the 2021 summer program, complete with mileage logs, activity dice and jump ropes. They are also providing incentives like Marathon Kids tee-shirts to celebrate runners’ milestones. “This year,” Behrends says, “we are very excited that all miles are being logged by parents and caregivers using the Marathon Kids digital platform. So far this summer, 198 runners have logged 7,909 miles!”

Marathon Kids Connect Makes Administering Run Clubs a Snap

Since the virtual program is statewide, with 145 Nebraska school districts currently represented, each individual runner determines their own running times, durations and distances. Parents and other caregivers log their kids’ miles on the Marathon Kids Connect app, and the NE Extension team approves their at-home miles daily. The NE Extension Marathon Kids Facebook group also continues to motivate parents and caregivers of enrolled youth to help keep them active through the summer.

“The MK Digital platform has been a great addition to our virtual program,” Behrends says. “We love that parents can log miles as they happen, or all at one time. As a leader of the program, I love the leaderboard reports available, so I can easily pull the marathon finishers for our Fri-Yay celebrations online”—the fun digital shoutouts on Facebook that keep runners engaged as they celebrate their progress and accomplishments.


Using Marathon Kids to Address Widespread Challenges Caused by the Pandemic

“COVID changed the habits of many of our youth,” says Behrends, citing increased screen time, decreased physical activity and altered social habits as primary concerns. “Our Facebook group is trying to focus our content on those themes, to help encourage families to reestablish some post-pandemic habits that are filled with physical activity.”

Their efforts seem to be working. “We have been asking our runners, ‘How has Marathon Kids helped you,’ after they complete their first marathon,” Behrends says. Among many notable responses, participants have reported that their Marathon Kids running has shown them “that being outside isn't a bad thing” and provided “motivation to be active every single day.”

One parent reported that “It's keeping my kids active this summer and moving more than usual,” while another said, “It has helped teach my son how to set and accomplish goals.” Still another said, “Our son's favorite part of the day is our almost daily post-dinner run/jog to the different parks near us!” Marathon Kids even has positive effects in other areas of life: One participant reported, “I can bike up the big hill!”


Running Has Benefits for People of All Ages

Behrends has been an avid runner from an early age. “I started running when I was 13 years old. I remember running the timed mile as a seventh grader, and when I finished, I realized I loved the feeling of accomplishment and the energy it gave me when I moved my body! I committed that summer to running three miles every day, and that kick-started my lifelong running passion.” She went on to run track and cross country in middle and high school, and has continued running half-marathons as an adult.

“I love Marathon Kids because it's all about finding the joy in physical activity,” Behrends says. “I found the joy of running at a young age, and I think it’s so important to show young kiddos that they can be active, too, to give them the confidence they need to be active throughout their whole life.”

Behrends’s own children are also Marathon Kids. “Through MK,” she says, “my four daughters, ages 13, 11, nine and four, are learning to love running, too! Our family runs are usually on a rural running trail, or around the small town we live in. We love inviting our cousins along so everyone has a buddy to run or walk with.”

With such a variety of ages of children, she says, family runs look different every day. “Sometimes the littles are on wheels, while the bigs run. Sometimes we slow the pace down and all run/walk. Sometimes we go far, and sometimes it’s a quick one. Sometimes we have meltdowns, and sometimes we have smiles for miles! I love that all of that is okay with Marathon Kids.”