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The Lion Runners club is grant-funded, thanks to the generous support of the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation.

In Watts, a neighborhood in southern Los Angeles, California, there is an elementary school called the 112th Street S.T.E.A.M. Academy, where educator Criss Moreno wears many hats. She is a fourth-grade teacher and the school’s technology coordinator. She is also in her third year of coaching the Lion Runners, the school’s Marathon Kids run club, which has 120 fourth- and fifth-grade members.

112th Street Elementary, as the community calls it, is a Title I school. Coach Moreno applies for any and every grant she can because her students are both deserving and in need. “I really wanted to help my students to get up and move,” she says. “They spend so much time on their screens that I knew if I could find an incentive to get them to move, it would really benefit them.”

She also knew it would help her fifth-grade runners prepare for their Fitnessgram, a physical fitness test designed by the California State Board of Education to test students’ fitness levels with the goal of helping them launch lifelong habits of physical activity. While Marathon Kids run clubs don’t test runners’ fitness levels, and children of all abilities and fitness levels are both welcome and encouraged to participate, the Marathon Kids mission isn’t that unlike the California government’s goal: to set children on the path toward healthier lives.

Physical Activity Offers Multiple Benefits

Coach Moreno has benefited from the run club alongside her students. “Because I get out on the track and walk at least a quarter-mile a day to encourage my kids to run, I have lost 100 pounds and kept it off,” she says. “With the help of Marathon Kids and my loving students, we are all making better choices and making sure we hit a minimum movement number each day.”

All the Lion Runners run at recess, and some run at lunch as well. Everyone runs a minimum of a quarter-mile each day, and some up to a mile at a time. This year, for the first time, Marathon Kids is providing digital lap tracking for teachers and run club coaches, who can download the free app on their phones and get instant data when their students swipe their ID cards after each lap they run. “In the previous two years,” Coach Moreno says, “I kept a spreadsheet to track my students’ miles. This year, each teacher has the Marathon Kids app on their phone, so any teacher can log the miles. The app makes this so much easier!”

Less administrative work leaves more time for running—and the benefits of movement that Coach Moreno sees in her students extend beyond the physical. Research has repeatedly shown that daily physical activity boosts cognition and brain function along with strength, balance and cardiovascular health. “Because the students are running at recess,” says Coach Moreno, “they are a bit tired when they come back to class, and this leads to better concentration—because their bodies are tired, but their minds are not.”

Staying Motivated And Healthy For Life

When the going gets tough—as it always does at some point, for every runner—Coach Moreno’s students fall back on a basic Marathon Kids tenet to stay motivated: achieving their goals in small, manageable steps. “I give them a minimum to achieve each day,” Coach Moreno says, “so most of them like to do double or triple that. And because we are making small goals, they slowly, on their own, increase the number of laps they run each day.”

Her students are familiar with adversity. “Watts is historically a troubled area,” she says. “It’s where the 1965 Watts riots kicked off. We see generational poverty, and many students come from single-parent homes. There is not a lot of motivation to live a healthy lifestyle.” But her students love earning rewards for reaching milestones, and the tee-shirts and other fun Nike swag that they receive from Marathon Kids gives them the incentive to keep trying. “The students don’t realize they are building healthy habits that they will use the rest of their lives.”

Setting Goals For The Future—And Achieving Them

Coach Moreno encourages anyone who is considering starting a Marathon Kids run club or becoming a coach to go for it, and offers this advice: “It will improve your health, it will improve your classroom, and it will make a HUGE difference in the lives of your students.”

What’s on the horizon for her as the school year progresses?

“I hope to lose another 30 pounds this running season!”

ABOUT MARATHON KIDS

Marathon Kids is on a mission to get kids moving. The nonprofit organization offers free physical education programming through Marathon Kids Connect, a cloud-based PE and run club management platform that includes a mobile app for digital activity-tracking. 

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In the heart of Orange County, in the southeastern portion of the greater Los Angeles area, lies Columbus Tustin Middle School, where Coach Brook Brown hosts the CT Bulldogs Run Club every Thursday. This is the first year for this grant-funded Marathon Kids club. The majority of its 225 participating students, who are in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, run at lunchtime on Thursdays as well as logging miles on Marathon Mondays and during P.E. class on Mile Wednesdays.

Middle School Run Club

Miss Brown, as her students call her, has long roots in the area. She attended Tustin Middle School herself some years ago, and then graduated from Tustin High School. She completed her student teaching at Tustin Middle School before being hired as the school’s girls’ P.E. teacher in 2013. As an athlete who is driven to set and accomplish goals, she wants to inspire her students to do the same.

Now finishing up her sixth year of teaching at Tustin Middle, Miss Brown heads up the CT Bulldogs Run Club with three other coaches, including Steve Dunmeyer, who was her own basketball coach back at Tustin High. “He inspired me to start this run club,” Miss Brown says, “and he has supported me every step of the way. He pushes me to be a better teacher, athlete and person.”

Her mother, Jan Brown, also comes to help out on Thursdays. “She comes out every week with her smile to encourage the kids,” says Coach Brown. “She loves being a volunteer and loves being active!”

Kids Run Club Coach

Jan echoes her daughter’s sentiments. “I love the Marathon Kids program,” she says. “I exercise every day. It’s so important for these kids to get outside, take a break and move. We have walkers and talkers and some competitive kids who run a lot.”

Tracking Their Miles

The students keep track of how many laps they run to equal a mile. On Marathon Mondays, three laps equals a mile; at Run Club on Thursdays, five laps is a mile. The students can also count every 20 minutes’ worth of medium-to-high-intensity sports and games that they engage in as one mile.

Miss Brown has seen numerous benefits for her students since they began running with Marathon Kids. Their favorite part about Run Club is being part of a team. “They love being with their friends and making new ones,” Miss Brown says. She has seen many of the runners’ per-mile paces improve, along with their grades, self-confidence and overall attitudes. “The kids are supporting each other and applauding each other’s efforts,” she says.

Seventh-grader Franco Zavala has always been a hard worker, but since he started with Run Club, his self-confidence is higher and his grades have improved. Jamie Ibarra, also in seventh grade, shows up to the track with a smile on her face and a positive attitude. Miss Brown has noted improved leadership skills in Jamie. “She knows it’s hard work, but she still pushes herself to get in as many laps as she can!”

kids run club runner

Miss Brown uses the app RaceSplitter to track her students’ miles. The children enter their locker numbers when they come by on Marathon Mondays, and they use tally tracking at Thursday’s run club meet-ups. They fill in their own mileage logs once a week, when Coach Brown updates them on their total miles. When the runners hit that magical 26.2 mile mark, they get to enter their names on the Hall of Fame poster outside the gym, and they are also recognized in the school announcements.

Miss Brown and the school have multiple ways of honoring the runners’ milestones and keeping the children’s morale high. She chooses a weekly Runner of the Week, for example, awarding a medal to a student who has shown effort. Eighth-grader Anthony Quintana, a recent Runner of the Week, loves to run and is always one of the first runners out on the track every Thursday. This makes him feel successful.

Marathon Kids California

Miss Brown also features students on the CT Bulldogs Run Club Instagram page when they earn Runner of the Week or hit major milestones, such as completing a marathon. She accompanies their photos with encouraging captions like “Yay!” and “Awesome job!” and “Unstoppable!” The students’ smiles and looks of pride are priceless as they hold up their certificates or rewards like Nike t-shirts and shoelaces.

Youth Run Club

A Fun-Loving Coach Who Knows Kids Need To Be Kids

When the school celebrated “National Pi Day” on March 14, Miss Brown signed up to be one of the teachers at whom students were allowed to throw a pie. “Bring it!” she wrote on Instagram the day before the event.

Miss Brown understands very well that kids need to be kids. Many of these particular kids come from low-income backgrounds, and they love their Marathon Kids running club. It’s new, and it gives them time to be social as they walk or run their miles together. Some of the students help their coach set up and mark off laps. Some of them are competitive and choose to race against each other, racking up miles as quickly as they can. Others walk and talk. Some simply run the whole time, keeping a steady pace as they make progress toward their goals. Marathon Kids is about going at your own pace and challenging yourself as you cover the miles.

Orange County Run Club

Many Benefits For The Students

As much technology as the CT Bulldogs Run Club has incorporated into its activities, it’s still all about getting outside onto the track and putting one foot in front of the other. Many of the runners have finished one marathon already and are well on their way toward finishing a second one. As Miss Brown’s mom Jan says, “Anything is better than staying at lunch on your device.”