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Twice a week, the Kolter Cross Country runners meet up at their school’s recess field to run laps. Sponsored by Texas-based grocery store chain H-E-B, this Marathon Kids run club at Kolter Elementary School in Houston has over 100 students participating, ranging from second-graders through fifth-graders. “The club is very popular,” says Coach Tammy Parker. “Kids want to join so much that I have to limit enrollment so I can manage the group.”

Weather permitting, the students run for 45 to 50 minutes each time they meet and cover at least two miles at a time. Top students at each grade level cover three to four miles per run club practice; one fifth-grader can get in five miles during the allotted time.

Coach Parker has been involved with Marathon Kids for years, coaching run clubs at several different schools in the Houston area. Before Hurricane Harvey tore through the region in 2017, she’d used a tracking system to log students’ miles that was expensive and not user-friendly, and found it difficult to keep track of both mileage and attendance. She’s found the Marathon Kids digital lap-tracking app, which was launched at the start of the 2019–2020 run club season, to be “a lifesaver. It’s easy and saves me so much time.”

She uses her cell phone to scan students’ ID cards at every lap, and assigns student managers or volunteer parents to help scan IDs with an iPad. “Marathon Kids has created a wonderful option that’s so user friendly. Being able to scan each lap also motivates the kids when I update the runner reports. They are motivated by the tracking system too.”

For Young Runners, Motivation Is Key

Coach Parker has noticed her students’ internal motivation is typically a strong motivating force. “Kids have an internal desire to do more—to go one more lap,” she says. The Kolter Cross Country students are eager to reach each new milestone as they progress through the year. “Most of them are pretty enthusiastic when it comes to competition, whether it’s beating their own goals or their peers’. One family has twins, a boy and a girl, who have a sibling rivalry over who’s got the most miles and who’s going to beat whom. The kids are motivated!”

She says her run club students understand that the more active they are, the healthier they become. They know they are establishing healthy habits that they’ll be able to carry forward through the rest of their lives. “I can tell they have a sense of pride in themselves for accomplishing the goals they set.” Their parents email Coach Parker regularly with messages expressing amazement and appreciation for the run club and its benefits: “They write, ‘I would have never thought my kid would be so excited about running.’”

Still, there are tough days for every runner, when motivation runs low. On those days, Coach Parker says, her students rely on each other to keep going. “Most students have a running buddy there to help push them along. Others are self-motivated and prefer to run alone.” Sometimes, when the students’ energy or engagement seems to be flagging, Coach Parker will have an impromptu grade-level lap competition to get them moving. She also posts the students’ progress by grade level each week, “so they can see how many laps or miles they have completed. It keeps them focused on earning the next prize.”

The Benefits Of Running Are Physical, Mental And Emotional

Coach Parker didn’t enjoy running as a child. “Running was always a punishment during athletics when I was growing up. I didn’t develop my love of running until my mid-thirties. A friend asked me if I wanted to start running with her, and I’ve been hooked since.” She decided to become a Marathon Kids run club coach because “I wanted to teach my students that running can be fun, and something you can do throughout your life to stay fit and healthy.”

She has noticed many benefits, both for her students and herself. Some students who have struggled with weight issues have grown fitter and leaner through their participation in Marathon Kids. “It has given my students a safe space to exercise,” Coach Parker says. “Many parents that work late are unable to exercise with their children. I have students that say it gives them a break before they have to do homework.”

Coach Parker is grateful for the opportunity the run club has given her to get to know her students better. She’s also grateful to her love of running for helping her cope during hard times in her own life. “Physical activity and running helped me through one of the most difficult times in my life. I lost my mother to stage-four pancreatic cancer in November 2015. My morning or afternoon runs helped me so much mentally and physically. It was an opportunity to process things and provided me with a healthy way to grieve.”

Thinking Of Starting A Marathon Kids Run Club? Coach Parker Says Go For It 

For others who are considering starting a Marathon Kids run club or becoming a coach, Coach Parker has two enthusiastic thumbs-up: “Do it!!! If you start it, the kids will come. The lap tracking through Marathon Kids is so user-friendly. The pros far outweigh any cons I can come up with. It has been awesome watching my kids develop a deeper love for running.”

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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Kristi Seybert, a PE, Health/Wellness and Athletics teacher at Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Midland, Texas, was first introduced to Marathon Kids at a physical education conference in 2018. “I had always wanted to start a running club, and when I learned about Marathon Kids, I was very interested.”

She was also drawn to Marathon Kids for its grant opportunities. Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA), which opened in fall 2019, will eventually expand to become a sixth- through 12th-grade campus, but it currently serves girls in sixth and seventh grades from diverse backgrounds. Coach Seybert knew funding would be key in starting a run club for her students.

The run club at YWLA, called Sole Sisters, is sponsored by popular Texas grocery store chain H-E-B. There are currently 162 students enrolled at YWLA, and every student participates in Sole Sisters at some level. Most run on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school, typically covering from one to three miles at a time.

YWLA is a Midland ISD school of choice focusing on college preparatory academics, leadership development through community service, and health and wellness, and all students are required to take a Health & Wellness class each semester. “During these classes,” says Coach Seybert, “students also have the opportunity to earn mileage on certain days. With both of these opportunities, we have one hundred percent of students participating.”

Keeping Students Motivated And Engaged

Coach Seybert logs all her students’ miles and keeps records of the milestones they reach. “Our students really enjoy running, and I love providing the opportunity for students that do not come from a fitness background.” She hosts two run club challenges to tap into her students’ natural competitive sides and keep them engaged. “One of the challenges is Sixth Graders versus Seventh Graders, and we keep track of their total miles. The second contest is between homeroom classes. We have a thermometer-style meter for each homeroom, and we add miles each day and keep track of the class that is in the lead.”

Another way in which she keeps students’ morale high is by displaying their names and photos on a poster hung in the gym when they complete their first marathons. Students at YWLA wear uniforms, but when they reach big milestones, Coach Seybert encourages them to wear their Marathon Kids shirts to school to show off their achievements.

The Importance Of Physical Activity For Children

Coach Seybert believes physical activity is a vital part of children’s development because it lays the foundation for a healthy and active life. “Learning and understanding the benefits of exercise helps to promote healthy growth and development,” she says. “This type of activity will help children to achieve and maintain healthy weight, and build strong bones and muscles.”

The most important change she has seen in her students since the start of the run club season? “Their increased self-confidence. Running a marathon is such a huge task, but when we break it down, it’s not so overwhelming.” The Marathon Kids program is structured to scaffold children’s running over time, with student runners attempting to cover four full marathons, or 104.8 miles, over the course of the run club season, one mile at a time. “This helps students set a goal and reach it,” says Coach Seybert.

For other physical educators who are interested in starting a run club or are simply looking for new ways to challenge their students and themselves, she offers this: “I would ask that every Physical Education Teacher give Marathon Kids a try. It is easy to do, and the support is amazing.”

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Amanda De Leon Garcia first learned about Marathon Kids through a fellow coach, when she saw his run club at a 5K. As a P.E. coach at Santos Livas Elementary in Alamo, Texas, she already knew that physical, emotional and mental health were important to her. “Physical activity is important to me for life health,” she says. “Being physically active is known to add years to your life, and can help with emotional and mental health as well.” When she learned these factors were central to what Marathon Kids is all about, she knew she wanted to start a Marathon Kids run club of her own.

Alamo, Texas—not to be confused with the Alamo—is a small town at the southernmost tip of the state in the Rio Grande Valley. The area is rich with vegetable farms and citrus groves, yet, even being surrounded by fresh produce, the students of Santos Livas still need guidance about healthy lifestyle choices. “Students need to learn how to find something they love,” says Coach De Leon Garcia, “something they can look forward to and be active at the same time.”

The run club at Santos Livas is the Lions Running Club, with 60 students participating, ranging from Pre-K students to fifth-graders. The Lions meet once a week after school and also run during P.E. times on free Fridays—and they definitely stay active: “We try to average two miles every time we meet,” says Coach De Leon Garcia, “and we compete in 5Ks.” She and her colleague Coach Porras Garcia work together to track miles using Marathon Kids Connect, the new digital lap-tracking app that was launched at the start of the 2019–2020 run club season.

RUNNERS WITH DETERMINATION, AND WITH HEART

“Each of my students has their own attitude towards running club,” says Coach De Leon Garcia. “Most are determined and competitive about getting their miles in, while others just enjoy the run while laughing with friends.” The one thing they all have in common? “They love to go to running club! They all love to scan their bar codes and check how many more laps they need.”

The Marathon Kids method—working toward completing four full marathons, or a total of 104.8 miles, over the course of the school year, one mile at a time—helps students build engagement and motivation at their own pace. Breaking it down into small increments makes it manageable for runners of all ages and at any fitness level.

Coach De Leon Garcia’s students work together to reach their milestones, and the older kids help the younger ones to finish what they’ve set out to do each time they meet. “They set the behavior standards very well,” Coach says, “knowing they represent a club. I have some fifth-graders who will do an extra lap or two with my Pre-Ks just because they want them to finish.” Being in a mixed-age club is teaching everyone about mutual respect and what it means to be a valued member of a community.

TACKLING CHALLENGES WITH A SENSE OF HUMOR, AND REAPING THE BENEFITS

Coach De Leon Garcia’s sense of humor is clear when she talks about how her run club manages difficult moments out on the track. “I’m that coach that is constantly calling out their names and yelling motivational things,” she says. “When it gets hard, I like to challenge them, or I join them. I always tell them—if my old lady self can run, so can you. And they leave me behind, thinking, ‘This old lady better not beat me!’”

She’s seen plenty of benefits from the run club, for both her students and herself. “The benefits I’ve seen for my students have been in their diet changes and their leadership role in the school,” she says. “My students have been cutting out junk food and sugary drinks since they started running club. They love to talk about healthy food choices and meals as well as help others.”

Children learn by example, and Coach De Leon Garcia is setting a good one. “I’ve seen great benefits as in challenging myself to run half-marathons and make better food choices,” she says. “I like to set the example for my students and remind them to be physically active, to inspire them.”

As for anyone who is where she once was—wondering what it might be like to start a Marathon Kids run club—here’s what she has to say: “You have to love what you do and who you do it for. Once you have those two things down, Marathon Kids run club is golden.”

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.