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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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“At Piney Point, the Marathon Kids program means teamwork, accountability and fun!” That’s what Coach Nora Ryan has to report about her Marathon Kids running club, the Trackers, at Piney Point Elementary in Houston, Texas. Four thousand students in Houston will run with Marathon Kids this year, and Piney Point is responsible for 1,200 of them, as the entire school participates.

Piney Point Trackers

Coach Ryan oversees the school’s Marathon Kids program with P.E. Coach Mike Kaehey. Together, they put a lot of thought and effort into making physical education fun for the students. They’re learning as they go, making tweaks as needed to the structure of the program in order to shift its focus toward simplicity and teamwork.

Last year, for example, miles were tracked individually, but this was difficult to manage in such a large school. Starting in the 2018–19 school year, Coach Ryan implemented a new system. Now, teachers keep track of their own students’ mileage on group logs posted on their classroom doors. Each classroom has an appointed student “tracker” who is responsible for updating their daily progress — hence the running club’s name, Trackers.

Youth Run Club

The new group-tracking system has simplified the mile-tracking process, and it has highlighted teamwork with very positive results. Rather than competing with each other in the classroom, the Marathon Kids runners now see their running and mileage progress as a team effort. When they set out to run four laps, for example, the faster runners might complete more than four, or they might go play soccer or tag while the rest of the runners complete their laps. But the class works together, and the group heads back inside only when everyone has reached the goal.

The Importance of Teamwork

“We built the program around teamwork,” Coach Ryan says, “and tracking the miles as a group makes everyone accountable as they work together as a team. The goal is the same for every grade level — to reach four marathons (104.8 miles) by the end of the year. The challenge is to give the best they can. We found this was a fun way to build a strong relationship within each group and to celebrate success as a team.”

Move More to Achieve More

Piney Point Principal Bobbie Swaby is a big supporter of Marathon Kids because she believes in the importance of giving students more opportunities to move during the school day. Piney Point’s Marathon Kids runners head outside to the school’s quarter-mile track at least twice a day; some teachers even take their students out three times a day, weather permitting.

Nora cites support from the principal and teachers at Piney Point as one of the main reasons the Trackers running club is successful. It’s no wonder the club has such strong support: the teachers have all seen improved focus and behavior in their students when they come back from running. On days when the kids don’t have the opportunity to run, there’s a marked difference in their ability to concentrate on academic work.

Fourth-grade teacher Miriam Riley reports that, in addition to increased focus and calm in the classroom, she’s noticed that Marathon Kids has really improved her students’ physical endurance. Runners who used to struggle to complete two miles on the track are now easily completing four or five. Other teachers also appreciate the health benefits they have experienced themselves as a result of running with their students as they work toward their mileage goals.

Marathon Kids Run Club

Time on the Track

Coach Ryan also notes that students’ running time on the track serves more purposes than simple training or exercise. “Our time on the track is more than just meeting our Trackers goals for the day,” she says. “It’s our time for friendly competition among avid runners, for catching up with friends whether they are in our class or a different one, and for enjoying interesting conversations between students and teachers. It’s also a time to just stretch our limbs during the school day.”

Active Kids do Better

“Piney Point is one of our leading schools,” says Felicia Ceasar-White, Houston ISD’s Health and Physical Education Manager, “and Marathon Kids has actually changed the whole school’s culture. Kids are learning better, they’re participating in a number of activities; they have really just been awesome.”

Coach Ryan agrees. “The track keeps us motivated,” she says, “and we hold each other accountable since we all have the same end goal.” As the students achieve milestones, Coaches Ryan and Kaehey visit the classrooms together, where they hand out rewards and incentives to keep the kids motivated.

Focusing on Nutrition

As with every Marathon Kids running club, the Trackers club focuses on nutrition as part of the program. The runners learn about the importance of using healthful foods as fuel for their active bodies, so they can stay fit and healthy throughout their lives. One of Coach Ryan’s tools that she uses in teaching about nutrition is MyPlate, which focuses on building a healthy eating style throughout your lifetime. MyPlate emphasizes habits like filling half your plate with vegetables and fruits, incorporating whole grains in your diet, and eating a variety of vegetables.

Building Heathy Habits for Life

With the whole school involved in building healthy habits for life, Coach Ryan is helping to make a positive difference in the lives of Piney Point’s students and teachers alike. The Trackers running club is a great example of the Marathon Kids mission of getting kids moving and putting them on the path toward a healthier life.