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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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When Special Education teacher Maria Ornelas applied for a grant to fund a Marathon Kids run club at Lockwood Avenue Elementary in Los Angeles, California, she shared in her application that she was excited to become a run club coach “because running motivates the students to do their best on the track and in their classrooms. I want to teach the students that they can have fun for free, and without being on their iPads. This gives me an opportunity to collaborate with parents in regards to their child’s movement options.”

The Physical Education teacher at Lockwood had first brought the Marathon Kids program to the school several years earlier, and Ms. Ornelas was interested in getting involved for the sake of her students, who have moderate to severe autism. “When Marathon Kids was first implemented in our school, only the sixth-graders were part of the team. I found that my students were better able to focus in the classroom after they had some exercise or running time, so I asked the P.E. teacher about including my students in the program.”

Marathon Kids Run Clubs Help Children Manage Daily Stress

Ms. Ornelas saw that the daily physical activity gained through the MK program helped her students release anxiety along with the stress they often felt when they arrived at school—“a win-win for all.”

Her run club, called Lockwood Shining Stars, began with only 65 students participating. It grew over time, and currently has about 200 participants from several different grade levels at the school, ranging from TK (Traditional Kindergarten, for younger kindergarteners) through sixth grade, as well as three classes of children with moderate to severe autism.

At Lockwood, It’s A Group Effort

Ms. Ornelas wanted to get involved with Marathon Kids “because I could invite other teachers to join our Lockwood Shining Stars, in order to help our students cope with life stressors through exercise. We now have students in different grade levels running at different times of the day. It is a great sight to see children running with their friends and having fun!”

She teams up with other teachers to get the students moving. “The teachers who participate in Marathon Kids take charge of their students. There are about four classes that run or exercise after breakfast, while other teachers will take their students out to run before or after lunch, three to five days a week.”

The students’ daily mileage varies according to each classroom as well as the kids’ ages and ability levels. “We motivate our participants to complete one marathon at a time,” says Ms. Ornelas, though individual students reach their milestones at their own paces. “There are students in the upper grades who cover two to three miles daily.”

In years past, individual teachers tracked their students’ laps as the kids completed them, but this year, with the introduction of free digital lap tracking through the Marathon Kids app, some of the Lockwood teachers have begun to digitally track their students. Ornelas says the goal is for everyone involved with the Lockwood run club eventually to track digitally.

The Entire Community Benefits From Run Club

The benefits of Marathon Kids run clubs extend beyond the student runners. “Through Marathon Kids,” Ms. Ornelas says, “students are learning about proper nutrition, and parents are learning about proper nutrition through parent programs in our school.” She reports that many students who used to choose juice for their workout and recovery drink have begun choosing water instead when they run.

Ms. Ornelas plans to use the program to set her own running goals and make positive changes. “I have seen some little changes in myself since starting the program. I don’t like to feel sluggish when I don’t have some form of physical activity.”

Most of all, though, she sees how running makes life easier for her students. “Physical activity is important because it helps a person to deal with daily stressors in a positive way. Physical activity helps to keep the mind clear and gives positive energy throughout the day.” And whether the student runners naturally enjoy exerting themselves or it’s an effort for them to complete their laps, “either way, they run and enjoy the time they spend with their friends on the track.”

Motivation—And A Little Friendly Competition—Are Key When Running Gets Tough

When running gets tough, learning to push through the hard moments is a key lesson for any runner. At Lockwood, “We run for about a half-hour daily, and we always give the students high-fives and encourage them to keep running.”

But running inevitably gets tough at some point, no matter how intrinsically motivated the students might be. Ms. Ornelas says, “I have noticed that many students are encouraged by their peers. The sixth-graders are trying to outrun one another, which makes running fun and motivating for them, while getting them ready for middle school. They really like to outrun each other. The competition among the students is great. I see smiles and hear laughter as they run with their peers.”

Keeping track of their progress is another key element of the kids keeping their motivation high. “When they return to the class, they can see where they are on the graph. If they are below their friends, they usually want to be at the same miles with their friends or have more, so visual charts are always great.”

Marathon Kids Values Progress Built Over Time

Ms. Ornelas says, “My students are now able to walk/run a mile to a mile-and-a-half, whereas before, they could not even complete the first lap without taking a break.” When it’s time to head back to class and focus on academics, “I also see that they are not as jittery when it’s time to engage in their educational learning.”

For other teachers or coaches thinking of starting a Marathon Kids run club, Ornelas has this advice: “I believe that Marathon Kids provides many resources that can be given to students and their families to encourage them to exercise together. Marathon Kids is also a great way to start the day. Running and exercise help the students not only physically, but mentally as well. They release tension when they exercise, and then they feel more relaxed and ready to learn.”

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Lizbeth Tello saw that her students at GRATTS Elementary School weren’t moving enough and she wanted to change that. An avid runner herself, she knew just what to do. Her Los Angeles-based Title I school had no budget and her kids’ parents, most living at or below the poverty line, couldn’t afford extracurricular activities or sports. So, Tello applied for a Marathon Kids grant and received funding to start an after school run club.

Marathon Kids Run Club

Coach Lizbeth Tello (l) and Coach Maité Apodaca (r).

Sparking Change at GRATTS

Coach Tello brought Marathon Kids to GRATTS to spark change toward healthier lives for the kids and enlisted a cadre of volunteers to help. With music blasting, healthy snacks between laps, and even some parents joining in on the fun, the run club took off this year, with more than 200 kids running after school.

Meet Brian and Julio

One of the students, Brian Ramos, is 11 years old and just completed 6th grade. When asked how Marathon Kids has made a difference in his life, he responded by saying that Marathon Kids gave him the chance to participate in the LA Nike 10K run.

“I wanted to push myself and see if I could run it under an hour, and I did!” Brian says.

He believes running the 10K was a great experience for him and that running has also helped him with other sports, like soccer. He’s sad that this is his last year at GRATTS; he wants to continue running and he hopes his middle school has a running club.

Marathon Kids Run Club

Brian and Julio compare miles.

Julio Gonon, also 11 and recently completed 6th grade, says that what he likes about being in the Marathon Kids running club is that running gives him a lot of energy, taking his stress away and relaxing him.

“Running makes me a better student because I am more focused in class and now I do my homework every day,” Julio says. “I have lost 15 pounds and I feel much healthier.”

Coach Tello’s dream to make a positive, lasting impact in the lives of her students is coming true.

Kids Run Club

Marathon Kids after school run club at GRATTS Elementary in Los Angeles.

To start your own run club, apply for a Marathon Kids grant!