Web Exclusive: Run Like a Kid!

Getting through the 26.2 of marathon kids

They say necessity is the mother of invention. I’m a mother, and in 2004, it was necessary to motivate my kindergartner to run 26.2 miles in six months for Marathon Kids. So I invented a running club.

Those of you who have parented a five-year-old can imagine just how hard it can be to get a child to run 26.2 miles. In quarter-mile increments. That’s 104 running units. They’re just learning to count to 100 in kindergarten.

As a marathoner, I was excited to register my daughter for Marathon Kids. Marathon Kids is a free six-month endurance program for kindergarten through fifth graders. Participants have from September through February to run or walk 26.2 miles.

Marathon Kids provides logs that kids use to track their miles in quarter-mile increments. Those who have accomplished the 26.2-mile goal are invited to the Final Mile celebration at a major track in Austin, where they run their final quarter mile with their schoolmates, receive a finisher’s medal, and usually a t-shirt, water bottle, or other goodies. Thousands of kids attend. It’s a very cool thing.

As long as the child gets to 26.2 miles.

And by December, we weren’t even to ten miles yet. Uh oh.
I heard about an after-school running club at a friend’s school. Desperate to give my daughter (and other kids who were in the same boat… there had to be others in the same boat, right?) the chance to accumulate miles, I talked to our PE teacher at Steiner Ranch Elementary School, Kristen Palmer.

Palmer loved the idea. The principal loved the idea. The PTA loved the idea. Parents loved the idea. And most importantly, the kids loved the idea, too.

Palmer and I worked together to outline the policies for a running club that met after school on Thursday afternoons. To tie to the Steiner Ranch mascot plus the theme of running, we named the program Stallion Stampede. We said we’d show up each week for those who wanted to run, even if it was only a few kids.

Boy, were we surprised. We ended up with 76 kids. That was in 2004. The next year, we had over 300 kids – about a quarter of the student population.

Here we are in 2012. Palmer works for a different school. My daughter will start high school next year (where did the time go?). And Stallion Stampede is still going strong, eight years later. So far this year, 158 students have run 2,520 miles, totaling over 26,000 miles since the beginning of the program.

Each Thursday when the dismissal bell rings, the double-doors to the playground burst open and there really is a stampede of children, ages five to 11, storming across the field towards the check-in volunteers. Some kids sprint, some jog, and some walk on the quarter-mile loop that surrounds the school’s play yard. Several teachers and parents come and run, too. Volunteers mark a dot on the children’s hands each time they complete a lap. Thirty minutes later, the kids stop running and line up by grade to checkout, where volunteers record each child’s mileage on his or her log.

While these miles count towards the students’ Marathon Kids goals, these miles also accumulate towards milestone incentives given at the school level.

Stallion Stampede participants are awarded a ribbon when they have run ten miles, 25 miles, and then every 25 miles after that. Miles are carried over from one year to the next. At press time, one boy is about to reach the 275-mile mark, and 17 students have logged over 100 miles.

Ribbons are awarded once a month in PE class, giving recognition to Stampede members in front of all their peers. After the first round of ribbons has been awarded, it’s not uncommon to see a wave of new enrollees.

Those ribbons are highly sought-after. At checkout, many of the students will ask the volunteers, “How many miles do I have now?” The wheels turn as they do the math, calculating how many miles they need for the next ribbon.

Contessa Weinheimer, the office coordinator for Stallion Stampede, said the program gives her two boys, Gavin (second grade, 75 miles), and Logan (kindergarten, 18 miles), a sense of accomplishment, and she has heard them asking each other, "How many dots did you get?" She added, "They can't wait to tell me how many laps they ran each week. They get so excited about hitting those big milestones and bringing home a new ribbon." Last year, Logan accompanied Weinheimer on the days she volunteered, and he couldn't wait to get to kindergarten so he could participate in Stampede with his big brother.

Along with individual ribbons, there is a friendly competition between classrooms at each grade level. Each month, the class in each grade that has run the most miles wins the coveted Golden Shoe Award (a running shoe that has been spray-painted metallic gold). Winning teachers are announced on the school-wide PA system, and the child who has the most miles in that class gets to come to the office to pick up the trophy and bring it back to the classroom.

The running club’s benefits are far-reaching. First and foremost, the kids are involved in physical activity. They're outside and moving, which helps them develop a healthy heart, set of lungs, and brain. Weinheimer said the club provides a wonderful opportunity for kids to run and play, especially when so many kids don't have the yard, street, or time to be outside.

Several of the kids find that the weekly run translates to increased fitness in other sports. Grant Shaffer (fifth grade) has the highest mileage at the school, with 268 miles. When asked what he likes best about Stampede, one of his responses was, "I am more prepared for soccer, because I run a lot and do the same in soccer." Kathleen Pasquarette, mother of Will (fifth grade, 73 miles), appreciates her son’s increased stamina in other sports, including basketball.

Along with the physical benefits, parents are pleased to see how motivated their children are to earn their milestone ribbons. Even the youngest runners have an incentive to run: Julie Bradley, mother of Jack (kindergarten, 19 miles) said, "Stampede builds Jack's confidence in not only his running ability, but in his ability to motivate himself and to reach his goals." Jordan Mathis (fourth grade, 190 miles) currently has the second-most miles in her grade level. Jordan’s mother, Katherine, said that Jordan has made being one of the top runners at school a goal ever since kindergarten. Jordan now competes in many area 5Ks.

The running club provides social benefits as well. When asked what they liked about Stampede, many of the children said they liked running with friends. "I believe that when you make exercise a fun activity, children are more likely to enjoy it and stick with it throughout their lives,” explains Bradley. "It becomes part of their lifestyle."

The benefits extend beyond the children and carry over to adults. Several parents and teachers come out each week and run alongside the children. "Watching my kids run has also made me want to be a better example for them," says Weinheimer. "I just completed my first half marathon yesterday, and for my kids to see me on the race course and at the finish line makes them want to be stronger runners themselves." She added that their performance at Stampede has given her sons the confidence to run several Kids’ Ks around town: "They are seeing both at school and home what it means to live a healthy lifestyle."

Kids love the running club so much that the program runs from September through May, well after the Marathon Kids Final Mile in February. The program culminates with an annual assembly, where all Stallion Stampede participants are recognized and top runners receive additional kudos.

Stallion Stampede has had a ripple effect in the community. Three other elementary schools in the Four Points area have started running clubs as well. Grandview Hills Elementary has offered the Soaring Eagles running club for the last four years, with over one-third of the student population participating. Laura Bush Elementary School's running club, Sprinting Stars, is in its third year. River Ridge Elementary School is just starting their running club, the Running Rattlers, this year.

As for this mother of invention…my daughter is in eighth grade, and it's been a pleasure to watch her represent Canyon Ridge Middle School as a Lady Eagle cross country runner. And it's been fun to see all the kids’ names on the middle school and high school cross country teams’ rosters who were high-mileage runners back when I was the coordinator of Stallion Stampede.

Congratulations to all those kids who have earned ribbons and become more fit while having fun. Keep on running!!

Tracy D. Nelson is a head coach and co-founder of Tri Zones Training. She has trained beginner and intermediate runners and triathletes since 2003. She has enjoyed supporting her daughter’s athletic endeavors, including Steiner Stars swim team, Stallion Stampede, Soaring Eagles, Cedar Park Swim Team, several kids’ triathlons, and CRMS Cross Country and Track.

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