Tapping the marathon goal for young students

Parent Michelle Seay (center), like many parents who join an afterschool run, does laps with first- and second-graders at Carolina Voyager at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity.

In this day of limited time for recess but increasing acknowledgement of the need for kids to move, some local schools are turning toward the most efficient, practical movement of all: running.

And because the emphasis is on movement, not competition, many are taking the form of fun “running clubs.” Public schools in the Charleston metro area are even given credit on the voluntary wellness checklist by the MUSC Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness for having a club and participating in races.

One small charter school is using the template provided by the Texas-based Marathon Kids program.

Carolina Voyager Charter School, which started in August 2014 and is currently housed in facilities behind the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Charleston, uses the program that seeks to get student participants to run or walk, usually a mile a time, four marathons (104.8 miles) over the course of the school year.

The marathon is simply a goal, much like it is for millions of adults across the globe every year.

Principal Dr. Harry Walker, who was familiar with the program while working in Baltimore, brought it to Voyager this year thinking that he might get 25 students to join up. But 111 of the 130 students, in kindergarten through third grade, signed up.

“We’ve got kids amped up about running,” says Walker, noting that health is among the school’s focus points, which also includes technology and personalized learning.

The kids run during physical education class and get together, as a student body after school on Tuesdays and Fridays, along with parents and teachers to run a mile, or six laps on the beautiful church grounds of Holy Trinity.

How do teachers and parents keep track of all those kids, laps and miles?

After each lap, the students are given a colorful pipe cleaner. After collecting six, they turn the pipe cleaners in for a foot charm, which keeps track of their miles, for a necklace. Many kids wear those necklaces.

Needless to say, the program has become about more than running. The assembly brings the student body, teachers and parents together on a regular basis, for camaraderie and lessons that are hard to learn in the classroom.

“Watching the gigantic group of youngsters loop around the campus of Carolina Voyager is such a joy to experience,” says Michelle Seay, mother of first-grader Dean Barnwell.

“Running, walking, skipping through the mile course with the kids and witnessing the sense of accomplishment with each acquired mile is a great reminder to encourage movement and activity to stay healthy and vibrant while teaching kids the concept of one lap at a time.”

Kara Crowell, mother of first-graders Christina and Katherine Crowell, says she likes the fact that running is something that doesn’t involve a scoreboard and that her children can do throughout their lives.

“Running is a very internal, personal sport and is an ideal fit for both the naturally competitive child and the child that just wants to run for the fun of it,” she says, adding that because of Marathon Kids, one of her daughters now asks to run in the park to get more miles in.

Many of the kids understand what it does for them, too.

Second-grader Gherty Walling says, “I like Marathon Kids because it helps me burn off some energy so I can do my best in school and I’m not crazy at my house.”

Marathon Kids was founded by Kay Morris, a self-described “middle-age, slow runner,” in 1995. Since then, the program has expanded from about 2,000 students in Austin, Texas, to 245,000 students across Texas and in Los Angeles and Baltimore.

In the last two decades, the program has touched the lives of two million children.

Last fall’s 20th anniversary kick-off included an announcement that Nike was jumping on board with a multimillion-dollar deal in a mission to encourage kids to be more active.

At the same time it announced the partnership, Marathon Kids announced other changes to its program, including that it will expand to 15 additional cities, including Chicago, New York City, Miami, Denver, Toronto and Boston in the coming school year.

Being located so close to the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas School of Public Health also has provided opportunities for academics to study the program.

Results of recent studies have proven that participation in the program not only increased physical activity but consumption of fruits and vegetables as well help change “athletic self-perception.”

In a release for that 20th anniversary, Marathon Kids Executive Director Christine Pollei said the program wants to be “an intervention that changes the community ... and offer kids the opportunity to actually change their entire perception about physical activity and running.”

“At the conclusion of the lifetime of their program, kids walk away feeling great, not just about themselves and their achievement, but about running. We love that.”

When I sat down to chat with Walker about his Marathon Kids program, I was somewhat surprised that the school was not going to participate in a similar marathon-as-model program, the Charleston Marathon’s Youth Marathon.

Walker says the Marathon Kids program started too late to complete the last mile of their first marathon.

“We are at mile 15 right now. The Charleston Kids Marathon requires the kids to have completed 25 miles by the time of the event,” says Walker, though adding that the school is still on track to complete four cumulative marathons by the end of the year.

In its seventh year, the Youth Marathon challenges schools and their students to run 25 miles, in one-mile increments, during the fall semester.

All gather for one celebratory, final 1.2 mile run around Burke High School, literally a half mile from Voyager’s current home, on the day before the Charleston Marathon.

On Friday, an expected 600 kids from at least 13 area schools will show up for that final mile, according to organizer and local health advocate Mike Campbell. Those who do run it get a medal and a race T-shirt.

I’ve witnessed most of those runs and it is among the most uplifting moments of the year.

Campbell wants more schools to take advantage of the free opportunity.

“Share this with your schools, your friends, your youth groups so we can double the number in 2016-17. ... Our young people deserve our help in setting healthy lifestyle habits.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.