Read an Excerpt
Young Runners: The Rules
When I'm running it's like an obstacle and I just want to break the wall down and push so hard so I can get to the next level and I'm even better and have more challenges. -- Sasha Estrella-Jones, seventh-grade runner at a Brooklyn, New York, middle school
1. All children and teenagers can learn to love running.
2. Running is easy when approached with patience and common sense.
3. Running progress should be gradual over time.
4. Running is done mainly for fun, learning, and good health.
5. Running should not dominate a child's life.
6. Running enjoyment is enhanced with friends and schoolmates.
7. Parents who run are the best role models for their children.
8. Children's growth and development must be taken into account.
9. Children approach running differently than adults.
10. Competition should not put undue pressure on running children.
The Kids' Running Revolution
I challenge my students. They have to run 3 miles a day even if they're on vacation in Puerto Rico. -- Steve Sloan, Mighty Milers coach at an East Harlem elementary school, New York City
On a school night in the winter of 1982, I collected my 9-year-old daughter, Allison, and trekked into Manhattan so she could do a speed workout on an indoor track overhanging a gymnasium at Columbia University. Allison was a third grader at the time, had been running on and off for years, and trying to make the finals of the Colgate Women's Games track program in the youngest age group, first through third grade. Her event was the 800 meters and she had the semifinal round coming up. A good race could vault her into the Madison Square Garden final.
We were then living on Staten Island, and I could not locate a nearby indoor track on this particular night -- a night I'd assigned for speed. Many desperate phone calls yielded Columbia as the only game in town.
That evening, the university track was filled with adult joggers who marveled at the little girl zipping past them, lap after lap. With stopwatch in hand, I called out times, trying to motivate Allison to perform like a professional. I felt this dedication would firm up her commitment to become a runner and set her on a path of hard work and good values, encourage self-confidence, dispel gender stereotypes and -- who knew? -- maybe one day land her on the United States Olympic team. I considered Colgate a springboard. We got home around midnight.
Allison ran well in the semis and made the 800 finals, and our whole family turned out for the big day. The 225 finalists were hailed by celebrities including Lena Horne and Willie Mays. The Garden rocked. And in a quiet corner outside the track arena, I prepped Allison with complex strategies on running the tight track against the five other third graders. She looked at me blankly, thinking, I'm sure, What is Daddy doing to me?
On my office wall above the computer, I have a photograph of the six girls lined up on the starting line with the gun about to sound. I look at the photo now. Five of the girls appear relaxed, with arms down, hands loose, neutral posture, and mildly focused expressions. Guess which girl looks tense, with hunched shoulders, fists clenched, and a fearful countenance. Allison placed fifth.
The Pure Fun of Running
As I came to my senses and let go of the child star mind-set, Allison went on to play soccer, run high school cross-country, and, at 24, complete the New York City Marathon. She and I can laugh about it now, but I was clearly the type of overzealous, foolhardy track parent that irks me today. Before Allison's races that winter, she would say to me at bedtime, "Dad, I'm nervous. What if I don't run a better time?" Even though I was able to catch myself and let Allison choose her own path as a teenager, I cringe when I think of that period now.
I hope Young Runners will help readers emphasize the pure fun of running while letting children progress at their own rate, make their own choices, and take competition as a healthy challenge, not a stepping-stone to stardom. We all want the best for our children, but in a distorted educational landscape that stresses test taking above all else, with the plum of marquee college acceptance, it's all too common for parents to consider running one more subject to master, one more opportunity to outdo others, one more vehicle to enhance a child's and family's stature.
In his research on young athletes, Michigan State sports psychologist Daniel Gould, Ph.D., has seen how closely today's parents seem linked to their children's every hit and miss. "Some parents manifest their own childhood athletic dreams through their child," says Gould, "whereas others might be indirectly reinforcing their worth as a parent through their child's success, as in 'My daughter runs a good time and everyone recognizes her and tells me what a good job I am doing as a parent.'"
It's easy to be seduced by such notions, but by the time our younger daughter, Jamie, started out in sports, I knew enough to stay out of the way, more or less. I was finally and permanently put in my place when it was Jamie's turn to run on the high school team. With her teenage disposition craving acceptance in freshman cross-country, she suffered the ultimate embarrassment when I would show up at meets as the resident expert wearing my red woolen hat -- the dorkiest hat in creation. That and my high-cut running shorts. Well, it was all over for me, a track dad put out to pasture.
My early zeal might have been satisfied if only my daughters had had friends to run with as children. I knew that peer support and approval could take them far. But their friends did not run. It was not considered cool. There were no PE teachers organizing running groups or much in the way of kids' programs outside of Colgate, which was highly competitive. When Allison was 5, to enable her to run with other children, we had to take her an hour away to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx for a kids' cross-country run. She fell asleep in the stroller wearing her race number and missed the event.
Kids' Running Sweeps the Nation
But we are in a new era now, with children's running sweeping the nation. In response to the alarming statistics on childhood obesity that began to make headlines about a decade ago -- onethird of children nationwide are currently obese or overweight -- a rallying cry went out and the running community responded. Parents, teachers, coaches, physicians, schools, running clubs, running events, and corporate sponsors have come forth to create nothing less than a kids' running revolution, in which almost every community has some form of meaningful children's running going on. It might be a couple of dozen kids running with a parent leader at a community center or thousands of youngsters turning out for a menu of children's races sponsored by a major marathon. There are more than 100,000 children in the Texas-based Marathon Kids school program and 50,000 in the New York Road Runners Foundation school program.
I estimate that well over 1 million youngsters ages 5 to 12 are engaged in running. And with another 1.1 million teenagers running high school track and cross-country -- which show the greatest increases in participation of any sports, according to national statistics -- we have a historic movement gathering speed that in time could change the health portrait of the nation. Young runners already appear to be stemming the tide of childhood obesity, according to doctors and researchers I spoke with, but since many of the larger programs are fairly new, it's too soon to tell. Dr. Jennifer Sluder, a pediatrician at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles who's involved with a number of running programs, says when asked about the impact of running on childhood obesity: "Anecdotally, I know it's making a big difference, but, statistically, you have to do a large study over several years. There are some studies under way at the hospital on obesity and exercise and I think we'll have some concrete evidence soon."
The good news is still not good enough. What about the other children, the sedentary and obese kids who make up the sorry statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? We have, in effect, two societies of children: healthy, active, running kids who populate fields and parks and tracks working up a sweat, and the unhealthy masses with poor diets and expanding waistlines, many hidden from view as indoor spectators glued to computer and television screens. Unfortunately, the active society also has its extreme wing: parents and coaches who resemble the old me, pushing kids too hard and creating another set of alarming statistics regarding children's injury and burnout rates.
As a journalist writing about youth running for decades, I've seen the best and worst. I've been overcome by tears of joy watching children and teens run, run, run for the sweet satisfactions of reaching a goal, completing an arduous task, helping a team, and sharing in a pure and honest endeavor with friends. I've also been moved to tears of sadness seeing young runners imperiled by the demands of an oppressive coach or parent.
Dynamic Leaders Set the Pace
I hope this book provides a road map for doing the right thing. In probing for the best ways to engage youngsters in running and nurture their interest for the long term, I considered the children's running landscape as new territory to explore and approached it with a hopeful sense of discovery. I wanted to get close to dynamic people in the field. I went to Springfield, Virginia, to see a Healthy School award winner with a robust running program and to Durham, North Carolina, to see a youth track squad led by a pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Brenda Armstrong, who tests team members for blood pressure and lap times. I ventured into Brooklyn, where I grew up, to watch an intermediate school running club practice at a small concrete park, and to New York's Randall's Island, where I ran in high school, to watch a middle school track meet with private schools' entries among the rich and famous. I took in a wonderful kids' running program in my suburban New Jersey community and, in the most gratifying experience of all, followed a local autistic boy who is thriving in middle school track and cross-country.
In addition, I conducted dozens of interviews with parents, teachers, coaches, school administrators, youth program coordinators, doctors, sports psychologists, sports medicine specialists, and young runners of all ages. I've also known countless people in the field and seen hundreds of youth running events over the years. All this has helped me formulate what I feel are the best methods for getting more kids running and getting them moving in smarter and healthier ways, to enhance the kids' running revolution and make further dents in childhood obesity.
Kids experience the transforming power of running as much as adults do, and in their innocence they can gain even more, if we let them progress at their own pace. "Physical activity like running can improve every aspect of a child's life, from socialization to academic work to disease prevention," says Dr. Bill Roberts, a family practice physician in Minneapolis who is past president of the American College of Sports Medicine and medical director of the Twin Cities Marathon. "Their hearts pump stronger, blood volume goes up, and they maintain lean muscle mass." Fit children can achieve extraordinary levels of heart functioning, according to Dr. Armstrong. From her tests of the runners she coaches, she finds that kids have an ejection fraction -- the volume of blood put out by the left ventricle when the heart contracts -- close to that of the most highly trained athletes, such as competitive swimmers.
Running children also gain wellness in body, mind, and spirit. Running is holistic, forging better nutrition, relaxation, positive thinking, and seeing the good in yourself and others. Anyone who works with kids will tell you that running empowers youngsters to overcome problems and better understand the world around them. These kids can teach us a thing or two about life, and if you don't believe that, take special note of what some of those in the following chapters have to say.
Running children make for healthier families and a healthier society, and I hope that Young Runners offers some ideas on how to raise children to respect their bodies, relate better to others, take responsibility for their actions, and treat people with fairness and decency. Running is a Great Society idea because it not only strengthens the heart but opens the heart. No child left behind? Yes, indeed, when it comes to running.
At-Risk Teens Go the Distance
In the inner cities of California, kids of all stripes are making gains to a remarkable extent in, of all things, marathon running. Now entering its twentieth year, Students Run LA trains middle school and high school youth to run the City of Los Angeles Marathon. Participation has reached over 2,500 with a 95 to 99 percent completion rate, according to one of the program originators, Paul Trapani, whom I spoke with. More than 300 teacher leaders and coaches guide the youngsters from September to the marathon in March. (It was moved to Memorial Day in 2009.) Trapani says that the young marathoners achieve a remarkable 90 percent high school graduation rate (as compared to the 68 percent average for the LA public schools) and that running has had a ripple effect on all aspects of their health and well-being.
Seeing it as a model to help atÂ€‘risk youth, Philadelphia adopted the LA program as Students Run Philly Style in 2005, targeting neighborhoods with the highest incidence of drug abuse, asthma, and other health issues. That first year, 125 youngsters participated, all new runners, training from March to November for the Philadelphia Marathon and Half-Marathon with the Broad Street 10-Miler in May en route. At a year-end celebration, says program director Heather McDanel, "a 14-year-old girl came onstage and said she used to just watch TV and was shy and the program changed her life." Another student, a 16-year-old boy, participated while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
Another winning concept adopted throughout the country is the Texas-based Marathon Kids program, created by Kay Morris in 1995 and now serving more than 100,000 children from kindergarten through fifth grade throughout Texas, with new affiliates in California and Maryland and plans to open in Chicago. It's a run-walk-nutrition program with kids running a quarter mile or half mile to accumulate at least 25 miles in six months; then they run a climactic 1.2 miles en masse to total 26.2 miles -- a "marathon." Morris says they target children most in need and that the completion rate is 83 percent. Students keep "fuel logs" of fruits and vegetables consumed and are given 26.2 healthy things to do over the summer.
Children's advocates such as Morris understand that when running programs embrace kids' education as a whole, teach values, and stress lifestyle changes pertaining to nutrition and family, they will be most effective and long-lasting. These program leaders are helping to create better communities.
A similar holistic approach was adopted by the GO! St. Louis Marathon's "Read, Right and Run" program for kindergartners through eighth graders, which has grown from 400 participants in 2001 to 3,000 in 2008, according to director Nancy Lieberman. Older students in middle school do a 5K as their final run. "Read" requires reading twenty-six books. "Right" requires twenty-six good deeds such as tutoring younger children or helping out at Ronald McDonald House. "It's contagious," says Lieberman. On the celebratory race day in April, when the kids line up, "you can't hold them back." The event has added a summer track meet series for kids, will soon train high school students for a half-marathon, and has other events for young children, including a Diaper Dash.
Diaper Dash is practically a circuit. Credit for the original probably goes to the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, whose own version has infants crawling in a big circle on the grounds of the Minnesota state capitol. The event, in October, also features a Toddler Trot, among other kids' events, with total participation up to 3,665. "The young kids always want to run more," says Sandy Unger, Medtronic youth program and community outreach manager.
Web Programs Fuel Interest
The pace of program growth has been accelerated by the Internet. The Web-based Big Sur Marathon Just Run program, begun in the 2004-5 school term, now has about 7,000 children in seventy schools in Monterey County with a Just Run Across the USA component featuring participants in at least fourteen states. Kids log and track mileage, offer running ideas that are posted, and perform good deeds, another concept that is catching on.
Just Run is one of many children's programs nationwide indicating positive health gains in a short time. In 2007, test scores for fifth, seventh, and ninth graders in the five Monterey schools that are part of Just Run showed an increase from 58 percent to 81 percent in the proportion of students passing the Fitnessgram Pacer Test, a measure of aerobic fitness. At the same time, the eight county schools not in the program saw a drop in those passing from 59 percent to 47 percent, according to Just Run founder Mike Dove.
And so from the Monterey Peninsula to the Feelin' Good Mileage Club in Flint, Michigan; from the Fit for Life Challenge in Richmond, Virginia, to the Fit for Bloomsday program in Spokane, Washington; from the Marine Corps Marathon Healthy Kids Fun Run in Washington, D.C., to the Smile Mile in Winter Park, Florida; from the Many Milers Club in Burlington, Vermont, to the Peachtree Junior in Atlanta, Georgia, there are Diaper Dashes, Toddler Trots, Student Sprints, Miles of Smiles, uphill and downhill races, track and cross-country, road runs and even marathons propelling kids of all ages, both boys and girls, as well as those hard-to-motivate teens, to move, move, move, keep moving, for fun, health, and the greater good.
Seeking to create awareness, provide funding, and give youngsters a running outlet, Nike sponsors a nationwide 5K Run for Kids program with events in eight cities and over 2,000 young participants, in addition to several thousand adults. Proceeds from entry fees are donated to local school physical education and athletic programs, and according to Nike, over $1 million has been raised so far. The events offer kids' training runs for preparation and a one-mile run in addition to the 5K.
The most ambitious undertaking of all is in New York City. The New York Road Runners, which has led almost every important running movement since the early days of Fred Lebow, serves more than 50,000 children in the five boroughs and other cities with several running programs under the auspices of the New York Road Runners Foundation. With an annual budget of $5.25 million and a full-time staff of eighteen plus more than forty part-timers, the foundation has more than 100 elementary schools in the five boroughs in its Mighty Milers program, another sixty-plus middle schools in its Young Runners program, and a City Sports for Kids track program.
Running a Million Miles in New York and Beyond
"Our model is 'train and support,'" says New York Road Runners Foundation executive director Cliff Sperber. The club targets school populations in need, trains site coordinators, gives workout schedules, provides supplies and equipment, offers abundant incentives, has field managers observe team practices, and is allied with key operatives at the city's Board of Education and Department of Health. Their goal is at least a million miles covered in a school term by all participants, including a division in Cape Town, South Africa. Each child has a personalized Web page to keep track of mileage and view the progress of other schools as well. "It's a great tool for goal setting and motivation and for teachers to use in academic integration," says Sperber. "Kids can log in anywhere."
One teacher who can't personally benefit from the Web element but is perhaps the most successful Mighty Miler coach of all is Steve Sloan, 53, of Public School 102 in East Harlem. Sloan is legally blind and has been since birth. His mother died when he was 3, and Sloan grew up in group homes, unable to read at 13. A social worker rescued him, and Sloan hasn't looked back since. A PE teacher for twenty-three years, he has the whole school -- 345 students, the most in any one program -- running four to five times a week on a nearby track. He runs on the track himself every morning before school. On weekends, he runs 3 miles from his Bronx home to a YMCA, where he swims and lifts weights.
Isn't it dangerous for a blind man to run through the Bronx streets unattended?
Sloan's reply: "Well, everything is dangerous for me."
I ask him if there is any way he can keep kids running when they're not in school. He replies that he's working on it. In 2008, Sloan began a pilot program he calls "masters," in which his students were given a summer training schedule to run up to 3 miles a day five to six days a week -- on the honor system but with parents signing a daily mileage chart, like a report card. "I challenge my students," Sloan says. "They have to run 3 miles a day, even if they're on vacation in Puerto Rico."
The extent to which children continue running when not supervised, and whether they remain active and sustain a healthy lifestyle in later years, are issues under review as kids' programs mature and lend themselves to follow-up assessments. Marathon Kids and Girls on the Run have studies under way. The preeminent sports scientists Steve Blair and Russ Pate of the University of South Carolina are doing new work in this area. The Twin Cities Marathon is collecting research on the teenagers who have run the event over the years, to see if their injury-free efforts hold up over time.
In the meantime, I'm conducting my own study in my older daughter's backyard. Allison, still running in her mid-30s, is now the mother of our two grandchildren. The older one, 6-year-old Jordana, runs from tree to tree as I coax her to complete the Jordana Loop. Sometimes we do it together. I let her stop and start as she wishes, kick a ball, tumble onto the grass, and chase her little brother. It's hard to say if she will really take an interest in running, but just in case, I've already checked out the high school team.
Marlboro, New Jersey
July 2008 Copyright © 2009 by Marc Bloom