Today we are at a crisis level with our children’s health. The foisting of low-nutrient, high-calorie food on the American public by a system motivated only by profit instead of nutrition has led to some 30 percent of children in the US being overweight and an incredible escalation in diet-related diseases such as early-onset diabetes. With our future—our children—at risk, we’re in dire need of solutions.
Enter Marathon Kids—a simple, fun and highly effective combination of exercise, motivation and nutrition. There are currently 215,000 kindergarten through fifth-grade children registered in the program, all committed to accomplish a marathon of 26.2 miles over a six-month period, and to eat a healthy regimen of fruits and vegetables during that time as well. Over the 15 years that Marathon Kids has been in operation, an astounding one million children have completed the program.
The key to getting children so enthusiastically involved in Marathon Kids is its unique method of addressing exercise and eating, which stemmed from a bright idea of Kay Morris’s—the non-profit organization’s founder and director—15 years ago.
“I was in a running class, and I had subscribed to Runner’s World magazine,” Kay told Natural Vitality Kids. “Back then, when you subscribed, they sent you a little free running log. You filled it in with information such as what the temperature was, how you felt and how far you ran; it was like a little diary. I loved to fill that out, and it got to where I was running in order to come home and fill out the diary!
“It was just a kind of eureka moment. I began thinking about children, and how maybe they would like to acquire the loving habit of running if they had a little tool like that. I thought of a childlike running log, where a child could color in quarter miles. It could be a journey that would be done over six months, and we could have a party at the beginning and a party at the end. I think the best part of the idea was how we could make it actually become a habit, and how kids need something more specific and concrete for that to happen.”
And true to Kay’s vision, that is exactly how the program evolved and how it still works today, along with the implementation of healthy eating habits.
Part of the reason it likely has become so popular is that children can easily see its value. “I purposely didn’t underestimate children,” Kay continued. “Because they’re so visual, they realize when a project or a program is of substance. The running log is colored in as miles are acquired, and they’re able to see what a journey it is and that it is a big project. Someone is not just handing them a medal or a little trophy for nothing; they respect it and know it’s not a giveaway. They understand when they shyly raise their hands or nod that they’re committing to something that, for them, feels like, ‘I need my courage to do this,’ or ‘I’m stepping out of my comfort level.’ But we try our best to help the children feel comfortable when stepping into it, because it’s not about speed; it’s about completion.”
So far, Kay has gotten the program instituted in seven major metropolitan school systems: Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and Los Angeles, and more are lined up. She found an extremely successful method of making it simple for overworked and underpaid school systems to implement this highly beneficial program.
“The program is free, and it is kept that way through corporate donations,” said Kay. “We also have individual donations, and foundations that help us. After the sensation of the first few years in Austin, Texas, which is where it began, it became easier to open doors, because leaders talk to other leaders. We’re now proven, and they know that it’s not a bait and switch where I’m going to come back, or the organization is going to come back, later and say, ‘Okay, we’ve provided this free and now you have to put in this much money.’ We’ve never done that; we keep the program free. And now that we’re evidence based—with third-party verified results—we have even more credibility. We have a history and a track record, and we’re 15 years old now.”
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Kay has also ensured that administration of the program is easy. “I think one of the reasons that Marathon Kids is so contagious and resonating is that the teacher package is very simple,” she said. “It’s not full of jargon, and there’s not a lot of bureaucracy, and there’s no money that has to change hands; it’s all free. The teacher doesn’t have to go, ‘Okay, now I’ve got to collect eighteen dollars and seventy five cents per child,’ or something like that.”
The sheer sign-up numbers showing how many kids are taking to the program is in itself remarkable. “The participation is self-selecting—they don’t have to do the program; they choose to do it. When you’ve got 215,000 kids signing up in one year, it speaks for itself.”
Parents also become heavily involved and enthusiastic about Marathon Kids. “The program is contagious to the parents because the little child has this running log that he or she colors in,” Kay pointed out. “For example, let’s say it’s getting close to the final mile medal celebration and the child has only done 18 miles and has 8 more to do. Then the parents get involved in trying to help the child get his or her miles accumulated, and so they go out and run or walk with their child on the weekends or after school.
“At the kickoff celebrations at the beginning of the school year, parents come to the events. In Austin, we hold them at the University of Texas Track and Field and the crowd sits in the stands. At first there are around 8,000 people at 9:00 a.m., then another 8,000 more at 11:00 a.m. The parents who came thinking they were just going to sit in the stands and watch their kids run realize they’ve got to run with their kids or else they’re going to lose track of them. They end up running the laps with the children and going through the balloon-arch finish line. By then, their endorphins are flowing, and they wind up doing a lot of the program with their kids. They’re also helping their children to make healthy food choices so that the kids can color in the foods they’re eating.”
Another aspect of the program, one that is now up-and-coming, is the promotion of gardens in schools in order to educate kids on where food comes from and to further encourage them in healthy eating. “We’re doing a pilot right now where we are learning how to wrap a community, a neighborhood, around an elementary school,” Kay explained. “We’re building a prototype where we are going to be able to help elementary schools get their gardens started, showing how to involve the neighborhood with Marathon Kids in that capacity.”
Kay concluded with the broader picture of her program’s benefit. “I think the coolest part of Marathon Kids is bringing the community together for the party at the beginning to celebrate the little kids who had the courage to start,” she said, “and then, at the end, bringing them back together when they all run their last mile. This is followed by a big celebration where their town congratulates them and knows they’re the heroes.”
Find out more about Marathon Kids at www.marathonkids.org.