Here in Houston, students can volunteer to participate in an innovative program called Marathon Kids. It’s a free exercise, nutrition and schoolyard gardening program designed to get children, over a six-month period – to accumulate 26.2 miles of walking or running (in 1/4 to 1/2 mile increments) and to eat five servings a day of fruits and vegetables at least 26.2 days a month – hence, “Marathon Kids.”
Today I’m happy to share with you my recent interview with Kay Morris, the founder of the program.
TLT: First off, can you give us a little more information on Marathon Kids?
KM: There are now 213,000 registered Marathon Kids in eight metro areas in the USA, and we’re in public, private and home schools. We’re funded by individuals, corporate sponsors and foundations, and our program is evidence-based as a result of a two year study by the University of Texas School of Public Health. The most significant upticks shown for Marathon Kids in the UT study were: 1) an increase in habitual daily minutes of exercise; 2) an increase in making healthy food choices; and 3) a significant shift in positive athletic self perception.
TLT: How would you describe the program’s primary mission?
KM: We build joyful community around children and are quickly accepted into schools as a free, innovative celebratory fitness program, resonating with the child…and with the child’s family. The child develops the love and habit of moving through space and carries forward the power of muscular, nutritional and psychological well being.
TLT: What led you to found Marathon Kids in the first place?
KM: I was a slow, middle aged runner who saw the benefit of keeping a running log and visually seeing my improvement and seeing my endurance progress. I just started daydreaming about doing something that would help children want to move through space…and to get into the habit of moving. The eureka moment was to tie a children’s running log to an incremental marathon. I had read in Running Times magazine of a junior high homeroom teacher who did something similar in 1995. So I created a visual running log that could be colored in by children, and the best part of the idea was to have a party at the beginning of the launch of their commitment…and a party six months later, at the completion of their effort.
In 1996, when this began as a grassroots initiative in Austin Texas with the help of local physical educators, a local running store, and local volunteers, we all noticed that children simply did not run and play as they used to. The idea is that Marathon Kids gives them the opportunity to run or walk and to make a habit of it. From the beginning, the passion has been to keep the six month program free. We have done that, thanks to volunteers, physical educators, Board guidance, foundations, individual donors and corporate sponsors.
TLT: What cities currently have Marathon Kids programs?
KM: Houston, Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Rio Grande Valley, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Window Rock area of the Navajo Nation.
TLTL Do you have plans to expand the program geographically? If readers want to bring Marathon Kids to their own area, what should they do?
KM: The program has grown organically but, unfortunately, we have 400+ towns and cities on our waiting list now. However, with the help of a Michael & Susan Dell Foundation grant, we hope to be able to offer Marathon Kids elsewhere in a much broader fashion.
TLT: What are some success stories you can relay from the program?
KM: The best success stories involve just moving a child from sedentary to non-sedentary. And those include stories where parents became more active as a result of their children doing the free program. We also have some superstar Marathon Kids. Craig Lutz, a Marathon Kids grad, has won the Footlocker National Cross Country. He also came in ahead of all other U.S. runners in the recent international cross country meet in Umbria, Spain.
TLT: You’ve always emphasized good nutrition along with exercise but I understand you’ll be soon ramping up the food side of Marathon Kids even more. Can you give us a preview?
KM: Last year, with the help of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Austin’s St. David’s Foundation, we created a new prototype: a combined Marathon Kids Running & Food Log, a hybrid. We launched that in a few pilot schools. The new log is cute and compelling and still holds the child, school and family accountable and responsible.
TLT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell TLT readers about Marathon Kids?
KM: We throw the net wide for Marathon Kids. When we offer it to a city, we want the leaders and the children to know that ALL kids can be Marathon Kids: fast/slow, overweight/slender, rich/poor, sighted/blind, abled/disabled. We want the child to raise his/her hand who would NEVER, EVER before have raised their hand, to say, “This is something I think I can do.” Marathon Kids is about completion, not speed. Children repeat the program from year to year. Children with social challenges often find a tribe of friends.
Another part of our mission is to get children onto a college campus. Thus that’s why we have our Kick Off and Final Miles events at university track and field stadiums. It’s our hope that children, as they walk across campus, will have their imagination sparked that someday they may go to college. Our hope is also that their parents will have that same spark.
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Many thanks to Kay Morris for visiting The Lunch Tray to tell us about Marathon Kids! You can learn more about the program here at the Marathon Kids website.