Christine Crabb used to be a runner. But the Highlands Ranch mother admits she’s more of a walker these days.

Students at Northridge Elementary School in Highlands Ranch warm up before running laps around the school baseball field. They're part of the before-school Kids Running American running club.

Now, at least two mornings a week, she’s also a cheerleader.

“Come on, Olivia! Keep running!” yelled Crabb, as her 6-year-old daughter circled the baseball field at Northridge Elementary at a healthy trot, in the company of a dozen other youngsters.

Six times around equals one mile, and Olivia’s goal is to get in enough laps to equal a marathon over the course of the next few weeks. Olivia’s mom was there to walk her to school, to offer encouragement and to hold stuff while she ran during the half hour before classes begin at 8:30 a.m.

“She likes it, and I wanted to encourage her to start running at a young age,” said Crabb. “Just this morning, she was telling me she thinks running has made her legs stronger.”

Running clubs take off

Olivia is one of 40 kids on the Northridge Kids Running America team. It’s one of nearly three dozen parent-organized Kids Running America teams at elementary schools around the metro area.

kids running clubElsewhere, the Landsharks running club, based in Colorado Springs, has spread to more than 60 schools, including one in Boulder. And the Girls Gotta Run program is introducing fifth-grade girls throughout Larimer County to the joys of running. Still other schools are starting their own unaffiliated running clubs as a cheap, fun, effective way to get kids moving.

“Five years ago, our executive director found a need for more physical education in the school district,” said Rachel Levi, program director for Kids Running America – and the running coach at the twice-weekly Northridge run. “She grabbed 72 kids and started this program in Parker.”

Some 1,500 children are expected to participate in the Kids Running America "Final Mile Event" at Elitch Gardens next month.

Since then, more than 7,000 elementary-age children have participated in Kids Running America events. The incremental running program, which operates over the course of eight-to-twelve weeks in the spring and the fall, gives kids the chance to take part in organized fun runs, plus play training games, logging miles as they go.

The Final Mile

The “Final Mile” event this fall will be Saturday, Oct. 8, when young runners from around the metro area will converge on Elitch Gardens to run their 26th mile together. About 1,500 are expected to participate. In the spring, the KRA runners do their final mile at the Denver Marathon.

“I try not to be a drill sergeant – at least not in the beginning,” said Levi, as she shouted encouragement to the youngsters, reminding them to “pace, not race.”

As they progress through the running drills, she’ll provide them with training incentives such as water bottles and hats. She also assigns “homework miles,” in hopes the kids will get their parents to go running with them.

“If the families get involved, the kids have a greater likelihood of staying with it,” Levi said.

While it’s not an official school team, school officials are very supportive of before-school and after-school running clubs.

“It’s a great way to start the day,” Levi said. “The teachers love it. When they finish running, the kids are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

Parents love it, too.

“I love that he’s out here, being active,” said Lynne Hight, whose 8-year-old son, Rylan, is in the running club at Northridge. “He lives for it now. He wants to make sure he gets here on time on the running days. And he has a better day at school on the days he’s run.”

Teachers join in, too

The program isn’t targeted just at athletic youngsters. Far from it. Last spring, 275 students – plus their teachers – at Johnson Elementary School, in Denver’s Harvey Park neighborhood, took part in the school’s Kids Running America program.

“Seven laps around the school track is a mile,” said Annie Vassallo, the assistant program coordinator for the Beacon Neighborhood Center, which provides after-school enrichment programming at Johnson. “We worked closely with the gym teacher, and every lap they made, they got a popsicle stick. They could run during recess, or they could run during our Tuesday/Thursday fun club program. Running wasn’t mandatory, but we definitely promoted it.”

“Some of the kids couldn’t quite make seven laps, and that’s OK,” Vassallo said. “Some had to walk partway, and that was OK. They still got popsicle sticks. And some kids were so excited they ran 14 laps.”

The goal, Vassallo said, was not necessarily weight loss, even though Johnson students share in the growing childhood obesity epidemic. But the Body Mass Index measures for some of the participating students definitely went down, she said.

“Obviously that didn’t happen for everybody,” she said. “We had some extremely lean and naturally athletic students already. For them, running all day was a natural thing. But we definitely saw changes in some children’s body weight.”

Johnson will again field a Kids Running America team this spring. But Vassallo hopes that the lessons learned last spring will endure.

“So often, physical fitness just falls off the radar in many families,” she said. “By giving these students this opportunity, we tried to influence their parents too. Parents would come out and run with them. We saw students in need of physical fitness really commit to this idea. It’s hard to run every single day, but we saw students doing that.”

Happy feet in Colorado Springs

In Colorado Springs, the venerable Landsharks running club is entering its 12th year. The after-school running program involves five to six weeks of cross-country runs during fall and track in the spring. Participants gather at their schools twice a week to work out with a parent-coach, in preparation for Monday night races.

The Landsharks Running Club for children began a dozen years ago in Colorado Springs.

“Practices aren’t just running laps,” said former Olympic athlete Kathy Rex, who, along with her husband, Steve, founded Landsharks when her son wanted to join a running club. It’s named for an old Saturday Night Live skit. “They’re mostly games where the kids just run a lot, but don’t realize they’re running. We don’t want them to feel it’s drudgery. But they’ll get to where they can run a mile and a half, and it’s no big deal.”

Landsharks is for children ages 5 to 12, but those who want to may continue on to participate in a junior Olympic program, Rex said.

“The kids love it. Our philosophy is, every kid’s a winner. They compete against themselves to improve each week. And those who want to take it to the next level can go on to the junior Olympics.”

Many have done so. And many have gone on to earn college athletic scholarships, in running and in other sports.

Kids’ running programs

Kids Running America
Landsharks Running Club
Girls Gotta Run
Run For Your Life Colorado

Larimer County rocks it, too

Girls Gotta Run, an eight-week program at schools and community centers in Larimer County, is geared toward fifth-graders, and the goal is improving self-esteem at a critical time in girls’ development.

“The idea is, each day they meet, they have a lesson on a topic appropriate for the girls,” said Anne Genson, community health educator with Poudre Valley Healthy System, which sponsors Girls Gotta Run, through its Healthy Kids Club. “So it could be on dieting or body image or fast food – things we know girls that age need to hear.”

One day a week, they run. The other day, they do something else – maybe tai bo or Pilates or yoga. The hope isn’t that they become runners, but that they find something they can maintain activity-wise.

Another Larimer County kids running program – Run For Your Life Colorado – began two years ago as a way simply to get good running shoes on the feet of disadvantaged children. It’s grown from there into a full-scale eight-week coaching program.

Founder Paul Higgins launched the non-profit to collect used running shoes. He washed them, refurbished them with new footbeds and laces, and gave them children who could never afford high-priced running shoes. So far, nearly 100 children have received refurbished running shoes for free.

“The kids who got them pledged they would be more active, but at first we really didn’t do anything to keep up with them,” said Spencer Dries, interim executive director of Run For Your Life Colorado. “But we realized we needed to be more pro-active than that.”

RFYL launched a running program last spring at Lopez Elementary in Fort Collins, and 25 kids committed to 60  to 90 minutes of after-school running practice, two days a week. The goal is to get them to participate in a season-ending 5K race, with shorter fun runs leading up to that. This fall, the program will expand to three schools, and Dries hopes the growth will continue.

“We’re more than just running coaches,” said Dries, himself an accomplished tri-athlete. “We become their friends. Some of the kids are already athletic, and we encourage them. But we try to get the less-active kids to be more active. We try to get them as active as they feel comfortable being. Some excel. Some strive to do more than others. But we take them on an individual basis.”