Marathon Kids: Off and running
AUSTIN, Texas -- Usually the site of Texas Longhorns soccer and track and field exploits, the focal point at Mike A. Myers Stadium on Saturday morning was physical fitness. Several thousand children participated in the annual Marathon Kids Kickoff Celebration, hosted by UT Athletics, basking in a beautiful sunny day. The Myers track was filled with grade-school children and their families, as youth ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade ran the first half-mile (two laps around the track) of the six-month Marathon Kids program.
Texas women's track and field head coach Bev Kearney headed the UT Athletics volunteers. Kearney has been involved in the Marathon Kids program since its inception 11 years ago. UT has served as the host of the Kickoff Mile for eight of the last nine years (the 2005 Kickoff Mile was cancelled due to Hurricane Rita). On Thursday, Sept. 20, Kearney will be honored at a "Heroes for Health" Rooftop Party at the Whole Foods Market at 6th and Lamar in Austin.
"Marathon Kids has been enormously successful because it does not discriminate," Kearney said. "Its fitness programs are free to children of all income levels who face serious health threats such as Type Two diabetes and obesity."
The kickoff celebration on Saturday provided participants with an opportunity to run, jog and walk the first half-mile of their six-month journey that will encompass the distance of a standard marathon (26.2 miles). The event was broken up into two parts with children from the Austin Independent School District running in the morning and children from 13 other school districts in Central Texas running in the afternoon session.
More than one hundred UT student-athletes were stationed along the track to offer their encouragement to runners of all ages. Some of the more ambitious student-athletes took to the track and helped set the pace. Children received autographs and posed for pictures with some of their favorite Longhorns after they completed their run.
"It's wonderful to be out here with these kids and help them realize the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle," women's golfer Julia Best said. "There's a lot that these kids can learn today, but above all else, we want them to take this opportunity to start an active lifestyle, if they haven't already."
Over 45,000 schoolchildren in Central Texas are registered in the free Marathon Kids program; counting family members, over 20,000 were in attendance for Saturday's Kickoff Mile at Myers Stadium.
Ashley Laughlin (women's track and field), Hubert Chodkiewicz (men's tennis), Erneisha Bailey (women's basketball) and Ricky Berens (men's swimming and diving) represented the UT student-athletes in the ceremonial opening laps.
"Any time we have a chance to make and impact, we've got to take advantage of the opportunity," Chodkiewicz said. "All of our (men's tennis) guys are out here with me today, so hopefully we'll make a difference."
Select dignitaries who ran the ceremonial opening lap included Eduardo J. Sanchez, M.D., commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, who becomes director of the institute for Health Policy in The University of Texas School of Public Health at Houston next month; AISD School Superintendent Pat Forgione; John Solomon of Blue Cross, Blue Shield of Texas; Paul Carrozza of the President's Council on Physical Fitness & Sports and RunTex Inc., UT Police Chief Robert Dahlstrom; Karen Banks of Sustainable Food Center; Betsy Foster, Whole Foods Market VP; Nona Evans of Whole Foods Market; State Representative Patrick Rose; Marissa Rathbone of TEA; Austin Police Department Sergeant Scott Cary; Michelle Rusnak, AISD Physical Education Coordinator; Rick Schwertzfeger, Austin Health & Human Services of iThrive; along with community and teacher volunteers.
Mike Barnes of KVUE-TV served as the event's master of ceremonies.
Upon finishing their kickoff laps, the children earned Marathon Kids water bottles. At the Final Mile Medal Celebration, the Marathon Kids will earn their "finisher medals." Later in school assemblies, they will receive their Marathon Kids Finisher t-shirts.
Participants earn incentive rewards as they complete portions of their running and nutritious eating during the six-month Marathon Kids initiative. Whole Foods Market, the Moody Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, BlueCross BlueShield of Texas, RunTex, Ginny's Printing, KVUE, iThrive, Sustainable Food Center and the Topper Family Foundation all fund the Marathon Kids event, making it free to all families.
It didn't take long for newcomers to the University of Texas athletics department to get involved with community service. Along with freshmen from numerous squads, new women's golf coach Martha Richards was on hand.
"It's important that the University of Texas, especially our student-athletes, play a role in the Central Texas community," Richards said. "We're excited to be a part of this event and contribute wherever we can."
For most of the athletes in attendance, like UT women's basketball standout Erika Arriaran and women's swimmer Alexi Spann, veterans of community-oriented events on the UT campus, the Marathon Kids event served as another opportunity to give back to those who give so much to The University.
"Before from Austin, it's nice to see everyone out today helping to make this community an even better place," Spann said. "We do a lot to help out our UT community, but with an event like today, we're reaching even more people. It's nice to be able to reach out to these kids today."
"I love volunteering in Austin," Arriaran said, "and doing what I can, because this community is so supportive of our university and sports teams."
The goal of the day was making physical fitness fun and emphasizing that exercise can be enjoyable.
"We love being out here with the young kids," Arriaran said. "We want to make this day fun and special for them - with music, balloons, running and encouragement - so they see that running and being fit is positive and fun. It's important for us to show them support and encouragement to be healthy."
Marathon Kids is an 11-year-old non-profit organization. Born in Austin as a grassroots initiative, the Marathon Kids program has nearly 123,000 children program. In addition to the 45,000 children participating in Austin, the program has branched out to Dallas, Houston, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas as well as Baltimore and Los Angeles. Chicago Marathon Kids launches in 2008-09. Nearly 300 communities, as well as 14 nations, are on the waiting list to join the program.
With the event being labeled a kickoff, the hope is it will serve as not only a start of six-month trek to the March final lap celebration, but the commencing of a lifestyle change that children will take with them forever.
"It was amazing to see all of the children that came out for this," UT baseball star Travis Tucker said. "We had fun cheering them on and hopefully we have some future Longhorns running around the track and they will keep active for the rest of their lives."