With every lap around the River Springs Elementary School track, the young runners are sowing the seeds of lifelong fitness.
It was a desire to get kids moving more that inspired a group of parents at the Lexington-Richland 5 school to organize a running/walking program last fall. Several months, a few hundred miles and some 120 participants later, the Gators on the Go program has taken off as fast as the runners themselves.
“One day a week of PE at school isn’t enough,” said Christina McCarty, who spearheads the parent-led effort that came about after the school’s PTO built the 1/7th-mile-long track around the school’s playground last year, providing another outlet for youngsters to stay active.
River Springs students were in full stride on the track Friday afternoon – some running, and others strolling casually along the track – carrying on the healthy ritual that started in September and that now takes place two days a week before and after school.
“We have children of all abilities and quite a few who have greatly improved since we started,” McCarty said. “Our first session lasted nine weeks and our top runners ran over 30 miles.”
Since then the runners have logged hundreds more miles combined and showed little signs of fatigue Friday.
“I like to run and exercise,” said River Springs second-grader Caleb Huynh, who joined the program in recent weeks.
Fifth-grader Stella Topkina said the weekly get-moving sessions beat sitting around.
“When you’re sitting on the couch, you’re not as healthy as when you’re running,” she said.
After each lap, students receive “silly bands,” that are collected at the end of each practice and help track the total distance covered. Stars for each mile run or walked also are placed under the students’ pictures inside the school.
“Although we encourage running, we’re just as happy to see kids walking around the track,” McCarty said. “We also take running breaks in the afternoon to do exercises such as jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups and planks.”
Micquel Cleveland, whose daughter, Marissa is part of the regular walks, sees many benefits to the program.
“It gives the kids an opportunity to work on some of their mechanics,” he said. “Healthy bodies make for healthy minds.”
Many of the parents continue to model personal fitness in their own lives.
McCarty became involved with triathlons when she was 9 and recently completed her first Ironman triathlon. Ric Favati, another organizer, is a former Cat 1 cyclist and lifetime runner.
PTO president Jackie VanDam, a runner, and past PTO president Teresa Ward, a former coach; lead the running sessions one day a week at the school. Another parent, Ben Breazeale, a marathon runner, also helps with the program.
“Physical fitness and healthy living is important to all of us and we want to encourage lifelong habits of exercise,” McCarty said.
Those examples are catching on across the school.
About 25 River Springs students will take part in the second Columbia Kids Marathon next week when they will complete the final leg of a 26.2-mile journey they began in September.
River Springs principal Melanie Cohen credited the parents for their leadership, adding the benefits of the program will be lasting.
“We’re not just trying to build runners,” Cohen said. “We’re trying to build kids who are physically fit.”