Long before the bell rings on Tuesday mornings at Broadwater Elementary, a group of youngsters, now 90 strong, laces up their sneakers for a 20-minute run around the schoolyard.
It’s not a physical education class, and it’s not required as part of the curriculum. These youths choose to be here.
They are part of the Broadwater Elementary Running Club, which was started three years ago. Members are in grades three through six and commit to a 7:30 a.m. workout once a week.
They are training for the 32nd annual Heart and Sole Run and possess every intention of leaving fellow participants in the dust. Each youth will receive a T-shirt and be able to participate in post-event activities. Each will also be eligible for awards.
Their morning runs have become legendary at the school. They have become the envy of younger students who want to be part of this high-profile activity.
A year ago, the Running Club was about half its current size and was composed of fourth- through sixth-graders. Third-graders clamored to be included, and this year they are, said Justin King, the school’s health enhancement teacher.
“The principal allowed us to come in to motivate the kids and get them moving,” said Chris Cook, a volunteer leader. “We help them with agility and form and get them to think running is fun. And being with their friends is fun. We don’t call it exercise. We’re playing.”
The Running Club is designed in large part to help combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, said Broadwater Elementary Principal Lee Kvilhaug.
The rate of overweight or obese Yellowstone County adults has increased 10 percent during the past five years to 73 percent, according to the 2010 Yellowstone County Community Health Needs Assessment.
The obesity rate among children ages 6 to 17 dropped nearly 10 percent in the same period, to 24 percent, according to the assessment, but it is still an issue.
“It’s about keeping kids active and keeping kids moving,” Kvilhaug said. “You don’t need a lot of money and a lot of equipment to be active. These kids are being monitored so they can celebrate their success.”
Every youngster who participates in the race earns a spot, free of cost, for his or her parents and siblings. The goal is to make race day a family affair. He is hoping for at least 200 participants representing Broadwater Elementary.
“It’s not about competition,” Kvilhaug said. “It’s about improving personal health and having fun doing it.”
By all accounts their approach seems to be working.
Makenzy Gilsdorf, 11, a fifth-grader, arrived at school eager to join in the run.
“It’s a good idea to exercise before you go in to work in class so you don’t feel all tired in school,” she said. “It’s taught me how to, like, pace myself, and now I know it does work to use your arms.”
She participated in the 2-mile walk at the 2010 Heart & Sole Run and plans a repeat appearance at this year’s event.
Torrey Becker, 11 and also a fifth-grader, said he likes the Running Club because he usually has homework after school and doesn’t get much of a chance to run.
“I like getting exercise in the morning,” he said. “It wakes me up. I like the games we play, and you get more time with your friends.”
For 12-year-old Shawn Murphy, a sixth-grader, the morning run affords him an opportunity to chill as well as get in shape for the Heart & Sole Run. It will be his fifth consecutive year of participating. He plans to run with his mother, father and sister, making it a family event.
Beyond training for the event, Murphy said he enjoys the physicality of the sport.
“I just like the feeling I get,” he said. “Your body is relaxed.”
A portion of the proceeds from the Heart & Sole Run 2011 will help support the Heritage Trail, the Greater Billings nonmotorized trail system, providing opportunities for multipurpose community recreation. A portion will also be used to provide scholarships for the YMCA Strong Community Campaign
Presenting sponsors of the run are St. Vincent Healthcare and The Billings Gazette.