Charles Walks goes for a run almost every morning alongside a dedicated group of cross-country athletes.
He sticks out from the crowd, towering over the rest of the runners by at least 3 feet.
He is the coach, after all.
Walks coaches what students at Sandstone Elementary refer to as their cross-country team.
Elementary schools around the city had such teams years ago, but, due to a lack of funding, any efforts to keep students running have been left up to parent volunteers like Walks.
He and his team of 20 or so regulars are training hard for Thursday’s Yellowstone County Elementary School Cross County Race at Pioneer Park. They meet three times a week at 7:30 a.m.
“Stand up, kids, walk around,” Walks, 26, cries out to two boys sitting in the grass after finishing their mile run Monday morning. “You don’t want to hurt your muscles.”
The boys, red-faced and slightly out of breath, garner some strength and make their way toward the playground to join the other runners for a cool-down.
Walks knows how they feel. He’s been a runner since the third grade and was an All-American runner in high school until he blew out his knee playing pickup basketball.
Since then, he has worked at getting back into his running rhythm and passing along his cross country wisdom to his new team.
He knows the importance of learning good health practices at a young age, so, when the school asked if he wanted to coach, he couldn’t turn down the request.
“These kids are pretty dedicated, and it makes me happy that they want to do something with their lives,” Walks said.
Eleven-year-old Nano Stiffarm is one of Walks’ best runners.
“I like it. My mom used to run cross-country and track,” Stiffarm said. “When I was little, she would run with me.”
Stiffarm takes that love of running home and practices on weekends while away from the rest of his team.
Walks said that, at this level, the boys seem to be more dedicated runners.
“I’m not sure yet on the girls,” Walks said. “They like to gossip. I’ll stop running and wait halfway to push them. The boys are the ones who want to run.”
Thursday’s race will consist of three heats for each gender. The first race for fourth-graders will start at about 4:15, followed by the fifth- and sixth-grade races.
Montana Timing has donated its services to provide each runner with a chip that will be attached to the participant’s race number. The low-cost disposable chip is read by antennas placed overhead and to the side of start, finish lines and checkpoint areas, said Jennifer Drinkwalter, general manager of Montana Timing.
Antennas are mounted to arches provided by Montana Timing, and runners will have real-time results available at the finish line.
Second annual event
This is the second year for the elementary cross-country race.
“It was kind of at the last minute that we even did it last year,” said Karen Sanford Gall, executive director of the Big Sky State Games.
“It wasn’t working out with all the schools getting it started, but one parent did it on her own and had a little club and asked us when the race was.”
Based on last year’s interest, the organization decided to invest some time and effort into Thursday’s race, which is expected to attract about 350 registered runners.
Participants will complete a one-mile course around Pioneer Park. The school with the most runners will win a spirit trophy that will travel to different winners each year.
Awards will be given to the top five runners in each age group. All participants will get a reflective slap bracelet to help students be seen better while walking to school.
The goal of the race is to introduce another way for kids to stay active and fit.
“It’s definitely the mission for the State Games to promote physical activity and healthy lifestyles,” Sanford Gall said.
Students still interested in participating can register for $5 by filling out an entry form at bigskygames.org/specialevents or on the day of the race. Race day check-in and late registration begin at 3 p.m.
Contact Chelsea Krotzer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1392.