At Riderwood, elementary students run in footsteps of high school mentors

A beautiful fall afternoon provides youngsters with many options. Last week, more than 100 area schoolchildren chose to steer clear of video games and stay outside instead after they got out of class.

Riderwood Elementary School was awash in runners on Oct. 23, as students from that school were joined by runners from eight other schools for the last scheduled elementary-school cross country event of the season.

Cromwell Valley, Stoneleigh, Hampton, Rodgers Forge, Pinewood, West Towson and Kingsville elementary school students also participated in the program, where youngsters from grades three to five competed in six separate races in boys' and girls' divisions.

The cross country series, which began in the mid-1980s, has become a fall tradition in northern Baltimore County. The first race was conducted in early October at Pinewood, but heavy rains canceled the next two runs at Rodgers Forge and Timonium.

"We've been doing this for over 30 years," said Sandi Corbo, a Timonium resident and physical education teacher at Hampton Elementary. "It was started by Jim Harrison, a teacher at both Stoneleigh and Riderwood who still helps us set up the courses. We teach a physical education unit that encourages the students to run a half-mile, to pace themselves, and then make it for a mile.

"As a (physical education) teacher, you want to turn a child onto one thing, so that they'll be physically active all their life. We want to make running fun and enjoyable, and let the kids see that it is a lifelong sport."

The elementary students weren't the only young people on the 1-mile course. Approximately one-third of the entire Dulaney High School cross country team helped with the operation of the event.

"We've been doing this for eight or nine years," said Chad Boyle, the cross country coach at Dulaney. "I brought five or six kids over the first time, and today we're close to 30. It's neat for them to come back and support their old elementary schools.

"Cross country has given me so much as an athlete and coach, and I just want to help build the sport," Boyle said. "We want to let these kids know that cross country isn't just an individual sport, but it's a great team sport, too."

The high school runners set the pace for each of the six races, and watched out for students' safety during their hilly run over the course. They also helped time the race and distributed ribbons to the top finishers.

"We did this last year, and we had a lot of fun," said Dulaney senior Jon Anderson, who didn't run cross country until he reached high school. "They're starting so early, and it's good to see kids so enthusiastic about running. By the time they get to high school, they'll be really decent runners."

Corbo, who taught physical education at Stoneleigh for 20 years before moving to Hampton in 2009, believes that the involvement of the cross country squads from Dulaney, Towson High and Towson University enhance the experience and serve as a great motivator for the younger participants.

"The younger kids get excited when they see these (high school and college) students in their uniforms," Corbo said. "It makes a lot of sense for the high school kids to be involved."

Against the backdrop of record childhood obesity rates, Linda Williamson clearly sees the benefits of running.

"I'm lucky, because in my area parents are very active," said Williamson, now in her 16th year as a physical education teacher at Riderwood. "I tell the children that they aren't couch potatoes, and that their parents want them to move all the time. Last week, I had a mother tell me that her fourth-grader was going outside to train. The girl wasn't really a runner, but she was training."

Before they even jog a step, Williamson has a unique way of introducing the sport to her students.

"I read 'The Tortoise and the Hare' to them," she said. "They all want to go fast, but first we want them to walk around the field."

Parental involvement is another key to the program's success. The course was lined with many parents who have a connection to running. Gil Stange, the girls' cross country and track and field coach at Towson High, was cheering on his daughter, Emily, as she passed the halfway point of the race.

"She's played other sports, but she likes the running thing," Stange said. "My son runs on the team at Towson High, so she's grown up in a running household. She competes here and in the Charm City kids' races. There really isn't a rec program for running, so this serves as a feeder system. We've got kids (at Towson) who remember running the races at Stoneleigh and Rodgers Forge, and now they have running clubs in the middle schools."

Niraya Stankoski beamed as she watched her son Tyler, a fourth-grader at Timonium Elementary, prepare for the first race.

"I love it," said Stankoski, who ran in the Baltimore Half-Marathon on Oct. 13. "I think races like this are great for a healthy lifestyle. My family and my husband's family are runners, so I hope he follows in those footsteps."

Standing near the finish line, Kelly Hepting of Southland Hills was flanked by her daughter, Brynn, and son, Connor, a sixth-grader who previously ran in the cross country races. Brynn, who also plays basketball and soccer, competed in the third-grade girls' race.

"I think it's amazing that they promote fitness and health and accomplishment," Kelly said. "The best part about this is all of the schools coming together, because they see all of their friends that go to the other schools."

Third-grader Brynn Hepting, who finished in fifth place, is a member of the Girl Power Running Club at West Towson Elementary.

"It's a lot of fun," said Brynn. "I have friends at the other schools, and I can run against them. And running helps me with my other sports."

The opportunity to help young runners appealed to Isabel Griffith. The Dulaney junior, who finished third in last year's Class 4A state championship meet and won the Baltimore County girls' cross country title two weeks ago, hopes to see the running bug continue with the younger group.

"I think this is a great way for kids to learn about running," said Griffith, who has also worked with a middle-school program called Girls on the Run. "This whole program is about exposing kids to running at a really young age. These are just the first steps to introduce running as another sport they can play. By working with us, it gives them a view of what runners in high school look like."

The kids who used to run at the elementary level now have the opportunity to continue their experience. Diana Six, formerly a physical education teacher at Pinewood Elementary, started the middle school cross country program two years ago after she moved to Dumbarton. Currently, Dumbarton and Ridgely offer the running program to their students.

"A lot of these Dulaney runners were once Riderwood kids," Corbo said. "We planted the seed 30-plus years ago, and now it's in the middle schools. We're feeding them a lot of motivated runners."

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