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STEP BY STEP

The Baltimore Sun

A few rounds in the gym. A jog to school. A lap around a lake.

With a few hundred steps here and a few hundred steps there, about 30 students at Northwood Elementary School are each aiming to log 26.2 miles by spring.

That's a marathon - an entire adult-sized, sweat-producing, medal-earning marathon.

These kids and close to 2,000 others at 15 Baltimore City elementary schools and five Baltimore County schools are working toward that Olympic-sized goal as part of a new program that prods youngsters to change their increasingly sedentary and sometimes dangerously unhealthy ways.

The effort, called Marathon Kids, launched locally last month, and some kids immediately took to the challenge.

"I'm the fastest runner in my class," said Xavier Robinson, a 10-year-old who clocked 1,714 steps on his pedometer during a recent gym class. "I run to school every day."

Kids often respond enthusiastically when given an opportunity to participate in sports, said Kay Morris, founder of the Austin, Texas-based nonprofit Marathon Kids that sponsors the program in Baltimore and five other cities. She said 115,000 kids are involved in the program nationwide this year and many are repeat participants from last year.

They get little prizes for participating, such as stickers and water bottles. And they get a medal after running their last mile on the campus of a local college that agrees to help. Towson University will host Baltimore's kids in April. (Local organizers have to do some fundraising for buses.)

The founders say the program aims to supplement gym class and after-school sports that do a good job involving some kids but can't provide enough activity for everyone. Kidswatching too much television and eating too much fast food have been identified as a national problem. Over time, as children gain too much weight, they can develop diabetes and other maladies once thought of as adult problems.

"Think of the kid who is not a joiner," Morris said. "The 26 miles will be a challenge for some, but they will get a terrific sense of completion they've probably never had, and maybe, a lifelong exercise habit."

Morris chooses cities for the program that have higher rates of poverty and usually higher rates of obesity to match. Baltimore fit the bill. But so did a lot of other places. She said she picked the city after being hounded by the owner of a local running store.

Josh Levinson, owner of Charm City Run in Timonium, said he saw a big need for more physical activity in his hometown of Baltimore. And running, he says, is a sport in which everyone can participate no matter their income or athleticism.

"Maybe we are dreaming, but if we don't, our public health crisis has already won," he said. "And that thought is unimaginable for me. [Marathon Kids] should be in every school."

Indeed, the need in Baltimore is great, according to the city Health Department, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 37 percent of city public high-school students were overweight or at risk of being overweight in 2005, compared with 29 percent of students in the rest of Maryland and around the country. The gap narrowed, but was still significant, when looking at only the African-American population of students: 37.5 were overweight in Baltimore, versus 35.2 percent in all of Maryland.

Among children ages 2, 3 and 4 and enrolled in a food-assistance program for women and children, 27.6 percent were overweight or at risk. That compares to the national average of up to 16 percent.

Richard Matens, assistant city health commissioner for chronic disease prevention, says two local panels have been studying the issue. One is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and coordinated by the Associated Black Charities and the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers. The other is sponsored by City Councilwoman Agnes Welch and is expected to report this month on ways to make a dent in the problem in schools, restaurants and elsewhere.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city health commissioner, said unless the trends are reversed, more kids will develop lifelong health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

"It's certainly an urgent problem in Baltimore," Sharfstein said.

Already, public schools are working to offer more in-class and after-class opportunities to the 82,000 kids in city schools, but funding is not unlimited, said Jessica Ivey, coordinator of athletics for the city schools. Depending on the school, kids have gym class one to three times a week.

She said students respond when given a chance to participate in sports. Recently, 700 middle-schoolers signed up for an after-school basketball program. And 2,000 signed up for Marathon Kids after physical education teachers were asked to take on the extra program.

Anthony Foderaro, the gym teacher at Northwood Elementary in North Baltimore, said he saw it as a chance to inspire his kids to do something active on the six days a week he doesn't see them.

Even in class, he said he needs a ready stable of tricks to get the kids motivated to move, like playing music - Beyonce is a real crowd-pleaser. Marathon Kids, he said, gives him more to keep them interested, including the awards ceremony in Towson and logbooks, which the kids color as they cover their mileage.

One recent day in class, he made sure they each had a simple red pedometer to clip on their pants.

"It's a little inexpensive thing," he said. "I like it, and I'm an adult. They really like it."

The kids were busy showing off their numbers after a half-hour of running, walking and sliding around orange cones in the school gym. Niyah Debose, 7, had 1,057 steps. Tierra Fowlkes, 8, had 609. Running 620 steps equals about a quarter-mile.

Viniyah Pannell, 8; Legacy Forte, 8; Malik Brown, 9; Dayonna Rogers, 9; Rashaad Fowlkes, 10; and Terrell David, 8, were all in the same range. Each said he or she would be collecting a medal in April for running a whole marathon.

"I like to run a lot," Malik said.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

Marathon Kids

What:

The Austin, Texas-based program is based in schools and communities and targets kindergartners to fifth-graders. It aims to build endurance, fitness and a lifelong exercise habit over a six-month period during which the kids cover the length of a marathon, 26.2 miles.

Why:

Children today are leading more sedentary lives and are developing maladies once thought of as adult problems such as high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.

Where:

Austin, Dallas, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley, Texas; Los Angeles; and this year, Baltimore.

Cost:

It's free to the kids, who get little prizes along the way and keep a logbook of their progress paid for with donations and foundation money. Localities need to line up volunteers and a college partner for kick-off and awards ceremonies and buses to ferry the kids.

Web site:

marathonkids.org

Baltimore's Marathon Kids

Participating are about 2,000 students in 15 Baltimore City schools, five Baltimore County schools and five home school families.

Baltimore City Public Schools:

Fallstaff Extended Elementary

Steuart Hill Elementary

John Ruhrah Elementary

Walter P. Carter Elementary

Mary E. Rodman Elementary

Westport Academy

Harriet Tubman Elementary

Highlandtown Elementary #215

Northwood Elementary

Gardenville Elementary

Lakeland Elementary

Roland Park Elementary

Windsor Hills Elementary

George Washington Elementary

Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary

Baltimore County Public Schools:

Randallstown Elementary

Rodgers Forge Elementary

Middleborough Elementary

Sparks Elementary

Scotts Branch Elementary

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