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Great Amazing Race brings adults, children together for physical activity

One thing kept Jocelyn Wheeler going June 30 as she sped to hop through laundry baskets, mummify her teammate in cloth and haul that teammate on her shoulders through a mile-long stretch.

It was her daughter, and her teammate for the day, 10-year-old Alexandra.

The two were in the thick of the Great Amazing Race, a mile course filled with zany obstacles and tasks, such as using wet sponges to fill buckets and a whole lot of piggyback riding. And today, it's making its inaugural stop in Maryland, hitting Susquehanna State Park in Havre de Grace.

“Mom, this is the most fun I've ever had with you! This is the best time!” Alexandra hollered at her mother as Wheeler tired and Alexandra jumped from her back in the Buffalo, N.Y., race.

And she stands by that assertion. Saying her favorite part of the race was “having fun with her mom,” rather than any of the challenges or prizes, Alexandra's response was exactly the race's aim at its inception.

In its third year, and after stopping in more than 50 cities, the race — named after the TV series “The Amazing Race” — was initially similar to the NFL's Play 60 program, which pairs up professional football players and kids to encourage an hour of exercise a day. But race organizer Greg Benton soon realized that kids have role models much closer than the gridiron.

“It was kind of grueling. ... We started to scale back because we had so many elementary kids, and also blended it in with having parents participate with the kids rather than having kids do a run against NFL players,” he said. “We thought, ‘Wow, what a good idea, since we're telling the parents that we want them to do more things with their kids, to also have them participate in the activity.'”

And since the race became more family-oriented, Benton has seen dividends.

In one event in Alabama, 40 contestants, from three generations of the same family, competed against one another. In another in Savannah, Ga., a son raced with his mother after his father was deployed to Afghanistan. The father had planned to run the race before learning of his new assignment. The mother-son duo went on to win the race, and the mother vowed to quit smoking as a result.

“That was probably one of the more memorable moments we've had in actually making an impact and changing someone's life,” Benton said.

North Bethesda's Beth Wenger will be racing today with one of her best friends, Bettie Schratt of Ellicott City, pairing with Schratt's 9-year-old son Connor, while Schratt races with her younger son, Tyler, 8.

Schratt and Wenger, who have run two half-marathons together, are preparing for a triathlon. While toilet-paper wrapping is not yet a sanctioned triathlon event, Wenger says she's excited about the challenge.

“Making exercise goofy I think is great,” said Wenger, who works as a program director at KEEN Greater DC, a nonprofit devoted to getting kids to enjoy exercise. “I think whatever it takes to make exercise fun [to get kids] to get outside — whatever's going to get kids moving, I think, is great.”

And outside of a shot at the $2,000 prize, Wenger says the four are looking to have a good time together while exercising.

“Oh, we want to win,” Wenger said. “For myself, it's just to spend time with my best friend and her kids and have a good time. ... But the boys are definitely competitive, we're all competitive, so the boys want to win. So we're definitely in it to win it.”

And Wheeler, who originally signed up to appease her daughter's “Amazing Race” super fandom, said the take-away from the offbeat race is a valuable one.

“It's a great bonding experience to share that moment together with them, and to see when you have some challenges or some things that are difficult to show them that you can get through it together,” Wheeler said. “If you have a strong relationship, I think it shows even more during the race. If you don't, it's an opportunity to build a relationship with your children.”

The race, which will have day-of registration, will start at 4 p.m. at Susquehanna State Park. Registration costs $50 for each parent-child duo, and each of the maximum 100 pairs will be competing for a chance to move on to one of two championship races, in Cincinnati or New Orleans, where a $2,000 prize is up for grabs. The top 25 teams from each race will qualify for the championships.

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