Houghtaling program starts the day running

Participants in Houghtaling Elementary School's Morning Marathoners program stretch inside the school's gymnasium on Friday before running. Staff photo by Danelle Landis

The Houghtaling Elementary School gym was alive with the eager chatting of about two dozen students at 8 a.m. this past Wednesday as they readied themselves for their Morning Marathoner session with sixth-grade teacher Becca Doyle and paraprofessional Katy Hook.

Doyle led the warm-up session by asking the students which exercises they’d like to do. Students took turns calling out their suggestions, then jumping jacks, pushups and jump-squats ensued.

“What are we here to do?” Doyle asked the group.

“Run!” several voices answered.

Doyle nodded and told them, “Your goal is to move faster than the adults. You’re here to move it, and remember, we’re working on pace. What do I mean, ‘pace?’”

“Running,” a few students answered.

Doyle answered, “running, or jogging. If you start to get a little cramp, do you stop and talk to your friend about it? No — you just keep walking. Speed walking. If you need to take a walking break, that’s fine, but I’d better not pass you!”

The group met in the center of the gym for a huddle and broke with the shout, “I like to move it, move it!” The gym reverberated with the sound of their running feet as they jogged out the door to the upper field.

As Doyle walked the track, kids zipping past, she talked about the running program. Hook walked ahead, calling out encouragements to students as they lapped the field.

This year is the program’s second at Houghtaling, Doyle said, the first year was the 2017-2018 school year. Last year, when the program was on hiatus, Doyle said the students often approached her to ask when it would return.

Doyle, Hook and Houghtaling physical education teacher Kevin Johnson are on the school’s wellness committee, and they spearheaded the program together.

“Our goals are to provide an opportunity for the students to have healthy movement,” Doyle explained. “Also, the second goal would be that it’s before school in the morning. There’s a lot of research that talks about kids’ ability to pay attention and the energy that’s stored up, and so the goal was that before they start their day, they’ve had that release and it’s not just free play — that it’s focused, quiet, intentional exercise.”

She said that over the years the school has offered several other exercise opportunities for students, such as the jump-roping Hot Feats program, the WISH-sponsored Let me Run program for boys and the Girls on the Run program, but those programs all were offered after school.

The Morning Marathoners program was the first one offered in the early morning before school. Doyle said that it has been helping with some behavior issues students have had in the past.

“We’re trying to help the kids focus better and pay attention better by having that release of energy,” she said.

Another goal that she, Hook and Johnson help interested students reach is to run the Totem to Totem half marathon race in the spring, either as solo runners or on relay teams.

“Houghtaling always has entered a team into the Totem to Totem,” Doyle said.

She said that each year they’ve had about 15 students run as relay teams and about five who would run solo.

The approach they use to prepare runners for long races, Doyle said, was inspired by other programs they researched, and they also sought advice from local long-time running competitor Bill Elberson.

They were encouraged to use the “idea of accruing laps over a span of time to reach the goal of a 26-mile marathon,” Doyle said.

That way, each student can reach smaller goals on the way to possibly reaching the largest one. One of her students, she said, already can run a 10K distance and one of them recently ran the Deer Mountain Challenge race.

“This provides kids who really love running an outlet and it gives other kids who maybe don’t love running yet, an inspiration,” Doyle said. “They see other kids doing hard things and then they kind of believe they can do it.”

Doyle herself was inspired to become a runner by leading students in the Girls on the Run program a few years ago. Since then, she’s run the Totem to Totem five times, as well as running either the 5K or 10K races during the Blueberry Arts Festival.

In 2017, Doyle said their participants ran the Ken Teune Stampede race, which she said made a good preparatory run for the students.

She said that Point Higgins Elementary School and Tongass School of Arts and Sciences also have running programs.

Wednesday was only the third meeting of the group, which meets Monday and Wednesday mornings.

After the students had run their laps, counted with the metal clickers with which they’d been supplied, some offered their thoughts on why they were willing to come to school so early to participate.

Sixth-grader Jozaiah Delacruz said he attended “So I could wake myself up and get exercise in the morning.”

He added that he does enjoy running outside of school hours as well.

His brother Edward Delacruz, also a sixth-grader, said, “I want to be like, able to run a lot without getting messed up by cramps and stuff. So, next time if I do a competition or something, I might be able to win.”

Edward said he was inspired to start running from the age of 7 or 8 by his older sister, who is a runner. He added that he hoped to run the Totem to Totem race this spring.

Fourth-grader Thierry Oyedeji also has some goals in mind as a Morning Marathoner.

“I wanted to see what it was this year,” he said, adding that he is aiming to “try to do two miles, with just 12 laps around.” he said he has hit eight laps so far this school year. He hopes to participate in the Totem to Totem race.

Fourth-grader Stephanie Wills said her motivation to participate in the program was that she “can get exercise in the morning, just by running, so I thought, ‘Maybe if you run you can always get fit and stuff,’ and, also since it’s in the morning, it’s better, and you can run with your friends and you can do exercise — stretch.”

It’s the first time she’s ever run for exercise, Stephanie said, and she also has a specific goal.

“I want to run two miles,” she said.

After their run, students again gathered in the gym for some stretching and hydration.

Happy chatting filled the gym with a buzz as they then took turns sweeping with a broad dust broom before gathering their belongings and heading to class.