It may have been called the Mini-Marathon, but the efforts of 24 Fletcher Elementary School athletes were anything but small Saturday. The kindergarten through sixth-grade students donned blue t-shirts sporting the school’s falcon logo and the words imagine, believe, and achieve, as they ran half-mile, mile, and two-mile courses on Burlington’s Waterfront.
“Just being outside and seeing how fast you can run is the best part,” fourth-grader Eli Tinker, who finished the two-mile course in 15 minutes 51 seconds, said. “It’s competitive and I feel unstoppable when I’m running.”
Eli Tinker raced alongside his older brother, sixth grader Jack Tinker, who finished the two miles in 14 minutes 40 seconds and placed 15th in his overall age category. The competition includes 4 to 14-year-old participants from Vermont and out-of-state.
“It felt longer than it was,” Jack Tinker said. “I just kept telling myself to try my hardest, have a good time and do my best. I am really proud when I run.”
This year’s Mini-Marathon was the 18th annual youth running event offered by RunVermont, the group that also coordinates the Vermont City Marathon, as well as a variety of health and fitness events each year. The Mini-Marathon marked the culmination of Fletcher’s school-based Running Club, during which many students spent about 20 minutes every Monday and Friday for several weeks in the spring running or walking on the school fields. The effort was led by kindergarten teacher Jenny Blackman and parent volunteers Carey Gillilan and Jensen Welch.
According to Blackman, the idea for a school-based running program was the brainchild of Fletcher parent Elizabeth Sargent and herself seven years ago, as they chaperoned a whole-school field trip to the Smuggler’s Notch Water Park.
“We were standing guard in the wading pool talking,” Blackman recalled. “We wanted something that the entire school could join, and we wanted to promote running as a fun sport that’s easy to start. Our school fields offered the perfect place to run. It’s just about one mile to go all the way around.”
And just like that, Fletcher’s Running club was born. It wasn’t until a few years later that students would begin attending Burlington’s Mini-Marathon as a culminating event.
“I love the Running Club,” parent Kayla Wright said. “I look forward to my boys coming home and telling me how many laps they did.” I can barely get anything out of them about how their days at school are, but when they have Running Club they can’t wait to tell me about it.”
“Running Club is a good way to get some exercise and be outside with friends,” Gillilan said. “It’s a good way to make friends. You’re not doing this alone. We do this as a group, our school family. It brings an awareness to those who want to exercise and just don’t know how to go about it. We are all getting outside, teachers and students. You don’t have to run in the race. As long as you’re moving, you’re awesome.”
Blackman agrees that both the social and exercise components of Running Club are important “Even in rural areas like ours, many students do not get outdoors much. We are showing them how much fun an activity like running can be. We have all grades from preschool to grade six running and visiting together,” she said.
The Mini-Marathon had all the trimmings of the larger, adult event. Students registered and received their bib, complete with participant number and name. While many children sported shirts representing their individual schools or organizations, each also received the official marathon shirt. Upon completion, participants received a medal.
“The Mini-Marathon is a great experience because tons of kids from other schools come out and you meet other kids,” Gillilan said. “You also get a sense of achievement when you cross the finish line and realize all of your hard work. You receive a medal and your finish time that you worked so hard for and earned. That experience is just awesome.”
“There is nothing better than seeing your child be active just for fun,” Wright said. “This event is something we look forward to every year.”
According to third-grader Cody Savage, his initial nervousness of running in the marathon quickly passed. “I felt a little scared at first but that quickly changed to feeling like I achieved something great when I finished,” Savage said. “I just put my mind and body to work and pulled through.”
Classmate Serein Marcotte agreed. “I was really excited to run both at school and at the marathon,” he said. “Exercising so that you can get stronger is really important. I also learned that I can do anything that I work hard at and believe that I can do.”
Blackman, who will retire next month after nearly 30 years of teaching, says that helping to start Running Club is one of the accomplishments she is most proud of in her career.
“I have seen that getting exercise and being outdoors is becoming more and more of a challenge for all ages,” she said. “People are so busy, and we have many electronic distractions that keep us sitting indoors. Running is the perfect solution. Being alongside friends, adult staff, and volunteers makes it even more fun. Perhaps many of our students will continue to run and exercise throughout their lives. I hope we all do.”