Running a gift, not punishment

Running and Racing: Christopher Goss
December 11, 2001

Runners are typically not very excitable. From teenagers honking car horns, to the rolled eyes of co-workers on Monday mornings, to neighbors asking how your "jog" went after the closing sprint of a hard workout, we learn to let a lot roll off of our sweaty backs.

Everyone has a breaking point, though. My frustration needle hits the red zone when I hear a coach in another sport use running as punishment for young athletes. "If you don't get this right, we're gonna run laps!"

Since when did using the most natural athletic gift that God gave us become punishment?

Our genetic code includes many built-in defense mechanisms, including the fear of falling, the fear of being stranded, and the fear of large furry things that want to eat you. A fear of running is not one of these preprogrammed instincts. In fact it is just the opposite. Early man relied on running gifts that helped him to avoid becoming Large Furry Thing Chow.

You don't have to be a student of paleoanthropology to find evidence of an inborn love — not fear — of running. Just stop for a minute in front of a preschool playground. At any one time, half of the kids will be running and chasing each other, laughing and giggling the whole time.

It is only after we let children get out of the habit of daily running and then teach them that it is punishment that they develop a fear and distaste for this natural survival and sociological tool.

The increasing lack of proper exercise in children and the resulting impact to lifelong health is well documented. Obesity from a lack of physical activity is quickly becoming a significant childhood affliction. While few discount these reports, not enough is being done to correct the problem.

Physical education programs have been labeled frivolous by shortsighted penny pinchers and have been severely curtailed by some school systems. The neighborhood wiffle ball and freeze tag games have been replaced by video games and sitcom-induced anesthesia.

In the face of these unsettling trends, there are developing crusades to deliver the gospel of physical fitness — and specifically running — to local children.

Mike Conklin, a physical education teacher at Eastern Elementary School, has set a goal for each of his fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders to run a mile by the end of the year. The first week of school they ran two laps around the gym. Every other week they have increased the distance by a lap. Conklin has taught them about pacing for longer runs, as well as the need for various training styles to maximize conditioning, trading the laps in for sprints once a month.

"I have had many positive comments from the kids and the parents," explains Conklin, himself a marathoner.

In the midst of the fun and increased self-confidence, the poor kids don't even realize yet that they are being punished. We'll report back in the spring on the progress of Conklin's Conquerors toward their goal.

Monroe County P.E. teachers also get a chance to stress the importance — and fun — of running through the Indiana Track Club's Fastest Kid in the City competition. The speediest boy and girl chosen from races at each school will get instruction on technique from club coaches before running rounds in January leading to the championship during the Indiana Relays indoor track meet at IU Feb. 2.

Many of these kids will no longer be satisfied with running once a week in gym class. Beginning in early January, the Indiana Track Club also has a six-week indoor track program at the IU Fieldhouse. In addition to running, participants will learn and practice the jumping and throwing half of the track and field equation. More than 220 athletes from ages 6 to 18 met last year during the two- or four-night-a-week program to work with experienced coaches on conditioning and technique -- oh, and having fun. Very few kids in the entire country have this kind of winter exercise opportunity. See the club's web site at or call Laura Pate at 812-333-0771 for more information.

Finally, there is another way for budding local runners to catch the fever. The YMCA, Quarters for Kids, and Breakaway races have always had kids races, but beginning next year there will be races for junior runners at each of the seventeen races in the Magnificent 7 Race Series. These free, low-key races are a great way to introduce kids to running in the supportive and exciting environment of a local road race.