Two years ago I persuaded my daughter Emilia, then seven, that chasing friends on the school playground at recess was sifficient training for a two-mile "fun run" held in connection with the Cherry Blossom Classic in April. Emilia entered, struggled through the distance near the back of the pack, and was awarded an embroidered patch that she still wears proudly on her warmup suit.
Running for Emilia is no big deal; she isn't aiming for any age-group records. But if I'm going to a race, she'll lace up her Nike Wally Waffles (whichdouble as school shoes) and enter the two-mile fun run without hestitation. It's something to do on the weekend - like her soccer matches, basketball games and swim team meets.
Emilia is perhaps typical of the kids who sign up for Reston Runners, a lwo-key, non-competitive program designed to introduce children (and, often, their parents) to the joys of long-distance running. Open to all children in the Reston area aged six and up, the program operates for nine weeks each spring and fall, withprizes awarded to all who attend regularly. Enrollees are expected to run three times a week, once at a large Saturday-morning group session and twice in smaller after-school neighborhood groups.
The Saturday session begins with kids and sleepy-eyed parents piling out of cars and station wagons at a shopping mall parking lot or one of a dozen other locations around Reston. There's some preliminary limbering up and desultory conversation until the group is called to order at 8 by Joe Fleig, a lanky loan officer for the Export-Import Bank who combines the best qualities of athletic coach and scoutmaster.
"Time to do some stretching," he says amiably as kids and parents share a groan. Then follows about ten minutes of exercises designed to loosen muscles tightened and shortened by running. ("The kids hate it, and it's probably not as necessary for them as for the adults," Fleig explained, "but it forms good habits for the future, when they will net it."
"How far are we running today?" someone asks.
"Well, let's see. You did about 2 1/2 miles last time," says Fleig. "How did you feel when you finished?"
"Terrible!" comes the answer in chorus, before the group dissolves in laughter.
Directions are given for a three-mile run, and the pack, with Fleig looming like the Pied Piper somewhere in the middle, shuffles down the street, leaving a scattering of parents behind to wait and to record names and distances run.
Half an hour later everyone has returned except the youngest children and a few superjocks who've chosen to run the course twice. There's a friendly team competition, based on total distance logged, and a tally sheet shows the Supersonics outlegging the Pumas and the Fleet-footed Sizzlers for the lead. When the program is over, the winning team members will receive gold trophies, the other silvers ones.
Now four years old and a fixture on the Reston landscape, Reston Runners had its origins in 1974, when the late Rod Steele, then president of the D. C. Road Runners, solicited friends for ideas for promoting running. Fleig, a father of five, came up with the idea of a children's program.
Reston Runners began with 24 children in its first season and last spring reached a peak of 105 children and adults enrolled. Fleig has insisted throughout that the program remain non-competitive, avoiding the "Little league parent" syndrome that often plagues youth sports.
"Should we make it more competitive?" Fleig repeated the question. "I occasionally lean in that direction. It would be an inducement for some of the kids, but I find that the urge to compete usually comes from their parents, not from within themselves. And when they do race, they aren't mature enough to 'compete against themselves' the way adult runners do. Instead of taking satisfaction in their own progress, they want to beat other kids, and it bothers them if they can't.
Also , there's plenty of opportunity for competition in other programs. There are D.C. Road Runners races, of course, and school sports. We have several 'graduates' on high-school cross-country teams, so it can't be said we're discouraging talent. But these runners also know, because they have experienced it, that competing is not a necessary ingredient in the enjoyment of running."
Encouragement is the cardinal rule of Reston Runners. Fleig and his fellow coaches make a point of running at least one whole workout with each youngster, praising and encouraging him or her as much as possible. Every effort is applauded, and the children seem to learn to appreciate their own progress and not worry about others.' "midway through the course I ask the child how he or she got to be such a good runner, and that question usually inspires a finishing kick," Fleig said.
Although nearly every child benefits to some degree, the program has proved especially rewarding to children with physcial or emotional handicaps who are apt to fail at team sports or avoid them altogether. Distance running provides an alternative for kids who can't make it in soccer, basketball or the other youth sports with which the Northern Virginia suburbs abound.
A fringe benefit is the sizable number of parents who have taken up running as a result of their kids' participation. Typically, Mom or Dad brings the child to the first practice and sits in the car or stands around waiting. Next time they'll back in tennis sneakers and to through the warmup exercises. After three or four weeks, they'll be asking advice on running shoes, and from then on they're hooked. Several parents have been inspired to run marathons after starting this way with their children.
Fleig welcomes this parental involvement, since he has found that the kids enjoy running with the adults and form their own small satellite groups based on common pace. Knowing that just about every child has an adult within sight during the run, Fleig can relax when his charges are out on the road.
"What we like about the program is the low pressure and the encouragement of kids," said Tony Gallardo, who has participated in the program for three years along with his son and, lately, his wife. "It has kept me running - and my son, too - when we might otherwise havq quit. It's one of the best kids programs anywhere."