Twelve-year-old DaJion Davenport of Clinton -- a regular participant in the annual Marine Corps Marathon Healthy Kids' Fun Run -- has much in common with the marathon's long-distance runners. Like her fellow ground pounders, DaJion follows a routine the morning of the event. She wakes before dawn, slipping into her warm-up suit. Once she arrives in Arlington, DaJion attaches a paper number to the front of her official T-shirt with four safety pins. She stretches. Ties her shoes. Waits in line to use the bathroom. Reties her shoes. Eats a PowerBar. As race time nears, she finds her place among the crowd of runners vying for a prime spot at the starting line.
Only one thing distinguishes DaJion and the other Fun Run participants from their marathon counterparts: 25.2 miles.
The one-mile Fun Run, a four-year-old companion event to the famous "People's Marathon," is open to children ages 6 through 13. This year's Fun Run is Oct. 30; the marathon is the next day.
Each year on the last Sunday in October, thousands of runners arrive in the nation's capital to participate in one of the country's best-known long-distance races. The Marine Corps Marathon is popular among everyone from elite runners angling to finish on top to first-time marathoners to those who care more about having their photo taken along the course than finishing in the top 100 -- or even top 10,000. That is not a problem. The course stays open for seven hours.
Over the years, the marathon has attracted such celebrities as then-Vice President Al Gore; Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.); and Oprah Winfrey, who ran the race in 1994 to mark her 40th birthday.
The one-time participation of Winfrey and others who view the long race as a rite of passage was a significant factor in the marathon staff's decision to launch the Fun Run. Undisputedly, finishing a marathon is an impressive accomplishment. But -- in the eyes of the marathon staff -- being fit, having a balanced diet and developing a lifelong love of running and fitness is an even greater achievement.
Their goal in starting the children's event in 2000 was to promote a healthy lifestyle to youngsters and their parents. They quickly became a prominent voice in the fight against childhood obesity.
"I applaud the organizers of the Marine Corps Marathon for recognizing the need for kids to get more physical activity," U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona said in an e-mail. "Too many kids are overweight and spending too much time on the PlayStation and not enough time on the playground. Before too long, our Generation Y will be Generation XL."
'THEY'RE NEVER STILL'
Many parents wonder if there is a right time for a child to start running. Anna Berdahl, children's running coordinator of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club, thinks that's a funny question. "Kids are always running, whether you like it or not," Berdahl says. "They're never still."
Berdahl believes any child can get into running; the key is to find events -- such as the Fun Run -- that are short, noncompetitive and geared toward young runners. She means really young runners. The annual Halloween Young Run, sponsored by Berdahl's running club, has attracted participants as young as 2. "I remember one toddler who would run a few yards, stop to admire a flower or blade of grass, then run a few more yards and stop to pick up a worm," she says. That event attracted 200 runners in its first year. Fifteen years later, 3,000 participants are expected to attend. (For information, visit www.mcrrc.org.)
The Marine Corps Marathon Healthy Kids' Fun Run has grown as well, from somewhat humble beginnings. The first year, the event was held in the parking lot of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Crystal City and on adjacent streets. About 300 kids showed up. The run took place with little fanfare at an uncivilized hour: 7 a.m. In 2001, the Fun Run moved to a new location near the Iwo Jima Monument. The young runners now finish their event under the same ceremonial arch as the marathoners. A bulldog mascot with a corny name -- Miles -- was introduced, as were fun and games after the race. But one of the things the kids like the best is boot camp.
FUN FROM START TO FINISH
"Oorah," the kids repeat.
"I can't hear you. I said, 'Oorah.' "
"Oo-rah," they yell louder.
It's 30 minutes before the start of last year's Fun Run, and 700 children are working out with the Marines. Before the Fun Run begins, a team of Marines dressed in fitness uniforms (T-shirts and green running shorts) leads the group in calisthenics. "We put a little Marine in it, ma'am," explains 1st Sgt. Lee Braddy. "It gets them in the mood."
The warm-up drill includes stretches for every part of the body: arms, shoulders, triceps, hamstrings, calves, all the way down to the Achilles tendons. Then there are trunk twisters and the quintessential jumping jacks -- which, by the way, Marines call side-straddle hops.
"In the course of five minutes, you see a transformation," Braddy says. "They're yelling. The adrenalin's up. They're ready to run."
Well, not everyone's yelling. Alex Franks, 11, of Alexandria, who participated in the 2003 run, remembers the exercises well. "You had Marines screaming out jumping jacks. You had kids yelling and screaming along with them," Alex says. "I'm not the yelling-and-screaming-in-public type, but it was fun to see it going on around me." The sixth-grader says he watches a lot of military training shows on TV "so yelling Marines were very familiar to me."
Alex, whose father, Harry Franks, runs in the Marine Corps Marathon, admits he was a little nervous at the starting line. He's not alone. Most of the young runners have never participated in an organized run or walk before. Some have "trained" for this event by jogging around the block with their parents. Others are on the track or cross-country teams at school. And many show up with no previous experience. Organizers understand that both children and parents need reassurance and go out of their way to calm the nerves of anxious runners and worried moms and dads, many of whom are eager to jog alongside their kids.
"Parents get excited," Braddy says. "It's like being at a baseball game and wanting to hit the ball for your kid. Sometimes they lose track of who this is for." Marines line the course, both to prevent parents from crowding the route and to make sure kids stay on track. Though mothers and fathers are not permitted in the Fun Run, they are encouraged to cheer for their little track stars from the sidelines and to greet their children when they cross the finish line. Kids are rewarded with ribbons and snacks. And for those who get chilled, there are space-age race blankets. It pays to be the last kid in. That runner is escorted by a dozen Marines offering words of encouragement.
RaSaun Davenport -- DaJion's brother -- said support from the crowd and the Marines helped him get through the race the past three years, "especially when kids half my age were passing me by. It feels great when you get to the finish line," he says. "It's like you're at the Olympics and you just won."
At 14, RaSaun has outgrown the Fun Run. He plans to continue to participate with his family in two other events: Lawyers Have Heart and the Fannie Mae Help the Homeless Walkathon. "All these walks and runs got me interested in running more," RaSaun says. He is planning to sign up for the school track team this fall.
Seven-year-old Elena Simon of Burke, one of the younger participants at last year's Fun Run, is too young to be on a track team. She calls the Fun Run "my marathon." Her mother, Susana de la Torre -- who has run the marathon eight or nine times -- signed Elena up, confident that the event would be safe and well organized. "The Marines make everyone feel special, whether you are the first person -- not that I've had that pleasure -- or the last," she said.
She also appreciates that the Fun Run serves as a fundraiser. Each year run organizers collect new unwrapped toys for the Marines Toys for Tots program. The toys are presented to needy children during the holidays. "At our house, we emphasize that it's good for your body and it's good for others as well," says de la Torre.
Marine Corps Marathon race director Rick Nealis reinforces that point. "Not only do we get kids away from television and computers, but we encourage them to think about those who are less fortunate. We're promoting a healthy lifestyle and the spirit of giving at the same time. It's a perfect fit for us, as role models and mentors."
That is the message Nealis and his staff take to schools, Girl Scouts programs and other groups throughout the year. In August, for instance, the staff, along with Miles the mascot, made an appearance at the Reston Runners Youth in Motion end-of-summer party to reinforce the need to be fit and have a healthy lifestyle.
GOING THE DISTANCE
Greg Decker, 15, of Gaithersburg took up running to spend time with his mom, Linda Brady. Now he's on the varsity cross-country team at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. Last year, Greg expressed an interest in trying the Marine Corps Marathon. The family's pediatrician and an orthopedic specialist who had been treating Greg for an ankle problem gave him the go-ahead, making him promise to train well, pace himself during the race and, most importantly, listen to his body.
Mother and son trained together on the Capital Crescent Trail and, when the day arrived, planned to run the marathon together. Around mile seven, Brady could no longer keep pace with her teenager and encouraged him to run ahead.
"The experience was exhilarating for him," Brady says.
Greg, then 14, agrees. "It was a great accomplishment. I figured if I could run a marathon, I could do anything, especially at school. Now, if I have a lot of homework, I think to myself, 'I can do this. I ran a marathon.' " He says a lot of his friends didn't think he could do it. "I proved them wrong," says Greg, who will be at a track meet the weekend of this year's race.
Some medical professionals and fitness experts don't think it's smart for teenagers -- whose bones are still growing -- to participate in long-distance races (see Page 31), but everyone agrees children across the country need to be more active.
Eric Small, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness, says there are pluses and minuses to running a marathon. "If a child enjoys it -- and most won't -- it would be fine." But Small, who has a pediatric sports practice, sees a lot of kids who are pushed by their parents or coaches "to show their athletic prowess."
"It takes a certain amount of dedication to train for a marathon," Small says. If children have the time and the determination, and if they are monitored by an adult, it can be a positive experience.
Although running a marathon is not for everyone, regular moderate physical activity is. Yet, according to the American Running Association, three out of five children ages 9 to 13 don't participate in any sports or other physical activity outside of school.
And according to Melissa Johnson, executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, 15 percent of American children are overweight. "A sedentary lifestyle and poor eating is the second leading cause of preventable death and chronic disease, after tobacco," she says.
"We're on board trying to get rid of child obesity," says the marathon's Nealis. "If we can get even a few kids excited about running and healthy lifestyles, even if they go on to pick up another sport, we all come out winners."
MARINE CORPS MARATHON HEALTHY KIDS' FUN RUN -- The one-mile run, for ages 6 through 13, takes place Oct. 30, beginning and ending at the Iwo Jima Monument in Arlington. Participants should arrive by 9:30 a.m. for warm-up exercises with Marines. The race begins at 10. Children should wear comfortable sneakers and clothing and should dress for the weather. If it's cool, bring a sweat shirt or running jacket. Water and refreshments will be provided. After the race, participants are invited to stay for hands-on activities. Organizers suggest taking Metro to the Arlington Cemetery or Rosslyn stations, which are a short walk from the race site. Buses will shuttle participants from the Pentagon's Hayes Street parking lot to the race. Participants are encouraged to register in advance. Before Oct. 28, there is a $10 fee, which will go toward the purchase of a new toy for a needy child. For last-minute registration, bring a new toy valued at $10 to the registration table at the race site on Oct. 30 by 9:30 a.m. All toys will be donated to the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program. Participants who register ahead of time must pick up their packet at the Marine Corps Marathon Runners' Expo on Oct. 28 between 4 and 8 p.m. or on Oct. 29 between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, 2799 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Arlington. Everyone who participates in the race receives a T-shirt, goody bag, Marine Corps Marathon race program and finisher's ribbon.
MARINE CORPS MARATHON -- The 29th annual Marine Corps Marathon, open to participants 14 and older, will take place Oct. 31, beginning at 8:30. It is too late to sign up for the race, but it's not too late to be a spectator. If you've never heard the sound of 18,000 pairs of feet pounding the pavement, it's worth checking out. The Marine Corps Marathon Web site lists suggestions for where to watch the race. New this year is the Crystal City Street Spectacular, a street party offering a premier vantage point to view runners toward the end of the race, as well as live music, restaurant tastings, kids' crafts and more. The Web site offers a spectators' guide, including details about the street party and street closings during the race. The Marine Corps also offers an 8K race, which starts at 9 a.m. Oct. 31 and is intended for runners who want to get marathon experience but aren't ready for the full 26.2 miles. Register online or at the Expo before Oct. 30.
For information on all three Marine Corps Marathon events, call 800-786-8762 or visit www.marinemarathon.com.
Freelance writer Janice L. Kaplan has watched her husband complete six Marine Corps Marathons, which she says was an exhausting experience.