University Park Elementary School kindergartener Felicity Misse-Erwa plays with a tennis ball as part of race training. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The spring 5K season is upon us, a time when thousands of people will hit the roads for weekend fundraisers and fun runs in every corner of our community. You get a little exercise and fresh air, gab with the neighbors and raise a few bucks for some worthy cause. Can’t beat it.

Unless you live in University Park, a sliver of a town in Prince George’s County, where organizers use the Azalea Classic to send a message that fitness is a year-round, lifelong proposition, not just a one-time huff-and-puff on the hilly 5K course. That message is mostly aimed at the kids, 650 of whom attend the town’s lone elementary school, but adults can take heed as well, if they want to.

Now going into its 11th year, the “Classic” as people call it, is one of the big summer events in a town of 2,300, along with the Fourth of July parade and the chili cook-off. Last year, more than 800 people ran the 5K, the one-mile Challenge Run or the 1K Family Fun Run, raising more than $12,000 for the PTA.

Instead of just exhorting the kids to turn out for the run, phys. ed. teacher Christy Neff begins training them many weeks before it is held. Around and around the school’s gym they run, sometimes covering as much as 2.5 miles. Or they run speed drills from wall to wall, trying to finish each sprint faster than the previous one, despite their fatigue.

“Our overall goal is to teach them skills so they can be lifetime participants in sports,” says Neff. “And running is such an integral part of all sports.

University Park students train for the Azalea Classic, which the community uses to send a message that fitness is a year-round, lifelong proposition, not just a one-time huff-and-puff on the hilly 5K course. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“We make a real effort at being obvious about it,” she adds. “We are very direct about fitness and its impact on your life.”

Still, these children get only 150 minutes of physical education every two weeks. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends 150 minutes weekly, in addition to free play time. So Neff has organized a running club at recess, outfitting kids ages 5 to 11 with pedometers and stopwatches, putting them through interval training and sending them over obstacle courses. You and I were sentenced to run laps when we screwed up in gym class; in Neff’s program, winners earn the privilege of doing more laps, push-ups or sit-ups than losers. Exercise is cool.

Nearly every teacher at University Park Elementary will run the Azalea Classic on Saturday, and students who beat teachers can win prizes such as running a class for a day.

“It turns out,” says Colin Phillips, a University of Maryland professor and parent of a fourth-grader, “that there’s nothing like having your teacher involved to get you motivated.”

Phillips was at University Park Elementary’s worn field to lead a small group of children on an after-school training run I attended last week. He taught them the value of warming up, stretching and pacing. The turnout was disappointing: just half a dozen kids for the first-ever after-school session, an idea that PTA Executive Vice President Suzanne Whelton developed to enhance the training and recruit runners.

For adults, there is the Couch2Classic training program, designed to prepare even the most sedentary for the 5K in eight weeks. Again, the turnout is thin, just 10 adults and some older kids each Saturday in the second year of the effort, said Michelle Hermanson, who organizes it. But some people have kept up their running after the Azalea Classic and continued with other groups.

More and more schools are converting their physical education programs to emphasize fitness for life over traditional ball sports. It’s one of the few developments that give me hope that we can make some headway against the overwhelming forces that contribute to our nation’s obesity. If we can teach kids when they’re young to buckle their seat belts, surely we can pound the fitness message into their heads at the same time.

“It needs to be part of their lifestyle,” says Phillips, himself an endurance athlete. “And the race is a really great vehicle to get them involved.”


Very belated congrats to Tim O’Brien, the senior-league pitcher I wrote about in August. The Fairfax resident threw a complete game as the Capital Classics won the 55-plus division of the Men’s Senior Baseball League national championship in Arizona last October. He was elected to the league’s Hall of Fame in January.

And a tip of the cap to the D.C. public school system, which is starting a girls flag football program. Games begin Friday. The sport is popular in other parts of the country but has been missing from public schools around here. The District’s varsity teams will be the first in any public system in this area.