Running clubs hope to start good habits early

Giggles and shrieks erupted from the wobbling third- and fourth-graders Tuesday as they attempted to extend one leg while balancing on one foot during stretches. The students were preparing to do jogging and sprinting exercises for Whittier Elementary School's Running Club.

Last week, over at College Park Elementary School, parents — some pushing younger children in strollers — joined their children on the field for exercise during its weekly Running Club.

"It's fun because you just get out there and run," said College Park second-grader Daisy Carrillo, 7, as she munched on a piece of broccoli. "I just keep on going on running even if I get [tired] because I want to get exercise and be healthy."

Across the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, several elementary schools have started a running program to encourage their students to get out and exercise. The programs also serve as training for many students who do community marathons, including the upcoming 29th annual Newport-Mesa Spirit Run on March 4 at Fashion Island.

"We're all trying to work together to get the kids healthy," said Spirit Run President and Race Director Diane Daruty, who started a running club at Eastbluff Elementary and Whittier.

Daruty, who took over the Spirit Run last year, is an avid runner and her love for the sport is broad. She said she loves the discipline and goal-setting involved in running. She wants students to use their experiences overcoming the difficulty of running as ammunition for academic challenges.

The key to running is that anyone can do it, and no special equipment is needed, said College Park third-grade teacher Julie Smith, who started the club six years ago.

"Running is assessable," she said. "If you can't run, you walk until you work up to it."

The club also introduces the students to the idea of running in high school or participating in track and field, said Dusty Flower, a national champion track star who volunteers at Whittier's club and leads Newport Heights Elementary's running club.

For the students, though, the club is just plain fun.

"I think it's fun and good exercise, and I really love coming here and working out," said Whittier third-grader Itzia Rivera, 8, who was a little winded after sprinting.

The clubs run differently at different schools, but they have helped the students work on more than just their fitness.

At Whittier, it provides an incentive for students to do well. Teachers have noticed a difference, said Principal Tracey Carter, who was out Tuesday running, stretching and doing push-ups with the students.

Students miss about 20 minutes of class for the club, so they have to have their homework turned in and have good behavior in class to participate, Carter said.

At College Park, the club is required and teachers set goals for their students from running or walking two laps in kindergarten to more than four laps, or a mile, for the sixth-grade students, said Principal Julie McCormick.

The club is a year-round focus where students not only learn about fitness, but also nutrition with Nutrition Services, which hands out healthy snacks monthly as students do their laps, McCormick said.

"These years are when they adopt habits for life and if we can help with those good habits, I think we've been successful," she said.

Already, 17 Newport-Mesa schools, including 15 as promotional partners, have signed up with the Spirit Run, Daruty said.

Three Orange County track clubs have also chosen to participate in the event. She is anticipating seeing 500 to 1,000 more runners this year.

"The more people that come, the more money we make, the more money we can give back to the community," she said.

britney.barnes@latimes.com

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

If You Go

What: 29th annual Newport-Mesa Spirit Run

When: Race day registration begins at 6 a.m. March 4, with the first race at 7 a.m.

Where: Adjacent to Edwards Big Newport 6 in Newport Center at Fashion Island

Information: Pre-race day registration is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 3 at Athleta at Fashion Island. For more information visit http://www.nmspiritrun.org.

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