Healthy Kids Running Series goes virtual this spring

Biannual youth fitness event encourages a lifetime of healthy choices

With spring in the air and the call of the outdoors rising with the temperatures, this year’s first installment of the Healthy Kids Running Series (HKRS) was right on time — until a pandemic drove communities inside and made any kind of sporting event impossible for the indefinite future. 

But according to Cinnaminson’s Event Coordinator Lauren Leight, the twice-yearly event quickly pivoted to a virtual series, switching its March 25 kickoff to April 19 and inviting its roughly 150 participants to take part from a safe distance. 

“People usually wait until the last minute to sign up, but all this started happening mid-March so registration just kind of stopped — as you would totally expect,” Leight said. “So we told everyone we were either going to credit their registration to the fall or they can participate in it virtually.”

HKRS is a nationwide initiative that encourages children from 2 to 14 to lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy choices by introducing them to running in a fun environment. Leight credits the initiative with having a fleshed-out plan at the ready, making it easier for each of the nearly 300 course locations across the country to adapt to the unforeseen circumstances that made the five-week running challenge impossible to do in person. 

“The main office was thrown a huge curveball and they’ve really done a really great job,  effectively turning around all the virtual tools for the coordinators.,” she said. “I was getting a little anxious thinking I’d have to recreate this from scratch, but they literally thought of everything.”

The race is broken into age categories, each with a boys and girls division. Children from 2 to 3 run a 50-yard dash; four- and five-year-olds run 75 yards; kindergartners and first-graders run a quarter mile; second- and third-grade participants run a half mile; and fourth- through eighth-graders run a full mile. It also includes warm-up and cool-down exercises before and after each race, available as follow-at-home fitness videos and Facebook Live sessions.  

And while the series usually is run as a group at a dedicated local field, Leight said this time around, kids can take part in any space equivalent to their age group’s distance “wherever and whenever they want within each week, as long as it’s before the official start of the next week’s race.”

“My daughter’s been practicing, and we’ve resorted to just having her loop around the house indoors on rainy days,” Leight laughed, adding that this year is all about finding creative solutions, like taking to a treadmill if necessary.

“Some parents might be good at knowing what 50 or 75 yards look like — I wouldn’t, so we’ll have tips on how to measure distances by things like parking spaces or sidewalk blocks, or how to map the distance on Google Maps.”

Parents and guardians can then log their children’s times onto a Google Sheet, which will be submitted to Leight and later placed on the Cinnaminson series’ website so caregivers  can see what place their children are in and track their progress. 

An in-person event yet to be determined will ensure that each young runner gets a T-shirt commemorating his or her participation, with the top three finishers in each category receiving some hardware.

“When we get the all-clear, we’ll do a medal and-T-shirt pickup so the kids will be able to come in, get their shirts, get their medals, get some pictures, get their high-fives” explained Leight. “We’ll have all the sponsors and giveaways there, too. ”

When Leight brought HKRS to both Cinnaminson’s and surrounding areas’ youth with its fall series in 2018, she was drawn to it as a runner herself. She wanted her daughter, now a kindergartner, to develop a positive relationship with fitness by showing her how enjoyable it can be in a low-pressure environment. 

Since then, the biannual event has adapted to best fit its community’s needs. In addition to the usual offerings, new for the spring series will be a 75-yard Challenge Division for children who may have special needs and an enthusiastically requested Theme Week.

“We always have the same set of ground rules, but there are things coordinators can add, so I really try to take feedback from the families and participants because after three years, you get to know them,” Leight noted. “One of their pieces of feedback was that they wanted a Theme Week — things like crazy socks, crazy hair, superheroes, colors of the rainbow.” 

Rich Wojnar started volunteering for HKRS soon after the series came to Cinnaminson. As a running coach and the head of the youth-oriented Cinnaminson Running Club, he especially appreciates having another avenue to help township children discover the benefits of running in a time when any routine can be an asset.

“Healthy Kids Running Series has been great and Lauren’s done a great job organizing and facilitating it, providing all the kids in our community with an opportunity to stay active, which is important physically as well as mentally — especially now and that time that we’re in,” Wojnar said.

“It adds a little normalcy to their lives when their worlds have been turned upside down and it’s a great way to relieve some of the stress and anxiety they may be feeling.”

Even if this spring’s race looks different than previous series, Leight said the focus of HKRS remains the same. 

“The ultimate goal is that kids start to adopt healthy goals and an active lifestyle so they’re not sedentary, just sitting and staring at devices,” she explained. “We want to make sure they’re getting outside, getting that vitamin D and fresh air and getting their blood pumping. 

“My personal goal is always for them to have fun, make some new friends and just, especially for the kids who might be super-nervous about group sports, to find the confidence to go join the soccer team or basketball team.”

Leight encourages parents to take photos and videos, especially since this season’s race is on the honor system. They can also follow the event’s dedicated Facebook page, facebook.com/hkrscinnaminson. Those still interested in signing up can do so at runsignup.com/Race/NJ/Cinnaminson/HealthyKidsRunningSeriesCinnaminsonNJ.