Healthy Kids Running Series returns in person

The five week running challenge for K-8 kids begins April 11

The Healthy Kids Running Series returns to Mullica Hill, Mantua and their neighbors starting April 9. As in years before, the event will be in person — with plenty of pandemic safety precautions in place — so kids can enjoy a healthy activity among their friends. (Special to The Sun)

Mantua’s and Mullica Hill’s Healthy Kids Running Series (HKRS) is back for its spring session — and with a much-anticipated return to its in person races.

Weather and COVID restrictions permitting, on every Sunday from April 11 through May 9, area children and their families are invited to learn how beneficial and rewarding running can be with HKRS races designed for K-8 students of all abilities and age levels, and adapted for the pandemic’s safety guidelines.

As in previous years, the series is divided into different age brackets running age-appropriate distances, though there are unique challenges event organizers have faced as they modify HKRS for always-changing health guidelines.

Coordinator Bill Skelly fully expects those tweaks — like asking family and friends cheering on each runner to do so from a dedicated space and with social distancing in mind — to be easily implemented on race days.

Giving children an opportunity to safely gather with neighbors and schoolmates they’ve been isolated from in the past year is a huge motivator for Skelly and his co-coordinators as they make sure the races go off as normally but also as safely as possible.

“A lot of the children missed running with friends,” he observed. “They missed the fun of running together.”

Skelly started with HKRS as a volunteer about three years ago. Having seen the ways running benefits kids and how the twice-a-year program cultivates a healthy attitude toward running, he was motivated to become a coordinator and take on a bigger role with something he believes in.

HKRS aims to be inclusive in its efforts to teach children about the benefits of running. In recent years, the Challenger Division has offered runners requiring additional accommodations the opportunity to register in that series instead of their age bracket if they prefer.

Part of the inspiration behind the Challenger race is how Skelly’s professional life made him aware that parents of children with developmental delays or disabilities don’t always think of their children as athletic youngsters.

“It’s a non-judgmental place for a healthy activity, and these children are healthy in their own way,” he explained.

The Challenger event also exemplifies just how much of an emotional benefit children can reap from participating in positive programs such as HKRS, as Skelly cited with a memory from a previous HKRS race.

“All these runners had dropped out, so one boy was running all by himself in the Challenger series, but all these other kids wanted to run with him. So they all ran with their buddy once their races were over,” Skelly recalled.

Running, he said, isn’t just about physical health, after all. It’s a great outlet that also makes important life lessons a little more tangible for young runners as they learn positive lifelong habits and attitudes.

“They learn that it doesn’t matter if they’re first or last: We want them to better themselves for the next race,” Skelly noted. “We had one boy who struggled with his age group’s mile and he ran and ran until he dropped probably three minutes off his time by the end of the year,  and it was all because he challenged himself. That’s an overall win.”

After years of seeing how well-received the biannual event is, Skelly said he and his co-coordinators Meridith Daniel and Donna Pollard are thrilled to bring back the in person version of HKRS after the fall’s virtual run.

It’s an enthusiasm Skelly believes the series’ young runners find infectious and that shows just what a strong community has grown from HKRS.

“This is like a whole big family,” he said.

Children do not have to be Mullica Hill or Mantua residents to participate. The five weeks of races begin April 11 and will take place every Sunday at the Ella Harris Recreation Park starting at 4 p.m.

For more information and to register, visit healthykidsrunningseries.com and search for Mullica Hill or head to the local race’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/hkrsmullicahillmantua.