Visit a schoolyard during recess and you'll see kids barreling around at a pace that's almost as frenzied as their joyous yells. Kids and speed naturally go together. So it shouldn't be surprising that kids gravitate toward races, where instead of being told to slow down, they're free to speed up.
"I want to do the zombie run really bad," says 12-year-old Rini Moon, who completed her first 5K last September. "The black light one, too. I want to do all those kinds of runs."
Moon's mother, Angee Jackson, told her about the Graffiti Run 5K. The objective at the untimed event is to have fun while running — and getting doused with vibrantly hued cornstarch.
"[The colors] added a fun element to the running part of it," Jackson says. "And it was something to motivate us to start working out. We figured we could just walk, if nothing else. And regardless, we were going to be getting exercise."
Moon did the run with her mother, father, brother and sister. She says she's usually shy in large groups of people, but she found the large running event was a great family bonding experience. She surprised herself not only by signing up for the event, but by completing it in steamy summer weather.
"I felt really proud of myself," Moon says. "I mean, it's a long walk — or run — so just being able to finish that without collapsing is pretty exciting."
Moon's experience mirrors that of girls who participate in Girls on the Run, an international after-school program that teaches healthy habits and running skills to girls ages 8 through 13. It culminates in a 5K that is open to everybody.
"We have an empowerment curriculum and we use running as a platform to get this across," says Jody Braunig, executive director of Girls on the Run New Orleans. "The group works toward that goal of crossing the finish line, whether [the girls] walk, skip or jump across. Everyone gets a medal. There is so much pride."
Both Braunig and Moon emphasize the positive self-image that comes from completing the race, and there's evidence that this aspect is more than anecdotal. A multidisciplinary 2007 report by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport states, "Participation in exercise and sport can enhance mental health by offering adolescent girls positive feelings about their body image, tangible experiences of competency, and increased self-confidence."
Bivian "Sonny" Lee III has a simpler explanation for the phenomenon: "If [kids] know their personal strength, they will know personal empowerment," says Lee, founder and president of Son of a Saint. "Kids need to understand what their own capabilities are."
Lee's Son of a Saint program offers recreation, mentorship and education to boys ages 9 to 18 whose fathers are absent due to death, incarceration or neglect. Last year, he partnered with Pinkberry to create The Amazing Challenge, a timed 5-mile event where children compete in teams with a parent or mentor.
"It's a great bonding experience, especially for adults and kids," says Lee, whose father, former New Orleans Saint Bivian Lee, died from a heart attack at age 36. Lee's sister completed the challenge with her son last year, and her child revealed a side she'd never seen before. "She said, 'I learned so much about him through the whole race. I didn't know he was that smart and athletic,'" Lee says. "It's about getting to know someone close to you in a different way."
For kids and families interested in participating in The Amazing Challenge (March 29) or the Girls on the Run 5K (May 11), Lee suggests doing some physical activity during the weeks leading up to the event: running a mile or so, walking and eating properly. But he says a rigorous training program isn't necessary.
"Anybody can do it," he says. "I wouldn't focus on the actual time and winning, it's more about bonding and completing the task."
Braunig says the Girls on the Run 5K is laid-back and noncompetitive. "You don't have to be a runner," she says. "What happens at our races is the girls start off and sprint for about 30 seconds. Then they stop. They see a flower or something. Then they sprint. It's about living a healthy lifestyle and the celebration of these girls."
Moon says she advises anyone who's thinking about participating in the events to go for it. "You'd feel proud of yourself if you did it," she says. "And you'd have fun."