On a recent afternoon, with soccer season complete and nothing to do before dinner, I gave my 6-year old son his choice of doing whatever he wanted.
I offered a trip the park, a bike ride or kicking around the soccer ball. His answer was quick, simple and not open for discussion.
“I want to go running,” Ellis said.
So run we did. We went up and down Crawford Street and down to the post office in Dalton. Turning around, we found our way to West Hill Cemetery and then eventually made it back to the house, some two miles later.
An afternoon well spent. I just wish I could take credit for his choice of afternoon activities.
I had as many reasons as there are miles in a marathon to start running in 2007. But teaching my young daughter and my soon-to-be-born son about exercising and living a healthy lifestyle had to be at the top of the list. I not only wanted to tell them the importance — I wanted to show them. Maybe I’ve done a good job.
But it’s great to know that they are getting a double dose these days thanks to the City Park Panther Pacers.
Three years ago, spearheaded by City Park Elementary School teacher Ashley Cleary, the Panther Pacers started meeting on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to run.
As the Dalton Red Carpet races approach — the fourth annual half marathon, 5K and 2K are on Saturday — it’s safe to say the program has been a success. The Pacers will run the 2K race, marking the third year they have participated in the event.
Because interest is so high, the club is limited to runners who are in the third, fourth or fifth grades.
Unfortunately for my son, that means that he’ll have to wait a couple of years to go by himself. But I’m sure he’ll make sure he gets his miles in and be ready to go on race day. My daughter, Emily, has been running with the Pacers since the start. She ran her first 1-mile event in 2008 at age 6 and did her first 5K in 2011 at age 8.
“We’ve had to turn the younger students away because of all the participation,” Cleary said. “We (sometimes) have between 75 and 80 runners here in the morning and we have 60 signed up for the race this weekend.
“I send a flyer home at the beginning of the year, and I think the parents are pretty skeptical, wondering what we are doing and why their child wants to come running in the morning. But then they see how much these kids want to be here. All the parents have been so supportive. And we even have a few parents signed up for the race.
“For these students, running is a reward. Not a punishment.”
Each morning the young runners take to the streets just a few blocks from the start/finish line of the Red Carpet events, working to build their endurance, improve their pace and get fit.
Morning routes take the young runners through parts of West Hill Cemetery, by the Dalton-Whitfield Library, Harmon Field, the police station or the fire station. And if there was any doubt about the enthusiasm for this program, just show up at City Park around 7:25 a.m. one a Tuesday or Thursday. Cars are lined up with dozens of anxious young runners who are ready to lace up their shoes and pound the pavement.
For Cleary, it has been a gratifying three years to see so many students make running part of their weekly schedule. Discipline was a word she used many times to describe the Pacers.
“Some of them might have been scared at first, but so many of them have stuck with it,” she said. “We are introducing them to running now, at this age, teaching them to learn it and hope they stay with it over the years. You can really see how it changes their behavior. By getting that energy out in the morning, I think it really helps them the rest of the day.
“I’ve never had a runner tell me they wish they hadn’t run that morning.”
Cleary said the improvement of the runners can be seen both in the pace they now keep and in their confidence.
“They keep coming back,” she said. “To see these kids finish these races and what it means to them, it’s just amazing. And they do a great job supporting each other. You can see them cheering each other on. And the parents stick around to cheer on the other runners. It’s just great to see.
“I hope they keep the discipline and remember what it feels like and stick with it. We want them to be capable of finishing these races, so we make sure we get them ready.”
Because of the club’s growth, Cleary — who ran the Dalton Red Carpet Half Marathon two years ago — is getting some help this year. Amie Gabrial, Melisa Cawood and Brittany Hall-George have stepped in to help.
“They have really taken a hold of things,” said Cleary, who recently missed two weeks of school following surgery. “They can see how important it is to the students and they really took the lead while I was out. With so many kids it takes more than me.”
The Pacers’ race calendar stays full throughout the year with the Silver Bell Sprint, the St. Patrick’s Day 2-miler, the Run for John and the Bill Gregory Healthcare Classic, to name a few.
“This really is just the beginning and we are hoping to run as many races as we can,” Cleary said.
Cleary couldn’t say enough about the support of Rick Little — City Park’s principal and a veteran runner — as well as the community.
“Dr. Little has been such an advocate for us and the community does so much,” Cleary said. “I think people really enjoy seeing us out there running. We couldn’t do this without them.”
For me, Saturday’s race will be my 12th half marathon, including all four here in Dalton. As much as I enjoy running, there will be times during the first 13 miles on Saturday I will struggle. But not the last tenth-of-a-mile. That’s when my wife Tammy will hand off my two favorite City Park Pacers to me a block or so from the finish.
Emily, a fifth-grader, is a dancer first. Ellis, a first-grader, will tell you soccer is his game.
But they are runners, too. And once they hit that red carpet finish line, they know what to do. Trust me, I’ll be lucky to keep up with them.
So, my hat is off to all the young runners from City Park and the other area schools participating in races this weekend. By learning the discipline involved with getting up early, running and crossing the finish line, you’re already ahead of the pack.
Chris Stephens is a former sports writer for The Daily Citizen and currently the graphic designer for Catoosa Life and Dalton Magazine. He wishes he hadn’t waited so long to start running.