This article first appeared in Kidsburgh.org, a media partner of NEXTpittsburgh. Sign up here for Kidsburgh’s free newsletter filled with local resources and expert advice on raising healthy, thriving kids in southwestern PA.
Running might just be the easiest sport for a family to all embrace together. The whole family can do it at any pace, anywhere and you don’t need expensive equipment. Spring is a great time to get started, especially when the Pittsburgh region is gearing up for the annual DICK’S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon.
This year, Pittsburgh Marathon weekend is happening from April 29-May 1. More than 40,000 runners are expected to participate. Along with the main marathon, there’s also a half-marathon, marathon relay and 5K, plus events designed just for kids.
One way many families get involved is through the training program Kids of STEEL.
Fun and exercise
Chris and Renee Ryan ended up coaching a Kids of STEEL group in Franklin Regional School District this year. They recalled how much fun their son had running the Pittsburgh marathon with his dad in 2018. And they knew that after two years of pandemic separation, it would be great for kids to get back to the social interaction and freewheeling exercise that running offers.
Since no one else was offering a Kids of STEEL training program at their son’s Murrysville school, they volunteered. It’s been a great experience and a challenge: The couple had assumed the job would mostly involve managing a Facebook page and helping kids sign up with the organization. But the first week, 65 kids showed up to participate in the after-school exercise program. The number of kids — kindergarteners through sixth-graders — nearly doubled the second week.
“It became very popular, so now we’re running two practices a week after school, and probably sending 30 or 40 emails a week,” says Chris, a software engineer.
“We had to turn kids away, which we hated to do, but we couldn’t manage it with the numbers,” says Renee, a fourth-grade teacher with the district. “We decided to offer it Tuesdays and Thursdays, capping it at 75 to 80 kids per night. There’s now between 150 and 160 kids staying after school to exercise for an hour.”
To train for the race through Kids of STEEL, students just need to log 25 training miles, says Derrick Shoffner, assistant director of programming for P3R, organizers of the marathon and other Pittsburgh races.
In the program, 15 minutes of physical activity equals one training mile, Shoffner says. Each 15 minutes of activity can be done through anything from walking their dog, riding their bike, playing hockey, playing sports or getting exercise with their family.
Then it all comes together on race weekend: On Saturday, April 30, kids who participated in Kids of STEEL run the final leg of their “marathon.” Depending on their age, they can run in the Sheetz Pittsburgh Toddler Trot (40 meters), Chick-fil-A Pittsburgh Kids Marathon (1 mile) or UPMC Health Plan/UPMC Sports Medicine Pittsburgh 5K (3.1 miles).
There’s even a 1-mile Pet Walk, sponsored by Bruster’s Real Ice Cream, that takes place in Point State Park as part of Saturday’s Family Day. Proceeds benefit Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh.
This year, 207 schools and organizations — a record number — are participating in Kids of STEEL, says Shoffner. As with the Ryans, the free program motivates families to get moving together. It can be structured to fit various environments, and organizations can apply for a $1,000 physical education grant and a transportation grant that provides busing to ensure kids make it to the race.
“We are proud that more than 50,000 children have completed Kids of STEEL since we launched the program in 2011,” says Troy Schooley, P3R’s CEO. “The program keeps growing, and we are thrilled to have a record number of Kids of STEEL sites in the region participating this year. We are committed to finding new and exciting ways to keep youth and families moving.”
Kids of STEEL at Franklin Regional attracted kids ages 5-12, in Kindergarten to fifth grade. The activities include a running station, fitness program, and relay races. The Ryans are seeking other parents who could teach the kids yoga or Zumba, and help conduct dance programs for younger kids such as Freeze Dance or Copycat.
“We want to give them a variety of activities to do, so it’s not just running,” says Renee. “I think they just like being there, being with their friends, doing something physical — something that isn’t necessarily an organized team sport, but they’re part of something that is a team, where they work together toward a common goal.”
So far, 215 kids have signed up to run the 2022 marathon with the Ryans, including their son and daughter. The training has brought their family and so many others together for fun, healthy activities, the couple says.
“It’s been an opportunity for Renee and me to work together,” says Chris. “And with the pandemic, we’ve seen these kids stuck inside a lot, relying on other means of entertainment. So from that perspective, it’s really important.”
If getting your family started running sounds intimidating, the Ryans say it doesn’t have to be. If you start small and build up, running a little more each week, it gets easier.
After a few weeks, it becomes fun for the whole family, Chris says, and “you’re starting better life habits.”
Shoffner agrees: “Parents can run with their children,” he says. “It’s a way to create and foster a healthy lifestyle.”