Back to School and Off Running

Every September, kids in their early years of school dutifully strap on oversized backpacks and waddle into the schoolyard to find out whether they are in the same class as all their best friends (with cheers or tears to follow).

It’s amazing to see just a few weeks later, as many of those kids come tearing across the field in annual cross country races. How does the transformation happen? How do you get kids as young as 8 years old into running? And better yet, how do you make children into lifelong runners?

“Literally the first week of school, I’d hold a meeting to get everyone informed about cross country training,” says retired elementary school teacher David Dazé. “It helped a lot that there were big events to look forward to just a month away.”

Dazé was a cross country running coach for the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB), and he taught Monsignor Paul Baxter Catholic School for half of his career. Every fall, the annual Capital Cross Country Challenge would be the end goal for thrice weekly practices that started in the second week of September.

This year’s event, which is co-presented by Run Ottawa alongside the Jim Howe Memorial XC Race, takes place on Oct. 12 and 13 at the Terry Fox Athletic Facility.

For Saturday’s portion, called the Eastern Ontario Open Elementary Schools Cross Country Championships, kids from eight to 13 will race around the grassy Mooney’s Bay Park, up its main hill and along its beach, and finish on the Mondotrack in the Terry Fox Athletic Facility.

The thrill of changing terrain, where runners go up and down hills and negotiate corners and trails, can be addictive, says Dazé.

Competition and winning aside, running is itself a reward. As they train for the team cross country event, the kids regularly run with friends and get to experience the social aspect alongside the physical benefits of running.

“For the most part, it’s something they’ll figure out for themselves,” says Dazé. “I get a real kick out of seeing kids who I taught 15 years ago, they’re in their 20s now, and they’re still running around the block.”

There are several opportunities in Ottawa for children to continue running.

Every first Saturday of the warm or milder months, Run Ottawa hosts a free 1K run for kids alongside the free 5K run in the Experimental Farm for all ages.

Ophea, an online learning resource hub for Ontario schools, offers the download Kid’s Run Club that can help teachers, coaches, and even students establish a running club.

The Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club, which volunteers electronic timekeepers for the October events, offers several youth program to encourage children to try different sports. The Club encourages parents to introduce their children to as many sports as possible. Instead of dedicating themselves early on to a sport like soccer or hockey, track and field provides every young athlete with the opportunity to challenge themselves across a variety of skill sets.

Ottawa’s Catholic, Public, and French Catholic school boards, as well as teams from the Toronto Catholic District School Board, attend the Challenge. The facilities are popular for all kinds of meets, including the OCSB’s annual Cross Country Meet, which convenes this year on Oct. 9 and 17.

“We need two days to hold the meet because we can only take 1,000 kids a day at the Terry Fox Athletic Facility,” says Bob Thomas, the OCSB’s meet convenor. The elementary-level Meet, held for Grade 4, 5, and 6 students from 69 Ottawa schools, also includes races for special ability athletes. To make sure that children of all abilities, with any physical or intellectual challenge, has the opportunity to participate.

Besides connecting running to fun and helping young runners set and reach personal goals, teachers and parents should know that a child will keep running as long as they like it. It also really helps if one key coach is really big into running themselves, says Dazé, “because that also lights the fire in them.”