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Running is perhaps the easiest sport to practice as a family. The whole family can do it at any pace, anywhere and you don’t need expensive equipment. Spring is a great time to start, especially when the Pittsburgh area prepares for the annual DICK’S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon.

This year, the Pittsburgh Marathon weekend runs from April 29 to May 1. More than 40,000 runners are expected. In addition to the main marathon, there is also a half marathon, a marathon relay and a 5k, as well as events designed just for children.

Many families are involved in particular through the Kids of STEEL training program.

Fun and exercise

Chris and Renee Ryan ended up coaching a Kids of STEEL group in the 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 the kids to get back to social interaction and to the free-wheeling exercise offered by running.

Since no one else was offering a Kids of STEEL training program at their son’s Murrysville school, they volunteered. It was a great experience and a challenge: the couple had assumed that the job would mainly consist of running a Facebook page and helping children register with the organization. But the first week, 65 children showed up to participate in the after-school exercise program. The number of children – kindergarten through sixth grade – nearly doubled in the second week.

“It’s become very popular, so now we do two after-school practices a week, and we send out probably 30 or 40 emails a week,” says software engineer Chris.

The STEEL kids train at Franklin Regional.

“We had to turn kids away, which we hated to do, but we couldn’t do it with the numbers,” says Renee, a fourth-grade teacher in the district. “We decided to offer it on Tuesdays and Thursdays, capping at 75 to 80 children per night. There are now between 150 and 160 children who stay after school to exercise for an hour.

To train for the race through Kids of STEEL, students only need to complete 25 training miles, says Derrick Shoffner, assistant director of programming for P3R, organizers of the Pittsburgh Marathon and other races.

In the program, 15 minutes of physical activity equals one mile of training, Shoffner says. Every 15 minutes of activity can be achieved by walking with your dog, biking, playing hockey, playing sports or exercising with your family.

Then everything falls into place on the weekend of the race: on Saturday April 30, the children who took part in Kids of STEEL run the last stage of their “marathon”. Depending on their age, they can participate in the Sheetz Pittsburgh Toddler Trot (40 yards), the Chick-fil-A Pittsburgh Kids Marathon (1 mile), or the 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 Family Day. Proceeds benefit Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh.

Franklin area Photo courtesy of Kids of STEEL.

Community involvement

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 move together. It can be structured to fit a variety of environments, and organizations can apply for a $1,000 physical education grant and a transportation grant that provides buses to ensure kids get to the race.

“We are proud that over 50,000 children have taken Kids of STEEL since the program launched in 2011,” said Troy Schooley, CEO of P3R. “The program continues to grow and we are delighted 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 get young people and families moving.

Kids of STEEL at Franklin Regional attracted children ages 5-12, kindergarten through fifth grade. Activities include a running station, fitness program and relay races. The Ryans are looking for other parents who could teach children yoga or Zumba and help organize dance programs for younger children, such as Freeze Dance or Copycat.

“We want to give them a variety of activities to do, so it’s not just about running,” says Renee. “I think they just like being there, being with their friends, doing something physical – something that’s not necessarily an organized team sport, but they’re part of something that is a team, where they work together towards a common goal.”

Family ties

So far, 215 children have signed up to run the 2022 marathon with the Ryans, including their son and daughter. The training brought their family and so many others together for fun and healthy activities, the couple say.

“It was an opportunity for Renee and I to work together,” says Chris. “And with the pandemic, we’ve seen these kids stuck indoors, relying on other means of entertainment. So from that perspective, it’s really important.

If getting your family to start running sounds daunting, the Ryans say it doesn’t have to be. If you start small and work your way up, running a little more each week, it gets easier.

After a few weeks, it becomes fun for the whole family, says Chris, and “you start to form better lifestyle habits.”

Shoffner agrees: “Parents can run with their kids,” he says. “It’s a way to create and support a healthy lifestyle.”

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