Takeaways from two award-winning Running USA member youth programs


By Leah Etling

As running programs across the country look towards the future, many have recognized that one of the best ways to ensure a next generation of committed runners is to connect with them as kids. As a result, many events of all sizes have incorporated youth running programs or races into their portfolios.

Two successful programs produced by Running USA members are the Cowtown CALF Program in Fort Worth, Texas and the Orange County Marathon’s Kids Run the OC program in Southern California. We caught up with both programs post-pandemic and came away with insight about what makes their efforts to get kids running so successful.

In Texas, young runners benefit from fitness, shoes and socks

The Cowtown CALF program is another year-round, school-based running initiative in Fort Worth, Texas. The program reaches 105 schools in 17 districts and has donated over $1.5 million in shoes and race entries.

Heidi Swartz, Executive Director of the Cowtown and a Running USA board member, described how CALF has evolved over the last 12 years. It all started when a running coach who annually brought a team to the Cowtown Kids Run showed up to pay her runners’ entry fees – using her personal income tax refund.

“I asked her why she was doing that, and she said she really needed these kids to get exercise, but their families could not afford for them to run in the event. So we went looking for grant money   and ways that we could help fund the kids running,” Swartz explained. The next year, she spotted another pain point: their shoes.

“At the finish line, we were watching the kids that we had given scholarships to, and they were running in hiking boots, flip flops and cloth shoes with no arches. The next year, we added a free shoe program. It was a natural progression,” said Swartz.

“Some of these children have never had their own pair of shoes, and some can’t afford socks,” said Traci Cottrell, one of the CALF program coordinators. Using a trailer that serves as a mobile shoe store, the CALF kids are fitted with running shoes a few weeks before race day. They also receive several pairs of donated socks. For many, it’s their only new pair of shoes for the year.

In a normal (non-pandemic) year, up to 8,000 kids under 18 run the Cowtown 5K thanks to CALF – most running in shoes that they received as part of the program. Since the program began, more than 35,000 kids have received shoes. In 2020, CALF still distributed shoes and socks to the kids, but relied on teachers or parents to fit the shoes to their feet. This fall, Cowtown staff and volunteers will be resuming school visits to make sure the shoes fit well.

Two other unique attributes that help make CALF a success include:

Make it easy for the schools to participate. Swartz and her team go above and beyond in accommodating the needs of the schools so that they can participate. For one school that was more than two hours from Fort Worth, the Cowtown team drove halfway to meet the participating students for weekly run practices and to deliver them free shoes.

Access to transportation is important. For schools that don’t have transportation to get their teams to race day, Cowtown will fund a bus. “We want to make it as easy as possible for them for the kids to participate. (The districts) have already got enough on their plate,” Swartz said. In spring 2021, kids ran their final CALF 5K at school rather than coming in-person to the event. But in February 2022, most will be back at the stockyards for race day.

Encourage families to join in. Some of the participating schools require an adult to come to the Cowtown with their young athletes, and that gets more potential participants exposed to the event. Parents, grandparents, and siblings of CALF participants have all been inspired by the program. And as CALF runners grow up and graduate from Fort Worth schools, they are infinitely more likely to come back to the race as running adults and later pass a love of the sport on to their own kids.

“The sooner they learn that there’s great joy and achievement to be gained from running, the more benefits it will have in their lives. And that will do nothing but strengthen running as a whole. The more youth running programs we have, the better off we’re all going to be,” said Swartz.

Kids Run the OC works to get back up and running

Kids Run the OC has been part of the Orange County Marathon since the early days of the event, which began in 2004. Prior to 2020, the program historically reached around 10,000 kids in kindergarten through 5th grade at over 150 schools each year. Participants train for the run in after-school programs with volunteer coaches, and then come together for a triumphant Final Mile as part of the main OC Marathon event.

Due to the disruption of 2020, Gary Kutscher, race director of the OC Marathon, and Kelsey Petersen, program director, expect to undergo a rebuilding year for the program in 2021/2022. The kids’ Final Mile will resume during OC Marathon race weekend on April 30, 2022.

Not only have kids had nearly two years to age out of the program, but many Southern California families have moved and teachers have changed schools or jobs, Kutscher said. To help kids stay active in 2020, Kids Run the OC offered a free virtual triathlon during the pandemic that incorporated running 26.2 miles, completing eight nutritional challenges and reading six books. Over 1,000 children participated.

“We had good engagement with families reporting what books the kids had read and how they’d completed the nutritional challenges,” said Petersen. They also sent more than 5,000 shirts and medals to schools so that kids could run their virtual final miles as part of PE or at home in a socially distanced manner.

Now, the challenge turns to recruiting new volunteer coaches and welcoming new kids to the program once school starts in the fall. One pandemic pivot that may stick around is using video calls as an option for new coach training. “I think the value of our program is in the in-person, after-school dynamic, but I do think we’ll make use of technology where helpful moving forward,” Petersen said.

Kids Run the OC isn’t based on running laps around a track. There are nearly 40 games outlined for the volunteer coaches on curriculum cards. The bulk of the running the kids do is all pure fun, including games like “Simon Says,” “Blob Tag,” “Elbow Tag,” “Pace and Stride,” and more. Kids Run curriculum and programming is available to races across the country to help you implement a successful kids program or improve your existing program  – reach out to the OC Marathon for details.

Other key components of Kids Run the OC’s success include:

Keeping costs low. The after-school portion of Kids Run the OC is completely free. The only portion of the program that families need to pay for is the Final Mile event on OC Marathon weekend. Scholarships are available for families who cannot afford the $29 kids race entry fee. The program relies on sponsorships, grants and donations to make up the rest. Runners in the OC Marathon can also  add the cost of a scholarship to their race entry as a donation.

Comprehensive coach training. Kids Run the OC requires its volunteer coaches – who can be teachers, parents, or school administrators – to take part in two mandatory training sessions each year. One focuses on training and programming best practices and another gets specific about  race day procedures. Both are set up to strategically introduce brand new Kids Run the OC coaches to experienced veterans, so they can learn from the longtime coaches’ experiences.

Nutritional challenges. In addition to physical activity, Kids Run the OC participants get educated about healthy eating in the form of gamified nutritional challenges. They are simple, such as giving up juice and soda for a week and drinking water instead or choosing veggies instead of a sugary recess snack. “Their coaches challenge them to try it for a week and find that the kids are excited to be proud of their healthy snacks and their changed behavior,” said Petersen. “We’ve heard from some principals that their entire school has become more health conscious as a result of our program.”

Finally, race day is epic. “It’s really the best part of our weekend. We have thousands and thousands of smiles that I wish we could show to everybody,” said Kutscher. “Our Final Mile event is such an exciting morning. The kids love everything about it. Their parents and grandparents come out to watch and enjoy all the pomp and circumstance.” He’s looking forward to seeing all those excited and smiling faces back out running next April, a true sign that things are back to normal.