They bounded into the recess yard, shedding coats, ahead of physical education teacher Anthony Hilliard. The crisp April afternoon was the perfect temperature for running outdoors. The group of fourth- and fifth-graders who make up P.S. 7’s Milton Fein Road Runners were eager to begin training.
“All right, gather ‘round,” Hilliard called out to them. “For all of you at last weekend’s meet, I want you to feel proud of yourselves. You did an outstanding job.”
Track isn’t the first sport that comes to mind for elementary school kids, Hilliard said, but it’s actually a natural choice. At this age, children seemingly have endless energy. Track teaches them to harness that energy and focus it strategically on training for different speeds and distances.
“I design interval training workouts and, for me, they’re really hard,” Hilliard said. “The kids, they’ll do them and be really tired. But then they’re ready to sprint right after. They’re not thinking about pacing or potential injury, they just have all this energy.”
A former high school track coach, Hilliard began the running program last year at the request of P.S. 7 principal Miosotis Ramos. He partnered with the New York Road Runners, a non-profit running organization that organizes the New York City Marathon and other races around the five boroughs. With their support, Hilliard’s team can compete with other runners and earn rewards for hard work.
Hilliard’s group trains for Road Runner meets held in Van Cortlandt Park during the spring. The small incentives, like free T-shirts and medals for completing races — all provided by the Road Runners — are wildly popular with the students.
“I nominate kids for free shoes every couple months, and I do it based on attendance and behavior,” Hilliard said. And those nominations have been successful. Over the past two years, he’s picked up more than 30 pairs of shoes for the kids.
P.S. 7’s track team got off to a slightly rocky start its first year. Unlike the impulsive running kids do during play, track requires deliberate and meticulous preparation for challenging races. There were some early dropouts, but Hilliard eventually was left with a dedicated group of 33 hardworking, avid runners.
Students track their times and train to beat them. They put in time on the track to continually improve. And they stretch carefully and rest their bodies properly to prevent injury. And because the group only meets twice a week, Hilliard encourages them to run on the weekends or after school on their own to improve times.
“It teaches them that they must have that discipline,” the teacher said. “They have to warm up and do some stretching, so moving forward when they get older, they can keep doing this sport.”
For most of the track team, that discipline carries over to their home and academic lives. Some have gone from tiny terrors to perfect angels, Hilliard said, because they have an outlet for that boundless energy and a newfound power of self-control.
Participating requires the students get good grades and behave themselves in class.
“I’ll pop in and ask their teachers how everything’s going, and if I see any problem with kids on my team, I’ll talk to them,” Hilliard said. “If the problem is persisting, then I sit them out, because school comes first. Their job is to be academically involved in the school. This is secondary.”
Running is as much a mental exercise as it is physical. If something goes wrong during a basketball game, a coach can call time out to reorganize the team and make adjustments.
“If you’re not mentally prepared for the type of race you’re running, you can’t stop and start over to get things right,” Hilliard said.
“If they’re not mentally prepared and they don’t have that training and strength to overcome it, then they’re just going to give in.”
Early on, he had to tell students to encourage each other. Now the youngsters are the first to cheer on others when they struggle, and pat each other on the back after a triumphant finish. Celebrating success is a huge benefit for Noemi Hilario. With the help of her fellow racers, she’s running faster than ever.
“I enjoy training with my friends because they motivate me,” the fifth-grader said. “They cheer for me when I’m running, and I cheer for them when they’re running.”
Running has been fifth-grader Merlyn Perez’s passion since she was very young. She jumped at the chance to become a better runner, and her hard work is paying off.
“My leg muscles are stronger,” Perez said. “Before, I couldn’t run that far because I would run for a little bit and then I’d get tired.”
Gladys Maza has been to all of her daughter Lyla’s track meets so far.
“She loves to run with the group,” Maza said of her fifth-grader. “She gets so excited. It’s a great activity, and all the kids are so supportive.”
The running bug got Lyla so strong that she’s motivated her mom to train with her. Maza ran in high school, but hadn’t really done much until Lyla’s infectious enthusiasm got her to lace up her running shoes again.
“Just yesterday we went for a run,” Maza said. “We usually go run a little every weekend. She’s inspired me.”