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On any given Saturday as many as 300 elementary school runners take to the course representing Oldham County Schools.
It’s a phenomenon that has exploded in the last 10 years as these young runners have taken to the sport in droves.
“It has really been amazing to see it take off,” Harmony Elementary coach Craig Hammons said. “It reminds of what happened with soccer 10 or more years ago where so many kids are involved.”
Harmony has 49 kids involved in their program for a school that has been open three years. Some of the more established programs like Goshen and Centerfield have fielded teams of nearly 100 runners in recent years.
“I can remember the first year we went out there, we may have had 50 to 75 kids total from several schools in a meet,” Kevin Orrender said. “There were over 300 Saturday at the Rumble meet in Goshen. It’s just unbelievable how it has grown.”
Orrender, who helped start the Centerfield program and now coaches the Oldham County-based independent Trailblazers, said the county now has a statewide reputation not only for the quality of its elementary runners, but the sheer number of runners.
“I do a lot of camps and seminars around the state and Oldham County is so well known now,” Orrender said. “People just can’t believe the number of kids who come out and run.”
Local middle and high schools reaped the benefits in recent years and are just as amazed at the growth.
“I think it’s really taken off especially in the last three or four years because so many of the schools now have teams,” North Oldham High School coach Drew Lamaster said.
Lamaster, a standout runner who led South Oldham to a state title before running in college at Xavier, said if the programs are run right it’s a benefit to the kids and the schools.
“It wasn’t around when I was that age, I didn’t start running until my freshman year,” Lamaster said. “I think if it’s done right and they are not run too much it’s great. It’s great exposure for the kids too, when they run at one of the big high school invitationals.”
While Hammons and Orrender approach the training of their teams in different ways, both said the amount of training is key at a young age.
Harmony practices three days a week, as do the Trailblazers. Both programs start in July or August, building toward the regular season.
Most elementary meets start the season at 1.2 miles and end at 1.86 miles.
Harmony trains accordingly, working in two-mile runs through the week along with hill training and interval runs. Hammons is also a firm believer in his kids competing in other sports. Several of the runners play soccer or other sports.
“These kids are in elementary school, so the last thing we should ever tell them as a parent or a coach is they have to specialize in one thing,” Hammons said. “As long as they are having fun and being active, let them go. The beauty of running, is it is something they can do for their whole lives and it will keep them healthy.”
Orrender’s teams at Centerfield and the Trailblazers take a more aggressive training approach often running seven miles at a practice.
“When we first started we heard from a lot of people about how they would burn out, but there was no evidence of that then and there is none now,” Orrender said. “One thing I discovered is the kids were leaving cross country and going right to soccer or gymnastics or going out running on their own. As long as they aren’t being pushed, they will find what is right for them.”
Both coaches said the draw of the sport is anyone and everyone can do it and both said keeping the sport fun is a key.
“We have pizza parties and every Thursday we have a team spaghetti dinner,” Orrender said. “The kids really become friends and it helps them socially when they move on to middle school and that sort of thing. We do a lot of games in our practices, anything to keep it fun.”
The sport has also gotten parents involved and brought families closer together.
At Centerfield and with the Trailblazers, parents, team members and coaches have run races together including the Derby Festival mini-marathon and a group of Trailblazer parents are training together to run a full marathon in Indianapolis in October.
Parents involved in daily practice and at meets is also a big key at Harmony.
Along with Hammons and assistant coaches Aaron Beard and Doug Dieterle, there may be as many as 15 parents who run and keep a watchful eye on the kids at every practice.
“We have kids running at all levels so we can use a lot of help and we get it from our parents who come out and run with us,” Hammons said. “That’s really the key to any success we have. If they weren’t there at practice or at the meets to help us get the kids organized I don’t think we could pull it off.”
The bottom line for both coaches was the sport attracts kids of all different athletic abilities and keeps them healthy and active.
“You know you read so much today about childhood obesity and diabetes on the rise, anything we can do to get them outside and active is a plus,” Hammons said. “To me, the real excitement of the sport is you have kids from all different ability levels and they can actually see themselves get better every week and feel good about it.”
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