Long-distance running may sound like a high school sport or grown-up hobby, but Gainesville Parks & Recreation is offering it for kids 7 to 14 years old.
Some 30 children signed up for last year’s inaugural cross country team. This year, 18 have signed up so far for the season starting Aug. 2.
Sam Ballinger, recreation program coordinator for youth athletics at Gainesville Parks & Recreation, said the organization wants to offer as many options for children as possible, and cross country was requested. She said there are a lot of “avid runners” in the area whose children were interested after seeing them go for runs.
“A lot of the parents are avid runners and want to get their kids into it,” Ballinger said. “And a lot of times, the kids want to run with their parents and they run year-round with them anyways.”
The team competes against others in the North Georgia Youth Cross Country League. Joining is $65 for city residents and $90 for county residents, which covers the entry fee for each race, a race jersey and pullover for colder mornings.
The children practice twice each week, usually running at least 2 miles with their parents during practice.
“The races themselves are a 2-mile course,” Clay said. “So in order to participate in that distance, they need to be able to run that far. And in training, we typically run even further than that. So it definitely proved challenging with the youngest runners.”
During competitions on Saturdays, parents aren’t allowed to run with their children, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there cheering. Brooks Clay, cross country team coach, said “you know when Gainesville shows up,” because all the parents and siblings have team shirts on.
Clay is a volunteer coach and avid runner. He and his family moved from Atlanta 4 ½ years ago, but they couldn’t find any programs in the area.
Now, he practices alongside two of his children, Lily Grace, 10, and Weatherly, 9.
Jason Everett and Brandon Young help coach the team as volunteers, too. Like Clay, they both have young children on the team.
“We do some neat stuff,” Clay said. “The biggest challenge is making it fun, because that’s the main goal, at least in my mind. I want these guys to really build a lifelong love of running.”
Clay tries to keep the children interested by having celebrations and playing games. He said every now and again they’ll bring out Kona Ice, a truck that serves shaved ice and ice cream. They also play tag and other games the children like to play at school.
Last year, the team was open to children as young as 5.
“Doing what’s required to get the conditioning to run, but also keep their attention is hard,” Clay said. “As adults, we can go and just run and we understand that’s what we need to do. Well, at 5, 6, 7 years old, they don’t get that. When you’re chasing a ball playing soccer, it’s one thing. But when they’re just running, it’s different. It gets boring after a few minutes.”
Clay said running at a young age doesn’t really have any downsides except possible wear on joints.
“There’s a fine line between pushing kids and then overdoing it,” Clay said. “And at the end of the day, I want them to want to come and run. I don’t want them to resent having to come to practice and having to participate in the sport.”
Ballinger said cross country is an important sport to offer because of its accessibility to all children. Some aren’t interested in sports like soccer, football or baseball. She said she’s heard from parents that those sports don’t suit some children, too.
“There’s also kids doing cross country because they’re not very athletic,” Ballinger said. “Their hand-eye coordination isn’t very great for sports like football and stuff like that, so they do running, which is a good alternative for them to be active.”
And that’s Clay’s goal at the end of the day, too. He said by offering cross country to children as young as 7, as long as they’re having fun, he’s able to help reduce “the whole issue of childhood obesity” by getting them outside and moving.
“At least I can make sure that three times a week, for a couple hours, they’re not in front of screens, they’re not inside,” Clay said. “They're moving, having fun, laughing, sweating and they’re participating as a team.”