Parents, children team up to make 3-mile SoleKIDS race a success

Oct. 31—LA GRANDE — Birnie Park stands where exhausted Oregon Trail pioneers camped before starting their steep treks up the Blue Mountains more than 150 years ago.

The more than 50 Central and Greenwood elementary school children who came to Birnie Park on Saturday, Oct. 29, were not examining the Oregon Trail plaques at the site but they were preparing to test their endurance just like the pioneers before them.

The children, all in second through fifth grade, were getting ready to take part in the first ever SoleKIDS race in La Grande. The 3-mile race capped an eight-week running program geared toward elementary students. The children had been meeting after school twice a week for 105-minute training sessions led by SoleKIDS volunteer coaches.

The program was capped by the Oct. 29 race, one in which all 53 SoleKIDS children who were entered finished after covering a route that began at Birnie Park, around Eastern Oregon University and then ended back at Birnie Park. Forty-nine of the children were Central students and four were from Greenwood Elementary School.

The event was a race but the emphasis was not on competition.

"The whole idea was to do your best," said Katie Merrick, the director of the Central Elementary SoleKIDS program.

All students had to run with one of their parents, a requirement that inspired the students participating, according to Teresa Dowdy, a counselor at Central Elementary School who attended the race.

"When children see their parents participating, it makes them want to try harder," she said.

The parental requirement fits in with one of the objectives of SoleKIDS, which is to inspire more people, not just children, to exercise.

"We want to get whole communities exercising more," SoleKIDS founder Jonathan Stevens, of Boise, Idaho, said.

Stevens founded SoleKIDS, a nonprofit organization that puts on eight-week training programs for elementary school students that are capped by 3-mile races, in 2017 with his wife, Jamie. The program has blossomed in Boise where there are now more than a dozen eight-week SoleKIDS training sessions for elementary school students each year. Some of the SoleKIDS races now draw up to 1,000 participants.

"It has been more successful beyond our dreams," Jamie Stevens said.

Jonathan Stevens believes the SoleKIDS program in La Grande is off to such a promising start that it could begin drawing fields approaching what some of the Boise race do.

"That could easily happen here," he said, noting that he is very impressed with how the La Grande community is supporting SoleKIDS.

Jamie Stevens gives Merrick a big share of the credit for the promising start of SoleKIDS in La Grande.

"Oh my gosh, Katie does a great job," she said.

Merrick said she is receiving tremendous help from her volunteer coaching staff of Ashley Close, Lani Kalemba, Drew Walsh, Shannon Donovan and Jen Bauchman. The staff strives to make workouts fun for the participant students. Merrick said workouts include variations of the game of tag and gradual increases in the distances covered. For example, at the start students would alternately run for a minute and then walk for a minute.

Dowdy believes the taste of success students enjoyed will encourage many to come back next year to take part in SoleKIDS again.

"Children gain confidence when they are successful at something that is hard," she said.

The counselor was impressed with how the students who finished earlier got together in groups to cheer on classmates following them to the finish line. Sometimes they would run with them the final 50 yards.

"It was exciting to see children do something that was good for themselves and encourage others," Dowdy said.

Dick Mason is a reporter with The Observer. Contact him at 541-624-6016{/span} or