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Letting the kids out

Parent volunteer Andy Barber runs with the Trail Blazers through a park in Leavenworth. Photo by Emerson Peek

By Marlene Farrell

Kids know a lot about parkour, where in a video game the hero must jump a perfect path of obstacles to avoid falling into a void.

But today the kids themselves were the heroes.

I was in the middle of a circle; on one side were two-foot tall boulders, set as a decorative perimeter in the park. On the other side were the Osborn Trail Blazers who were eying the boulders eagerly.

I demonstrated running up to a big rock, jumping up and launching off in one fluid motion. I set them loose, each with their own boulder. They jumped with one foot, then both, then tried rebounding.

We had already talked about safety, and I carried a first aid kit in my backpack, so I didn’t need to watch over my group too closely. I needed to leap over rocks too, learning how to do it faster and smoother.

I didn’t want to be the sort of coach who expects them to do something I’m not willing to try myself.

In fact, they taught me.

One boy arced his legs high and to the side as he leap-frogged over one rock. Another kid spun 360 degrees while jumping down. They swung off tree branches as we hopped down a rock wall to assist a final leap to soft grass. The session had grown organically into something much more lively and experimental than I had planned.

And that was just one of the Trail Blazers’ practices.

For the last four springs I had led a different running club, the Striders, at the track that is nestled below Peshastin Dryden Elementary. It was an opportunity for the six- to eight-year-olds to use this amazing resource for running laps, practicing sprinting, jumping hurdles, passing batons and playing 10 versions of tag in the central grassy oval.

But I knew the Trail Blazers were going to be different.

Replacing the lanes of a track with a squiggly network of trails in the downtown Leavenworth parks meant the format had to change. My partner Andrew Holm and I give these nine- to 11-year-olds more independence. In return we ask them to be good team members and always try.

On the day we did an out and back long run, we sent them off in groups of buddies. They got to pick their own path, whether long or short. Perhaps one group could have detoured and “gotten lost,” but no one did because they didn’t want to miss the Otter Pops at the turn around.

For another session we planned to work on hills, both uphill and downhill technique.

I worried they’d balk, not wanting to exert more effort on a warm day. My concern was unfounded, because we found the perfect hill. This was not a road-grade hill. This was a steep loose sandy bank with gullies cut into it from winter sledders. We practiced running up it with our feet slightly sideways, sliding down a bit for every step up. They pumped their arms to get up faster and then jogged down a gravel path for another lap.

We surprised them by letting them run down the gullies too.

Andrew demonstrated a skipping motion, arms held out for balance, letting his momentum carry him to the flat where he ran out his extra speed. When it was their turn, some kids were pro already, flying downhill, trailing a cloud of dust.

A few had never tried to go down something so steep, and they took a couple tentative first steps and then released the brakes, going faster and faster. Their smiles grew wide with the exhilaration.

This club is not about dare devilry. But we couldn’t possibly turn these kids into true “trail blazers” if we only let them run in straight lines.

We keep the pace of the sessions moving and unpredictable. Before they get too comfortable and start picking up whacking sticks, I say, “Next stop, pond beach. Meet me there.” And I take off, kids on my heels, eager for what’s next.

They aren’t skeptics; they are willing to try everything. And their energy rises when we throw down a challenge or add a dash of silly, like turning ourselves into a human knot by linking hands at random and then untangling ourselves.

Our only agenda is to share our love of being outside — preferably in nature, preferably moving.

Each practice has a few structured elements, like relays and hills, but we want the club to kind of feel like unstructured time to just be a kid. And by that I mean being in the moment, loving what they are doing right now in the uncluttered environment of nature’s playground.

The kids are good at it already — just observe how seriously they play tag or how they shout, “Parkour” as, mid-run, they dart to the side of the trail to climb a few steps up a tree trunk with their feet.

At the end of each practice Andrew and I feel charged with the power of play. For a little while I too am a trail blazing kid.

Writer and runner Marlene Farrell loves to share her passion for the trails with kids, through her RunWenatchee blogs as well as for participants of her Icicle Running Retreats.

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