Kaylyn Rodriguez, 1st grader
Kaylyn Rodriguez, 1st grader

“I want to stay in first grade,” Kaylyn Rodriguez told her dad as she walked up for her final day of the school year at San Diego’s Alice Birney Elementary.  While most kids are anxious for school to be over and summer vacation to begin, Kaylyn is one of those who seemed to look forward to school each day, maybe because she knew how it would begin.

Out behind the long, one story school building that houses grades K-5 is a large grass field ringed by asphalt.  That “track” has become the centerpiece for a year-round pre-school running program that serves as a magnet for Kaylyn and quite a number of the other 570 Birney Bees.

“We started the running club about ten years ago,” explained Coach Carol Lord who was already at her station handing out personalized lap cards as kids bustled all around.  “But it’s when they laid the track two years ago that we began timing mile runs every Wednesday.  We started with 35 kids, and now 250 out of the 570 total enrollment has run at least one mile this year.”

As the kids filtered in through the front gates in the city’s University Heights neighborhood, Kaylyn had already begun doing her laps.  We met Kaylyn and her family last week at the final Summer Nights Track & Field Meet at Lincoln High School where she ran her first competitive 1500 meters.  At the time she had run approximately 85 miles throughout the course of the school year as part of the Birney Running Club, picking up 17 colorful toe tokens that Coach Lord hands out for every five miles run.  Her goal, said Kaylyn, was to earn 20 little feet before the end of the school year.  I decided to come see if she could do it.

Coach Carol Lord handing out lap cards
Coach Carol Lord handing out lap cards

“It takes about 26 laps for five miles,” the coach told me.  “Every five miles earns one toe token.  On Wednesdays we do timed miles.  For that the kids carry four popsicle sticks, and after the first lap they drop one on each lap to keep count.  But each day while they do laps, each lap is stamped on their card and after 26 laps we award them another toe token.”

To show how well the program is progressing, this year the Birney Running Club qualified 24 students for the Chelsea King Memorial Mile at the Lindbergh Schweitzer Elementary School.  Last year only eight Birney Bees participated.

Many wonderful kids running programs have sprouted up in recent years as America belatedly identified the childhood obesity problem plaguing the nation.  Among the successful programs are the myriad Kid’s Marathons which are organized by local 26-milers.  Under those formats kids run a total of 25.2 miles at their schools in the five weeks before their city’s marathon. Then the day before the big race the kids complete their marathons by running the final mile of the marathon course.

Izzy Ayala, 47 toe tokens and counting
Izzy Ayala, 47 toe tokens and counting

While these are a fine introduction to the sport, and offer tangible rewards, they are limited to a short period of time.  But with San Diego’s temperate weather, Coach Lord takes a school year-round approach at Birney, giving kids like second-grader Izzy Ayala a chance to collect 47 toe tokens since kindergarten.

“Wednesday’s time miles are a little more organized,” Coach Lord insisted amidst the hubbub.  “Anyone who runs sub-8:00 gets their own 3X5 card.  We write the first time they achieve on a sticker and place it on the card. Then when they improve their times we put another sticker over the first, so they can peel back to see how far they’ve come.”

While physical education programs throughout the nation have come under strick belt-tightening, Birney Elementary is an exception.  According to its website, the school places great value on science and social studies, art and music, physical education and theater —  “Think globally, learn locally!”  But in order to maintain its designation as an International Baccalaureate World School, Birney is required to offer physical education, art, and second language studies.  According to Coach Lord, programs like Birney’s Running Club provide at least anecdotal evidence that pre-school exercise can be a contributing factor to school achievement.

Jonathan inspects the Toe Token choices
Jonathan inspects the Toe Token choices

“I have a now third grader that started running the mile regularly last year,” she recalled.  “Very mature kid and dealing with juvenile diabetes.  Last year he came up to me very excited that he made his two goals – raised his reading level and dropped his mile time below 9:00.  This year, he was on the Chelsea King team, and did a 7:02.  I asked him yesterday what his running goal for next year was – he wants sub 7:00.

“There is another boy in his class that was one of our top runners last year- the beginning of this year he was kind of quiet and withdrawn.  His attitude really changed when he got back to weekly miles and saw his times drop again – he was still the quiet kid but the running seems to give him confidence in the classroom.

“Our fastest boy this year at the  Chelsea King is a second grader that has struggled in the classroom.  Once he tapped into his running ability he gained focus that helped him with his studies.  And we have two 4th grade girls that started running miles together at the beginning of the  year  (I nicknamed them the “Run-ese  Twins” because they were always joined at the hip).  They were always good students but their teacher said she felt that the running kept them from getting into the “mean girl” drama that can happen in the classroom.  I entered them in the Buddy Run at Chelsea this year and one broke 8:00  for the first time.”
High Five from the Coach
High Five from the Coach

Like the Run-ese Twins, many of Coach Lord’s runners were already good students to begin with, so it is difficult to tease out which came first. Did success in school derive in part from the running program? Or, were the better students drawn to the challenge that running provides?

“Seems to me that a lot of my students are transformed by the experience that the weekly miles give them,” concluded Lord.  “The ability to pace themselves and go the distance as well as the feeling of accomplishment that they get when their time is improved.  I do know that I am proud of all my runners – from the speedsters that are trying to knock off seconds to the occasional runners that struggle to finish before the first bell rings and they have to leave the track and line up for school.”

In fact, the Birney Elementary Running Club program has also reached out past the school yard fence.

“I ran track at La Jolla High (Class of 2001),” said Kaylyn’s dad, Jose Rodriguez.  “I was league champion my senior year at 200 meters, running 22.4. But I only began doing long distance training after I saw Kaylyn do it at school.”

Kaylyn Crosses Finish Line
Kaylyn Crosses Finish Line

As dad looked on with camera in hand, Kaylyn blistered her final lap of the 2012-2013 school year with a wide, gap-toothed grin plastered across her face.   Afterwards she high-fived Coach Lord, called Mom with the good news, then collected her 20th toe token.  Now she’ll just have to tolerate summer vacation for the next six weeks before taking on all the challenges of second grade.  I hope she can wait.

Calling Mom with the Big news
“Hey, Mom…”



  1. Very nice story, thanks Toni! As a runner and new mother, I am increasingly becoming more aware of the need for more physical activity for youngsters. Birney is doing a great job!

  2. Readers of Toni’s Blog, there is a kids-only cross-country event coming up in Encinitas on Aug 31st. It’s not a run-around-the-cone course. It will feature a “professional” layout with barrier tape throughout the course, multiple 100% loops, and free professional photos of the kids. Just $10. Check out!

  3. Tony
    Al Berkowsky ( an original investor in Elite Racing like myself ) helped organize, with Steve Scott, and myself, Paul Limmer, the first few race day last miles as part of the R and R Arizona races…..we helped what would have been a disastrous, chaotic , almost dangerous scene ( where kids would have been trampled) into an organized, friendly, safely run affair….Tracy, unfortunately had turned this over to someone who had no idea what to do to start a race with almost 2,000 screaming wild animals! Fortunately I had done this sort of thing numerous times…..since then it has gone off without a hitch in numerous places…..S.D., Nashville, Phoenix, etc….

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