‘Mileage Club’ proves popular with Washougal students

Boosters say recess running club is fun, ‘not just exercise’

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Contributed photo courtesy Washougal School District Columbia River Gorge Elementary School fifth-grader Joela Grundy collects a token as a reward for finishing a lap during a Boosters Mileage Club session at the Jemtegaard Middle School track earlier this year. (Contributed photo courtesy of the Washougal School District)

Every Tuesday, Columbia Gorge Elementary (CRG) School students spend 15 minutes of their time running or walking around the Jemtegaard Middle School track. They aren’t required to participate in the Boosters’ Mileage Club. They choose to do so because they enjoy competing with their friends, earning rewards, and getting — or staying — fit.

The club’s 100% turnout rate is a reflection of its philosophy: It’s not just exercise. It’s fun.

“I very rarely hear a student say, ‘I don’t want to do this,” said CRG booster Sadie McKenzie, who coordinates the club along with fellow parent Annie Thomas. “I don’t think a lot of these kids realized that they enjoyed running until they started doing this. Annie and I just want to promote healthy traits and healthy (lifestyles). Running isn’t something that’s negative. It’s something you can do with your friends. You don’t have to do it by yourself. I think it’s important that these kids realize that being outside and being healthy is a positive thing.”

The club started out at Gause Elementary School, where volunteers attempted to encourage students to run during their recess periods. It started to flourish during the 2018-19 school year, when it moved to CRG, which shares a campus with JMS and provides easy access to the middle school’s track, and away from recess, which provided too many alternative activities for students to pursue.

“It’s just caught on, and the kids love it,” said McKenzie, a Washougal School Board member. “We went from having a couple of kids coming in (to the entire student body), as well as some teachers. I have little kids stopping me at Safeway going, ‘Mom, that’s the mileage club lady.’ Honestly, I would rather be that than the school board member or the booster mom or whatever. Annie and I love this program. It is definitely our heart and soul, and we get really excited about it. I love that it’s something healthy that these kids really, really enjoy. It’s a big deal.”

McKenzie and Thomas choose a city or entity for the kids to “run” to (his year, they’re “running” to New York City, meaning that they’re attempting to compile roughly 3,200 miles by the end of the school year) and stand dutifully at the track’s start-and-finish line every Tuesday, recording the amount of laps that the students run with an iPhone app.

In addition to the one overarching group goal, they also provide a series of individual motivators, such as pizza parties and medals to top-finishing classes and runners, and “toe tokens” to runners who finish a certain amount of laps.

“I love seeing their smiling faces when they’re doing something that they didn’t think they could do. They say, ‘I did four laps? Really?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, look, you did four laps,’” McKenzie said. “A lot of the kids don’t realize what they can accomplish with something like this. That’s a big track to some of those kids, and when they run a mile, that’s pretty amazing. It makes my heart explode. I love seeing them holding hands and running together and being goofy. And of course, I love the kids (who are) competitive.”

That includes fifth-grader Anava Grundy and her twin sister Joela, who “love to compete with each other,” according to McKenzie.

“I love to run because it allows me to be active in the outdoors,” Anava said. “I love the different trails and enjoy running in nature.”

“Running for me is such a great sport because I can set personal goals and focus on them to get stronger,” Joela added.

The club is a major reason why the Washougal School District’s running culture, spearheaded by Washougal High’s successful cross country and track and field teams, is so strong — and getting stronger.

“Our district started doing cross country for sixth-graders (this year), and I’ve heard from so many of these kids that they can’t wait to be in sixth grade so they can do cross country,” McKenzie said. “I hate to take the credit, but honestly, I think it really stems from starting these kids at such a young age. I think some kids didn’t even (consider running previously); they were like, ‘Running long distance? That sounds terrible.’ But when they (participate in) mileage club, they realize they can do it, and it’s actually really fun. And a lot of their friends are doing it, so it’s something they can do together, and I think that’s really cool.”

The club has paid major dividends for the Grundy twins, who qualified to compete at the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics regional cross country meet in Athol, Idaho, on Saturday, Nov. 18.

“I’ve watched those girls since they were really young, and it’s just amazing to see their accomplishments,” McKenzie said. “They’re very athletic, and I think those girls are going to be really big for Washougal someday. (Competing in the) Junior Olympics already, that’s pretty amazing. I love watching them grow, and I can’t wait to see what they’re going to be in high school. I’ll be their cheerleader for sure.”

Anava and Joela were the only members of Whisper Running, a Vancouver-based running organization, to qualify for the Junior Olympics meet.

“I’m really proud of them for trying a new thing and sticking with it, even when it gets difficult,” said Whisper Running coach Dave Caldwell.