updated 9/21/2004 10:32:30 AM ET 2004-09-21T14:32:30

Ask 7-year-old John Simmons if he can run a marathon and he shyly laughs.

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But ask him if he can run 26.2 miles over several months and he nods yes. Simmons and thousands of other children across Texas this year will do just that, becoming Marathon Kids.

They’re part of an Austin-based program that challenges children in kindergarten through fifth grade to run a marathon — a quarter-mile to a half-mile at a time.

“We want to capture the little boy or girl who maybe is overweight or maybe has a social problem,” says Kay Morris, director of Marathon Kids. “We want to capture the imagination of the little boy or girl who would never raise their hand and say, ’I think I can do this.”’

Morris works with elementary schools, where physical education teachers sign up children who show an interest and have their parents’ permission. Kids that complete their marathons over about a five-month period get medals and T-shirts.

Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, Texas’ health services commissioner, says three of his children have participated in Marathon Kids, which he nominated for a national health award.

“I think it is a fabulous program,” Sanchez said. “Marathon Kids gets parents involved.”

As a result, he said, the parents adopt some of the same healthy habits that help prevent chronic diseases. Diabetes and heart disease are closely linked to obesity and physical inactivity.

Risk of diabetes increasing among kids, teens
About 30 percent of American children and teens are overweight or obese, and the rate of diabetes is rising. New government figures Thursday showed that by high school only about 28 percent of students attend a daily physical education class.

As a youngster, Morris, now 54, enjoyed running and carved out courses through neighborhood back yards. These days, backyard fences create obstacles so she came up with the Marathon Kids program.

In 1995, its first year, 6,000 children took part. Since then, the program has expanded to Houston and the Dallas area and 65,000 students are expected to run this year.

Morris gets inquiries about the program from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, and even got an e-mail from someone in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Austin-based Whole Foods Market, a natural and organic grocery chain, signed on this year as the main sponsor of Marathon Kids and plans to expand the program in at least three states next year, spokeswoman Nona Evans said.

At a celebration kickoff on Saturday, University of Texas athletes and coaches, Olympians and teachers are among those who will talk and run with the children.

How the program works
At the start of the school year, children get a mileage log to keep track of distance run. On the flip side is a nutritional log for coloring in circles noting the fruits and vegetables they eat each days. The goal is to eat five a day — the minimum the government recommends — for 26.2 days.

To build endurance, children run in their phys ed class, in homeroom class or on their own time, with their parents.

“It’s the most marvelous thing for families,” said Carolyn Dyer, a P.E. teacher at Rodriguez Elementary School who has noticed several parents using the school’s track with their children.

When the program wraps up in February, another celebration is held and students run the final leg of their marathon and get their medals.

Recently, Simmons was among the first in the pack to complete two laps around his school’s track during Dyer’s phys ed class. It’s his second year to participate in Marathon Kids. Getting the medal is “cool,” he says.

Classmate Daniel Navarro finished about the same time and was a little short of breath but confident he could run 26.2 miles.

“I’m fast,” Navarro said. “I like to run too fast.”

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