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Ross Elementary students STEEL going strong

| Thursday, April 24, 2014, 6:18 p.m.

When Ali Mathis, 35, of Ross ran with her son in last year's Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon, she witnessed how much fun the children from school groups were having.

“I thought it would be a positive experience to do at our school, too,” she said.

So she introduced the Giant Eagle Kids of STEEL youth fitness and nutrition program to Ross Elementary in January. The program not only helps children get in condition for the one-mile Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon on May 3, it also promotes exercise and nutrition.

Each participant is encouraged to run a cumulative 25.2 miles over the 18-week program. To reach the goal of 26.2 miles — or the distance of an actual marathon — participants will run the final mile at the Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon, which has a course that goes from PNC Park on Pittsburgh's North Side to Stanwix Street and Commonwealth Place in Downtown.

“It's been a brutal winter, and this has been a great way to keep the kids active,” Mathis said.

Twenty-two percent of the 618 students enrolled at Ross Elementary — or 139 students — signed up to participate in the Kids of STEEL program.

Five more registered solely for the Kids Marathon.

“That makes Ross Elementary the fourth-largest group entry at the race,” said Kelsey Jackson, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon Inc.

More than 70 elementary and middle schools are participating.

As part of the Kids of STEEL program, students in kindergarten through the sixth grade meet at Ross Elementary each Saturday afternoon to learn about proper running and preparation techniques, such as stretching, pacing and drinking adequate amounts of water.

Weather permitting, they run on the track behind the school or on the sidewalk that encircles the building. On colder days, they run through the hallways inside the school.

Afterward, they have a healthy snack — such as grapes, raw green beans, or celery and cream cheese.

The results have exceeded Mathis' expectations.

“The kids have really surprised me. Some have doubled or tripled the amount of miles we expected them to run,” she said.

Katie Catrain, 9, joined the program and discovered a love for running.

“I like running because you can enjoy nature while doing it,” said Catrain, a fourth-grade student from Ross. She said she has lost a couple of pounds since beginning the program.

By mid-March, Katie was running eight laps around the school — or two miles — without stopping.

“My goal is to win first place at the marathon,” she said.

First-grader Hannah Mertz, 6, always has loved running fast in short spurts but has had to learn to slow down and pace herself for the one-mile race. She looks forward to winning a medal to display on her dresser.

“I used to have a softball trophy, but it broke,” said Hannah, of Ross.

Dylan Gonable, 10, is a fourth-grader from Ross who enjoy participating in several sports. He said his favorite used to be baseball. Now it is running.

“So many sports, not enough time in the day,” he said.

Parents are seeing the benefits, as well.

Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan, 38, of Ross said the program is much more than simple conditioning.

“It's a confidence builder,” she said. “It's not so much about fitness but about setting a goal and meeting it. These kids are so proud of themselves.”

Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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