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Local students practice three R's: Running, reading, reaching goals

Students run around the South Elementary School gym in West Fargo early one recent morning, as they participate in the weekly Runners and Readers program. Tyler Shoberg / West Fargo Pioneer

On a recent Thursday morning, the sound of a hundred thundering feet reverberated down the hallways of South Elementary School in West Fargo.

It was only 7:30 a.m., but the school gym already was full of students laughing, talking and doing something they had either grown to enjoy, or inherently loved: running.

"It's really, really fun," fifth grader Claire Spaeth said, with beads of sweat rolling down her flushed cheeks. "It gets me pumped up for the day."

What Spaeth and more than 80 of her classmates enjoy on a weekly basis is South Elementary School's Runners and Readers program, which promotes activity, nutrition and, of course, reading.

It's the brainchild of Kris Lindemann, a South Elementary fourth grade teacher and avid runner, who copied the program from a similar concept she witnessed while eating lunch one day in Las Vegas.

"All of a sudden, this big group of kids came running by," said Lindemann, who later discovered that they actually were part of a weekend running group hosted by the community.

Lindemann decided to do something similar at her own school and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, in just its second year, 85 fourth and fifth graders meet to run once a week beginning in January, before moving to twice a week in April. Most of the exercise takes place in the gym, but once the weather improves from winter to spring, Lindemann said the group takes their runs outdoors.

"Sometimes the principal (Loren Kersting) runs, too, and the students enjoy seeing that. They just go crazy," Lindemann said.

Besides simply warming up kids for the school day ahead, the runners also work toward the collective goal of racing in the Thursday Youth Run of the Fargo Marathon.

In fact, when all is said and done, each runner will have accumulated more than 26 miles of running throughout the training process.

"They basically do a full marathon, one mile at a time," Lindemann said.

The accolades of Runners and Readers are numerous, and they South Elementary School physical education department loves it, too.

"I think it's just an awesome program," PE teacher Heath Rydell said. "It has a lot of positives, be it cognitive, emotional, social...and it gets their brains ready to go."

While the running aspect of the program may take center stage, there is also that reading part.

Just as the runners wind down, they line up to receive refreshments, in the form of Powerade and snacks (donated by area businesses) before sitting on the gym floor to hear a story read by one of the numerous volunteers.

Lindemann said none of this would be possible without a lot of help

"I just have to thank the people who make this program possible for our kids," she said, specifically pointing to the South Elementary staff and PTA, Western Bank, Sunmart, and Coke. "We are a completely donation-based program."

Mark Knutson, race director of the Fargo Marathon, also has "been a huge help," Lindemann said. Knutson has donated snacks, a large cooler, and shoes for students who do not have proper running footwear.

Getting a good muscle and brain workout to start the morning may be great for the kids involved, but there is one other, rather large, aspect to Runners and Readers. Every year, the students scrounge up funding to give to charity.

"Students have cleaned out piggy banks and done extra chores; whatever they can," Lindemann said.

And, until the week of the marathon, they don't even know why; what or whom the fundraiser is for is kept secret until then.

Last year, the benefactor was Alexa's Hope, a charity created by Principal Kersting in honor of his daughter, in order to raise awareness about the importance of organ donation. Runners and Readers raised approximately $600, which was matched by Fargo Marathon. State Bank also contributed more than $1,000 to the cause.

This year, the Runners and Readers volunteers and participants hope they have just as much of an impact on another worthy cause, whatever it may be.

As for the future of the program, Lindemann hopes it continues to thrive in the years ahead.

"It's the whole package of teaching them to self-motivate and set goals, and then reach those goals and to have positive role models," she said. "We don't ever plan on capping (enrollment) and I don't see and end in sight."

Then she laughed, adding, "I hope we have that problem."