If you’ve ever driven past the track in Mount Vernon in the fall or spring, you have invariably noticed children out running before school starts in the morning. On any of these days, there will be at least 40 children out there running, shouting, laughing, and having a great time. Yes, the playground is open, but the children have come to run.

This amazing program, known as Monster Marathon Running, was started in 2006 by Crystal Eskelsen. The concept is simple; meet at the track three mornings a week before school and run around the track 4 times (which equals a mile). After 9 weeks, the children will have completed the equivalent of a marathon.

The children come out and run in all sorts of weather. Sometimes they will be bundled up and be leaping through the first snow of the season and other days everyone is huddling under umbrellas during an early morning rainstorm. They understand Crystal’s attitude that physical fitness is important and just getting four laps in before school can be done quickly. Each lap brings them closer to completing their virtual marathon.

This ingenious program has instilled in a generation of Mount Vernon kids healthy habits and a realization that being fit can be done in a simple way. Even after they have moved on to the high school, kids continue to talk about their experiences in Monster Running and the fun they had doing it. Better yet, they continue to run and walk around town.

Crystal has a great team helping her to pull of this program each season. Her husband, Rich, works with the middle school participants. He comes up with fun trivia games that the kids work to complete as they run each lap around the track. Sometimes filling in for Rich is Crystal’s father, Jeff Cardon.

Standing at the starting line with Crysal every morning is Alissa Hunt, Crystal’s running partner and co-organizer of Monster Running. They learn every single child’s name and check them off as they complete each lap. When the season ends, a fun party is held on the last day and Crystal’s mom, Denice Cardon, is there serving the breakfast to all the hungry, exuberant kids.

Soon after we moved to Mount Vernon, we found out about Monster Running. My two youngest daughters were in 3rd and 6th grades, and so they joined the crew of enthusiastic boys and girls on the track three mornings a week. I was tired of unpacking boxes and organizing our house, so I joined them. I was able to see first hand the benefits of this great program.

I noticed that it was all right if you weren’t running all of your laps; walking was perfectly fine. Some mornings Crystal and Alissa would do fun things like having the kids walk backwards or skip or gallop one of their laps. The small fee we paid to participate covered the snacks that were handed out some mornings and the t-shirt or sweatshirt given out to everyone who was a part of the program.

Crystal and Alissa have never made any money for all of the work they’ve put into this program. They’ve been ingenious in the ways they’ve worked with local businesses to partner with them to provide prizes and food for the party at the end of each session. Their goal has been to create a fun program where kids will see the benefit of exercise, be held accountable for getting their mile in each time, and feel camaraderie among their fellow “monsters.”

Soon after our introduction to Monster Running, I was able to see the long-term benefit of a program such as this. My then 8th grade daughter came home from school and let us know that she was on the Cross Country team. I wondered if she even knew what this sport was and how she could get on the team without any experience. This certainly hadn’t been how it worked where we’d lived in Texas.

She explained something very profound to me that I came to understand had its roots in Monster Running. Apparently, if you wanted to run, you could be on the team, even if you came in dead last. And because of this philosophy, the Mount Vernon Middle School Cross Country Team (and subsequently the High School team) has one of the largest programs for a school of its size.

All those years of encouraging all those kids to keep running around the track and to get their mile done, has instilled in the minds and hearts of Mount Vernon’s youth that being physically fit is just what you do here in our town. It’s all right if you don’t come in first; but you finish the race. And everyone has a place on the team if you’re willing to commit to be there every time and do your best.

And because of Crystal’s hard work and kindness with encouraging so many children to believe this, she is being honored this year at Homecoming for the Alumni Hall of Fame Award for Service. Her service to our community has fostered healthy habits in our youth that will have ramifications far into the future.

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