If recent history repeats itself, 9-year-old Panagiotis Batistatos will jump out of bed on Saturday morning, eager to get a running start on the day.
"To see that my son wants to go back every time, that's great," said his mother, Nicoletta Nerangis. "All the kids are stars for the day."
On Saturday, mother, son , and an expected 2,500 other youngsters ages 4 to 15 will descend Saturday on the New Balance Track & Field Center at the Armory for the 9:00 a.m. start of 2012's first Youth Jamboree, one of the many youth programs offered by New York Road Runners. The jamborees are free and open to any student in the New York City schools. Perhaps most important: No experience is necessary.
"Parents worry that their kids aren't ready, that maybe they need to practice before they go," said Nerangis. "No! The kids are made to feel so comfortable. It's all for fun, for the experience, and to promote the love of running, of track and field, and not for them to feel they have to get a certain time or to get first, second, or third. It's for the joy of the event."
In March 2004, the first Jamboree—dreamed up by Dr. Norb Sander, executive director of the Armory— drew 1,200 kids and 400 adults, who are offered information on topics such as nutrition and, along with the children, can attend a concurrent health fair.
"He thought it would be a great way to provide motivation for kids to dig in with their running as well as inspiration coming out of the event for kids to keep running," said Cliff Sperber, NYRR's director of youth and community services. "And that is exactly what has happened."
Toss in the reports Sperber gets from educators, parents, and the kids themselves on improvements in classroom focus, self-esteem, self-discipline, and goal-setting, and the reasons behind the Jamboree's growth become apparent. Since 2004, more than 30,000 kids and nearly 10,000 adults have participated.
Jamboree events include the 55-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, the 400-meter dash, relays, the long jump, and the shot put, with an 800-meter invitational race for older kids. Events for the younger crowd, pre-kindergarten to Grade 5, run from 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., with events for the upper grades starting at 1:45 p.m. More information, including a link to register, can be found here.
The Youth Jamborees, held three times a year at either the Armory or Icahn Stadium on Randall's Island, are part of NYRR's variety of youth programs and events, including Mighty Milers, Young Runners, City Sports for Kids, and even a series of how-to-coach videos called "A Running Start." Put them all together and perhaps 75,000 children in New York City and 125,000 around the country are engaged each week in running activities through NYRR, up from 5,000 per week in New York City in 2004.
Nerangis is responsible for more than a few of them. In addition to getting her son to the Armory on Saturday, she will be bringing perhaps 60 children from the Mighty Milers and Young Runners groups that she began to coach at the behest of Panigiotis.
"He said, 'If you coach then I'll do it,'" Nerangis said, recalling her efforts at getting her son to join a running program. "So I thought, 'Well, maybe I should do that.'" A veteran of eight marathons, she began by gathering some of his friends, naming the group "Run for Fun" and consulting the videos offered by "A Running Start." Soon they were going to many of the NYRR kids' races.
"Then I brought them to a Jamboree, and then I brought them to another Jamboree…." she said with a chuckle.
For Nerangis, the Armory has a special allure. Not only does her son love to run the 200 meters there; years ago her father, a sprinter, came down from Poughkeepsie to compete there at high-school state championships. And they aren't the only sprinters in the family: Nerangis said that her uncle, Anastasio Nerangis, once won a gold medal in competition for Greece.
"I don't know where this long-distance thing comes for me," said Nerangis, 45, who just ran the NYC Half in preparation for the ING New York City Marathon in November. On Saturday, though, it will be all about sprinting, jumping, and throwing—and cheering.
"I lose my voice every time, screaming and shouting for everybody," she said.
All that noise is music to Sperber's ears. Despite a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that cites a 5.5-percent drop in obesity among 5- to 14-year-olds in New York City from 2006-2007 to 2010-2011, it is still at 20.7 percent and especially high among the population served by many of the NYRR programs, he said, adding: "We're beginning to turn the corner, but it still speaks to years of work."
Not to mention fun.