By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – A circle of summer athletes has gathered in the grass, legs bent, backs buried in the turf. They are counting out their stretches in Spanish, then Japanese, then English. Their coach du jour asks if anyone else knows how to count to 10 in some other language. Several hands shoot into the air.
It's just one way of putting the fun into fundamental track running, which is the point of the weekly Kids Summer Fun Run series.
Morgan Bolton stands up and unfurls her arms, rolling them clockwise several times before hitting the grass again, this time for a butterfly stretch, her knees fluttering against the warm evening breeze.
Free range kids find their way every Thursday to Pinkerton Academy track, participants in Greater Derry Track Club's annual race program, in its 35th season. No obligation to run. No pressure to win. Open registration last week brought 98 fresh pairs of feet for a grand total of 705 kids who have found their way around the track so far, to feel what it's like to run as fast as they possibly can, crowd cheering as they cross the finish line.
Everyone gets a ribbon. Everyone gets a slice of watermelon and a jug of Gatorade. Everyone gets the chance to run, jump, play, laugh, compete, participate, and learn.
“We are having a great summer, the largest number of kids registered yet,” said Susan Broadwater, who is holding the first group of 7-year-olds at bay. They are more than ready to run.
“Let's GO,” said a shirtless boy, brow furrowed, toes tucked behind the white starting line, eyes fixed on the wide open spaces in front of him.
Registration fee is a donation of nonperishable food which helps keep the shelves of the Sonshine Soup Kitchen stocked during summer months. So far 1,252 pounds of food has been collected. With three more weeks to go, they will likely top last year's record 1,665 pounds of donated goods.
As another group of racers approach the finish line, GDTC member Rosa Tejada is bringing up the rear, as always. She is like the pace car of fun runners, sympathetic to those who struggle to stay with the pack.
“I just try to motivate the kids in the back. Sometimes it's frustrating for them; sometimes they cry toward the end because it seems so hard, and everyone else is so far ahead. I tell them just to move their arms, to keep going, to walk if they have to. I tell them not to give up. We make it across the finish line together,” said Tejada.
Over the years she has seen many kids go from dead last to front runners. Tristan Smith of Marlow, for one.
“He used to be one of the kids in the back. Now, he's one of the faster kids. There he is, now,” she says, pointing toward a lanky blond-haired 16-year-old heading for the starting line.
'I don't even know how long I've been coming -- for as long as I can remember,” Smith says, flashing a thousand-watt smile. “I don't think I'm the fastest. I just love to run,” he says.
A few more groups of kids cross the finish line, accepting their ribbons and basking in the glory of their accomplishment.
Conrad Demers, who was leading the 9-year-old boy pack for most of his race, is edged out in the final strides toward the finish by Mac Johnson.
His grandmother, Enza Manago, and little sister, Liana Demers, provided plenty of motivation from the sidelines, jumping and screaming, fists pumping all the way. Conrad gets a pat on the back from his grandfather, Joe Manago, before he is scooped up by his mom, Silvana Demers, who says she couldn't be prouder.
“He's been coming since he was 3 or 4 years old. He loves it – all the kids do. We really do look forward to summer runs,” she said.
As the final races wind down, Tejada is bringing up the rear again, this time pacing Samantha Brillhart, 10, of Chester, who is also flanked by her dad, Steve Brillhart, who decided to join his daughter for the last leg of the run.
It is her first summer of running..
“She hated it at first,” said Brillhart. “But now, she's thoroughly enjoying herself. She's not the fastest, but she's getting better and better,” he says, watching his daughter cross the finish line and then, still running, do a 180 in the direction of the watermelon table.
“It's gratifying. This is such a fun atmosphere, it really encourages kids just to get out there and have some fun, and do their best,” Brillhart said.
Greater Derry Track Club Kids Summer Fun Runs will continue through Aug. 5 and are open to kids age 2 and older. Registration begins at 6 p.m..