The Dragon Run: Planning A Virtual Community Running Event
by Joey Feith
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Some of you may know that I teach at St. George’s School of Montreal: a private school here in Montreal, Canada and home of the Dragons.
Like many schools around the world, our school closed down last spring as we moved into a distance learning program in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The switch was pretty wild as our team quickly reacted to get classes up and running online while trying to maintain the strength and spirit of our community.
I’m not going to get into the full details about our distance learning adventure in this blog post. Instead, I’d like to share with you my favourite highlight from what will (surely and hopefully) be the weirdest spring of my teaching career: The Dragon Run.
The purpose of this post is to provide you with an overview of how to plan, organize, and run a virtual running event that can help strengthen your school’s community should your school move to distance learning in the future. Here are the learning targets I’ve set for you:
- I understand the value of maintaining/strengthening connections within my school’s community in a distance learning setting.
- I know what to take into consideration as I plan a virtual running event for my school’s community.
- I can create an action plan that will help me successfully host a virtual running event at my school.
School Spirit, Community Engagement, and Student Belonging
Let’s start off by exploring the “WHY” that makes organizing a virtual school community event worthwhile.
Between being a global public health crisis, promoting social isolation, and causing an incredible economic recession, there’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on our students’ mental health.1 Our students are dealing with a reduced sense of trust, belonging, and hope.2 One way that we can support our students during these difficult times is by working hard to strengthen their sense of belonging at school and increase their connection to their school’s community.
Students are more likely to engage in healthy behaviours and succeed academically when they feel connected to their school. 3 School connectedness can positively impact student motivation, classroom engagement, and school attendance. 4 Additionally, school connectedness can help reduce the likelihood that students engage in risky behaviour or experience emotional distress. 5
Participating in extracurricular activities can help students feel more connected to their school 6. That being said, what can extracurricular activities look like when we can’t host them at school? This is the question I was asking myself as I struggled with the idea that my students would no longer have access to the regular school sport activities that we offer them each year. The spring was especially tough considering that our most popular event – the GMAA Halo Road Race, a running event that has taken place each spring for the past 40 years – was no longer going to be an option. I know that the event means so much to my students each year, so I decided to Lysol-wipe the ol’ drawing board and get to work on an event that could – to a degree – serve as an alternative to Halo during COVID-19.
The Dragon Run
As I got to work on planning the event, there were a few things that I needed to take into consideration:
- How do I keep runners safe?
- How do I avoid promoting any type of social gathering?
- How do I meet the needs of all students/families at our schools?
- How do I use this event to help students feel more connected to the school community?
Keeping Runners Safe
As a teacher, my number one job is to keep my students safe. Although getting outdoors and exercising on a regular basis was being encouraged by health officials here in Quebec (while respecting social distancing guidelines), headlines were circulating that made going outside for a run seem like a bad idea. That being said, the overall consensus seemed to be that – as long as you were being smart and respectful about it – going for a run was a great way to stay active, boost your mood, keep your immune system strong, and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
So how can we make sure that we are keeping ourselves as safe as possible while running? Obviously, social distancing is key. That said, there were a few other tips that I came across as I was putting a list of safety precautions together for the run.
- Maintain physical distancing (minimum two meters/six feet)
- Avoid touching surfaces such as benches, crosswalk buttons, etc.
- Avoid touching your own face.
- Do not run as a group (this doesn’t include the family/people you live with).
- Don’t spit while you run.
- Wash your hands thoroughly when you get home.
These precautions were shared with families in the Dragon Run document I eventually created and I also went over them with my students during our live Zoom lessons during the week leading up to the event.
Avoiding Social Gathering
Seeing that any form of social gathering was not allowed during that phase of our government’s response to the pandemic, I knew that I had to be really careful about how I was going to organize and present this school-wide running activity.
To lower the chances of multiple families finding themselves in any one location at any time, my teaching partner – Alex Wells – and I decided to host the run over the course of three days (June 5-7 2020) without having any specific time set for the event.
We didn’t stop there. To lessen the odds of multiples families finding themselves in one place at any time, we also created three different loops that runners could choose from to complete their Dragon Run. We selected three neighbourhoods in which we knew a large portion of our school’s families live and then used the “Measure Distance” feature on Google Maps to map out a 2km loop in each one.
Although these three loops did service most of our school’s families, we also encouraged families to create their own loops closer to their home should it be difficult for them to travel to any of the ones we designed.
By providing runners with a choice of date, time, and location for their run, we felt that we were playing it safe and respecting the social gathering guidelines set by our government.
Meeting The Needs Of All Runners
One thing that I’ve always loved about the Halo Road Race is how inclusive the event feels. We work really hard to make sure that all students feel that they are able to be a part of the event and experience success there. We do so by not focusing on the competition aspect of the run, having our runners set personal goals, celebrating all runners through a pre-race campus-wide pep rally, and helping every student feel prepared for the event.
We wanted to bring that same energy to our virtual Dragon Run and achieved this – to a degree – by providing students with options that would allow them to run their race in their own way.
Although each loop was set to be 2km long, students had the option to choose from running a half loop, full loop, or two loops for their run. Also, we had a lot of students ask if they had to run the loop or if they could complete it by biking/walking/scootering it. Ultimately, the goal here was to get families out and moving, so Alex and I encouraged students to find a way to move that made them feel best and just go with that (most kids ran it though).
To help students feel ready for the big day, Alex and I came up with some fun “training” activities that students could complete at home (e.g. setting a timer for 8 minutes and seeing how many trees you could touch at the local park) and Alex even put together a series of training videos to help students get ready for their run (more on those later).
We really just wanted kids to be as stoked as possible to be a part of the run and we are pretty confident that we achieved that goal.
Boosting School Connectedness
Ok, so this was my favourite part. It broke my heart knowing that COVID-19 was robbing us of the opportunity to be right there with our students, cheering them on, and showing them that we care as we would during any of our pre-pandemic athletics event. I also worried that the emotional gap that distance learning was creating would have a negative impact on our students’ school connectedness, which is defined by the CDC as “the belief held by students that adults and peers in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals” 7.
Not being one to sit around and complain about the rain, I decided to come up with some ideas that would make it feel as if we were right there with the students, cheering them on as they completed their run. Here’s what we did:
Making Use Of Social Media: Physical Education Dept. Instagram Account
I have been using social media as a tool for creating connections, strengthening relationships’ and building community for over a decade now, so I knew that it could play a powerful role with the Dragon Run.
Alex and I set up an Instagram account for our PE department. We went with Instagram for a few reasons:
- Based on engagement with the St. George’s School’s official IG handle, we knew that parents were already comfortable using the platform as a way to interact with content being shared by the school.
- Instagram provided the right mix of photo/video features that we knew we would want to lean on throughout the event. The idea was to be able to make and share content as quickly and consistently as possible while on the go. We had a TON of fun playing around with Instagram Stories throughout the event.
- Being a modern social media giant, Instagram’s comments, photo/video tagging, and comments features would make it simple for us to quickly engage with content that parents/students were sharing on Instagram. This contributed to strengthening connections and letting students/families know that we were paying attention and cheering them on.
We selected a hashtag to roll with (#stgdragonrun) and shared it with families. We encouraged families to share their Dragon Run experiences on Instagram while including the hashtag in their captions and tagging our PE department’s account in their posts. As they did so, Alex and I would get notified and we would quickly go in and drop comments/likes on their posts. It wasn’t the same as cheering a kid on from the sideline, but it was what we were able to work with in that moment!
When parents would tag us in their posts, we would DM them and ask for permission to repost their photos/videos onto our account’s grid or as a story post. We also received photos/videos from families who do not use Instagram via email and would ask for the same permission. All of this led to a vibrant series of grid posts as well as a – dare I say – pretty freaking sweet Instagram Stories timeline throughout the event which we eventually captured and eternalized as a Highlight on our account’s profile.
One last thing on Instagram before we move on: it wasn’t just parents/students who were getting in on the fun! So many teachers, administrators, and staff wound up participating in the Dragon Run and shared their experience on Instagram as well. The incredible art teacher at the elementary campus even set up a huge “Dragon Run” banner outside of her house (which was on one the loops) and made an amazing “Strong Is The New Beautiful” chalk art display at one of the start locations!
Asynchronous Cheering: Motivational Chalk Messages
Although Instagram was a powerful tool throughout the event, it wasn’t a real-time support system since posts were usually being made after a runner had completed their Dragon Run.
I wanted to do something that would support students as they were running. Since I couldn’t be everywhere at all times all at once, I came up with a different plan: mapping each loop out with inspirational messages and directions in chalk.
Now, I know what you may be thinking: “Joey, between the three loops, that’s 6km of sidewalk to chalk up”. Yup. It was. I went through a lot of chalk that weekend as I covered the sidewalks in messages that were between 20 to 30 meters apart. That wasn’t even the tough part! The tough part was that IT FREAKING RAINED during the night between the first and second day of the Dragon Run, washing away all of my hard work. That being said, I was fully committed to this being a thing so I woke up on that Saturday morning at 5AM, drove to the most popular loop, and got back to work redoing all of those messages before moving on to the other two loops.
If you’re thinking “Joey, you’re insane” – well – let’s just say I’m surprised that it took you this long to figure that out. That said, there was purpose to this insanity:
After the first day of the run, I received so many messages from families saying how much they loved the chalk quotes on the loops. As I was finishing up the last few messages on the last loop during the evening before the Dragon Run started, I actually had a few people from the neighbourhood stop me to say thanks for the messages. A couple joggers even said that the messages had them run further than they had intended to!
Listen, the whole world was hurting pretty bad in the spring (it very much so still is). There wasn’t a lot of good news circulating around those days. If a couple of hours of work (and a lot of chalk/finger calluses) meant that somebody – anybody – had a better day because of it, then it was work worth doing. If I’m being totally honest, it was good for my soul as much as it was for theirs. The spring was pretty depressing as I felt robbed of all of my confidence as an educator. This silly chalk idea helped me gain some of that back.
Synchronous Cheering: Public Cheer Stations
With the Instagram account and hashtag set up, we wanted to make use of the possibility to set up physically-distanced cheer stations throughout the event.
Basically, Alex and I would use Instagram to announce specific times where we would be at a loop to cheer students on. We did this at the last-minute to – again – avoid promoting social gatherings. On the second day, it was actually super hot outside so we announced a “cool-down station” which was just us being ready with water guns to spray runners down as they crossed the finish line.
Just as with every other aspect of this event, the faculty and staff got in on the fun! A few times throughout the weekend, fellow teachers and admin would show up to cheer kids on as they were running. Keep in mind that we hadn’t see any of these students in person since March, so it was really great to make those connections and catch up with families.
Promoting The Dragon Run
So now that you have a better idea of what the Dragon Run looked like, let me walk you through how we actually presented it to both families and the team here at school.
The Dragon Run Booklet
There was a lot of information to share and no super-easy way to share it all. I got to work on putting together a document that would – hopefully – provide students and families with everything they would need to get the most out of their Dragon Run experience. The result was a multi-page, interactive PDF booklet. Here’s how it worked:
General Information & Navigation Page
The first main page of the document provided an overview of how the Dragon Run would work as well as navigation links to additional sections in the booklet.
COVID-19 Running Safety Guidelines
Based on the recommendations I had come across in my research, I put together a page that shared some safety tips for running during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Training Resources & Distance Recommendations
Usually, we would teach students all about how to properly prepare for a run through our physical education lessons. Although we did do that in our Zoom lessons, Alex and I wanted to also include some tips, tricks, and techniques in the Dragon Run booklet so that families could review them together and so that students who could not attend our Zoom lessons also had access to them.
Alex took the lead on this one and put together four videos in which she broke down:
- Dynamic Stretching
- Static Stretching
- The Run/Walk Method
- Interval Training
We dropped these videos in Drive and provided links to them in the final version of the booklet.
As for the distance recommendations, it was really important to us that we stress that the Dragon Run was an individual challenge and that there was no wrong way to do it. As I mentioned earlier, some kids opted to complete it on their bikes or scooters. What was important to us was that students were getting out and being active in ways that were fun and meaningful to them, not that they were going out to crush goals and set records.
That being said, crushing goals and setting records is meaningful to some students and having a target distance in mind can go a long way in staying motivated in your training and on race day. That’s why we did provide the following “recommended” distances for each grade-level:
- K-3: 1 kilometer (one half loop: each loop had a 1km marker in chalk)
- 4-6: 2 kilometers (one full loop)
- 7-11: 4 kilometres (two loops)
I was really surprised at how many students either a) ran more than the recommended distance for their grade-level, b) ran their loop several times over different days, and c) ran ALL of the loops (the Dragon Run Triple Crown). It turns out that kids love running when you keep things fun.
Loop Route Information
Obviously, I had to include the information for each loop in the document. As I said, we designed three loops and gave them fun names based on which neighbourhood they were located in:
- The Hampstead Heavyweight
- The Westmonster
- The Run NDG
For each loop’s page, I annotated a Google Maps screenshot of the loop. I also included a button that jumped families over to the loop’s starting point on Google Maps. Personally, I really do not have a strong sense of direction, so I made sure to include detailed directions for each loop on the route page as well. To complement this, I also included directions in the chalk messages that I wrote along the way (including “stop here and look both ways for cars” at every intersection… did I mention I went through a lot of chalk?)
Finally, what’s a run without some kind of proof that you participated in it? I decided to use the Certify’Em Add-On for Google Forms to allow the students to create personalized running certificates to commemorate their Dragon Run Efforts. Check out the video below to see how Certify’Em can be used to create personalized certificates:
Here’s how it worked, in a nutshell:
- Once they got home from their run, students could go to the route page for the loop that they completed and hit the “Claim Your Running Certificate” button.
- Doing so jumped them over to a Google Form which asked them for their email address, their name, the time it took them to complete the run, and the distance they ran.
- Once students hit “Submit” on the Google form, the Certify’Em Add-On worked its magic and they automatically received a personalized PDF in their email inbox.
We had over 100 of our students put in requests for their Dragon Run running certificates, included some high school students that I had never taught before as well as family friends who I did not know. It was great getting to see those requests go through and EVEN BETTER to not have to do any extra work beyond what I did to set the system up (which was still a decent amount of work but you know what I mean).
Once the document was finalized, it was sent out to all of our families via email. Alex and I made sure to go over all of the details in our Zoom classes as well.
Honestly, it was a lot of work. See for yourself by checking out the full document here. However, that work resulted in a big win when we all needed it the most. For a brief period of time, everything felt normal again: the whole school community felt like we were sharing a special moment together and I felt more connected to my students then than I had so in months. The Dragon Run brought out the best in our community and it won’t be something that I will forget any time soon.
It’s really important for me that I acknowledge how none of this would have been possible without the support of our entire school community. From admin helping approve this idea, to teachers getting involved, to the parents who tagged on Instagram, to the kids who ran their hearts out… this was a community effort in the truest sense of the term.
All of this goes to show that there is power in connection. There is power in moving together. There is power in going the extra distance to show someone that you care.
I hope you enjoyed this post and that it helped give you some insight into how organizing a community event is possible even in the weirdest of situations. Be sure to subscribe to The #PhysEd Show (Anchor | YouTube) to make sure that you don’t miss out on any future content that I share.
Thanks for reading! Happy Teaching!
- Golberstein, E., Wen, H., & Miller, B. F. (2020). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and Mental Health for Children and Adolescents. JAMA Pediatrics, 174(9), 819. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.1456↩︎
- PHE Canada (2020). COVID-19 Pandemic: Return to School Canadian Physical and Health Education Guidelines. Retrieved May, 2020, from https://phecanada.ca/sites/default/files/content/docs/Home%20Learning%20Resource/Guidelines/COVID-19%20Return%20to%20School%20Canadian%20PHE%20Guidelines%20EN.pdf ↩︎
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). School Connectedness: Strategies for Increasing Protective Factors Among Youth. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services↩
- ASCD. (n.d.). A Case for School Connectedness. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr05/vol62/num07/A-Case-for-School-Connectedness.aspx ↩︎
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). School Connectedness: Strategies for Increasing Protective Factors Among Youth. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ↩
- Daly, Brian & Buchanan, Cindy & Dasch, Kimberly & Eichen, Dawn & Lenhart, Clare. (2010). Promoting School Connectedness among Urban Youth of Color: Reducing Risk Factors while Promoting Protective Factors. Prevention Researcher. ↩︎
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). School Connectedness: Strategies for Increasing Protective Factors Among Youth. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ↩︎
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