Mike Nix says running turned his life around.
"I played football in college in a pretty big way, but after I stopped, I gained a lot of weight and was really unhealthy," says Nix, owner of the Ypsilanti Running Company. "My dad had a couple of heart episodes by the time I graduated from college, so I decided I had to do something."
Now, Nix wants to share the benefits of running with Ypsilanti-area kids through a summer program he created called the Frog Island Track Club. Nix says he started the club in part out of concern over the national trend of children becoming more sedentary.Frog Island Track Club co-founders Sam Mackenzie and Mike Nix.
"We want to make sure people are active in whatever ways they can be active," Nix says, adding that he likes to promote running because it's "one of the easiest things for kids to do."
A unique cinder track in the heart of Ypsilanti
In 2004, Nix was living in Atlanta and working as a probation officer, but he moved to Michigan to be with his girlfriend at the time. They broke up shortly after he arrived, but he stayed in Washtenaw County after meeting and marrying his wife Alison, who now serves as media coordinator for the Ypsilanti Running Company. He began working part-time in a running store in Ann Arbor, and that turned into a full-time job.
Toward the end of 2013, he decided it was time to start his own business. He says he liked the "vibe" in Ypsi, so he decided to establish his business downtown at 126 W. Michigan Ave. Nix has two elementary school-aged children of his own, and he knew he wanted to do something with youth from the early days of his business.
"I figured we needed to do something in summer focused on kids, and Frog Island was the perfect venue," he says.
Nix and friends started organizing regular cleanup days at the park in 2015, wanting to support and maintain a unique and historic part of Ypsi. Nix says the park features one of the few remaining cinder tracks in Michigan. The old-fashioned surfacing material has been replaced by synthetic materials at most other tracks.
"We met once a month during the summer to clean up and pick weeds out of the track," he says. "We had this vision of raising enough money to resurface the track."
Nix met Sam Mackenzie, a pediatric neurology resident in the University of Michigan (U-M) Health System, when Mackenzie visited the running store shortly after it opened. Mackenzie had been involved in a youth track club in Syracuse, N.Y., before moving to Michigan, and quickly became a supporter and co-founder of the Frog Island Track Club.
He also recruited about a dozen U-M medical students to serve as volunteer mentors and coaches to the youth in the club, so there's one adult to every two kids at an average Thursday meeting.
Chris Blevins is one of the medical students who serves as a mentor and coach for the youth. He's been involved in all four years of the track club.
"It emphasizes the importance of routine exercise for youth," Blevins says. "Regular exercise lowers rates of diabetes and hypertension."
Participants warm up at Frog Island Track Club.
Nix says elementary-school kids routinely get activity from gym class and other activities during the school year, and the club keeps them moving throughout the summer.
The club is for children entering first through sixth grades, since there aren't many running or track programs for kids that age.
"There are some track clubs for middle schoolers, and track clubs at the high schools, but there's not a lot of running programs specifically for those younger kids," Nix says. "It's a way to introduce them to running as a fun way to stay in shape and exercise."
He says the club's goals are to get kids active outdoors while introducing them to Frog Island and "showing them a part of Ypsi that a lot of them didn't realize was there."
Keeping kids moving
For the club's official first year in 2016, the group did some fundraising to support programming and received an additional boost when Mackenzie applied for and was awarded a $2,000 Community Access to Child Health (CATCH) grant from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"That initial year, we used the funds to have the farmers market come out and do a demo, and we gave out free $1 tokens for the market for each session the kids attended," Mackenzie says.
The track club meets from 6-7 p.m. each Thursday throughout the summer after the school year ends. Each hour-long session starts with some warm-ups and stretching. Then the young people are broken up into two groups, one for first- through third-graders and another for fourth- through sixth-graders, to work on various track and field activities.
"One week we'll concentrate on hurdles, and another week we might do baton relays," Nix says.
Nix and Mackenzie have also introduced the kids to the sport of shot put. To keep costs down, most of the equipment is homemade, with hurdles made from PVC piping and starting blocks made from two-by-fours.
"We teach them some techniques but mostly we're just letting them have fun with it," Nix says. "For the last 15 minutes, we usually play some sort of tag game that incorporates a lot of running."
The club's 2019 season kicked off on a rainy Thursday, June 20, but the weather cleared up about 15 minutes before the 6 p.m. start time.
About 24 kids showed up for the meet, many of them new to the program. Peyton Steffer, age 6, was one of the newcomers for 2019. Her mother, Stephanie, says the family recently moved to Ypsi from Portage. Peyton had been in a similar track club there, and her mother was thrilled when she found the Frog Island Track Club through an internet search.
"She loved to run, and that's something I wanted to encourage," Stephanie Steffer says.
Arlo Maynard, age 7, was back for his second year. Asked what he likes about the club, he says, "Running." He says he also likes the games participants play at the end of each session. His mother, Linette Lao, says she's glad the club exists.
"I'm extremely grateful for this program," she says. "It's really nice for neighborhood kids to have a chance to hang out together."
Back when Nix was struggling with his own health, he says running was the least expensive thing he could do to get back in shape. So he started by just getting out the door and trying to run to the end of the street half a mile away.
"I couldn't do it, but I kept doing it until I could," he says. "It's not about how fast you're going as long as you're going."
The club meets regardless of weather unless there's an active thunderstorm. In that case, Nix sends out an email about an hour in advance to cancel for that week. Parents may pre-register their children for the club throughout the summer on the Ypsilanti Running Company website, but Nix says it isn't mandatory. They can just show up on a Thursday evening, sign a waiver, and get registered at that time.
Parents can find more information or register a child for the club at https://www.ypsirunning.com/kids-club.html.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by David Lewinski.