Is KCK’s superintendent faster than a fifth-grader?

Kansas City, Kan., school Superintendent Cynthia Lane kept her game face on Friday as competitors hurled playful taunts during her “Are You Faster Than a Fifth Grader” running challenge.

“I’ll leave her behind with the dust from my feet,” 11-year-old Keyon Thomas told his Claude Huyck Elementary classmates.

“Really?” one fifth-grader said, calling Lane out for drinking water early into the two-mile road race.

Along the way, as the runners passed Kennedy Elementary, students chanted “J-F-K!” and “We are fifth grade!”

An employee offered over a loudspeaker: “Do we need a defibrillator?”

Lane stared straight ahead and kept running.

And for good reason. The superintendent was surrounded by nearly 400 fifth-graders running or walking a race that many adults didn’t dare undertake. Many of the students had practiced for months after Lane issued the throw-down. Every fifth-grader was invited to participate, but some decided they were better cheerleaders along the finish line at Washington High School.

It was Lane’s small part in a countywide effort to promote good health.

The county could use the help. Wyandotte County once again ranked near the bottom of the County Health Rankings published this week by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The rankings take several factors into account, including physical inactivity, number of fast food restaurants, diabetes screenings, education, access to recreational facilities and more.

Wyandotte County’s Unified Government Mayor Joe Reardon has focused on improving the rankings. The government and area non-profits have said they want to do everything from improve safety along trails and parks to encourage grocery stores to locate within the urban core.

Lane proposed the race in the fall after hearing about a similar event conducted by Center School District Superintendent Bob Bartman.

The race is a step in the right direction, said James Sallis, director of Active Living Research and professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

Active Living Research works to identify environmental factors and policies that influence physical activity. The agency has looked at childhood obesity especially as it relates to youth living in low-income neighborhoods.

Sallis said he’d like to see the running program be the kickoff to a long-term campaign.

“It’s one piece of many things that need to happen,” he said. Ideally, they can use this to inspire kids to learn how to enjoy running, he said.

Sallis said about 15 percent of American children are obese.

“If you include overweight it’s about 30 percent and that’s a tripling from the 1970s,” Sallis said. “Obesity is one of those things that’s hard to get rid of. Once you have it as a person it’s hard to get rid of.”

The problem is hardly cosmetic, he said.

“Kids that are overweight they will have high blood pressure. They will have high cholesterol,” he said.

The rate of diabetes also will be high.

“They used to call it adult-onset diabetes and they can’t call it that anymore,” Sallis said.

Schools can improve health by implementing basic and cheap strategies, he said.

For starters, he’d like to see states enforce mandates that dictate how much time children spend in physical education class. Many education departments have forgiven districts for cutting back gym time to meet academic demands.

Every school could encourage more active play during physical education and recess.

“Painting game designs on the blacktop is very cheap,” he said.

Fancy playground equipment is nice, he said, but “your better off with hoops and balls and that kind of thing.”

The problem isn’t easy to solve because it’s difficult to find one reason for the overall increase.

“Depending on who you talk to they’ll say I know what it is, it’s portion size. No, it’s high-fructose corn syrup,” Sallis said. “Others will say you can explain obesity because people are driving more …(or) kids are playing more video games. Probably in my view all of those things are contributing.”

In Kansas City, Kan., Lane said her goal was to promote wellness in “mind, body and spirit.”

Lane is a healthy eater but admits that she had to train too.

“At my age I’m feeling it,” she said. “What a better way to get back into shape than challenging my kids.”

She finished somewhere near the middle of the pack and then stopped to hand out high-fives to those finishing behind her. Lane said she wasn’t about to slow down to let anyone — fifth grade or not — win. That would be an insult.

And in the end, most fifth-graders weren’t checking their pace against any adult.

Turns out that Thomas really did leave Lane in his dust. He also bested KCK Police Chief Rick Armstrong, but he really only cared about defeating pals from a rival elementary school.

“I had to call my friends out,” Thomas said. “There’s some trash talkers out there.”