For six months, fourth-grader Meghan Junis jogged a half-mile here, a quarter-mile there as she gradually put together the pieces of a marathon.
On Saturday, the 10-year-old student at Cromwell Valley Elementary in Towson ran the final mile of a 26.2-mile trek at Polytechnic Institute and Western High School in Baltimore, where several hundred children also completed the last leg in a steady drizzle.
"It's hard, but you could do it. You have to push forward," Meghan said as she held a medal for her accomplishment. "I feel very proud of myself."
Meghan and other schoolchildren in Baltimore and Baltimore County participated in a free nationwide program called Marathon Kids, which promotes fitness and nutrition through incremental marathon running and healthful eating. Baltimore is one of eight U.S. cities participating in the six-month program, which is in its fourth year here.
"We hope the kids and their families adopt a healthier lifestyle," said Marinda Reynolds, national program and operations manager at Marathon Kids, which is based in Austin, Texas.
Reynolds said it's especially important to expose children at an early age to activity and nutrition to combat a rising trend in childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Besides running a marathon incrementally, students are encouraged to eat five fruits and vegetables each day.
"It's about having a goal that they can accomplish feasibly," she said, adding that the program hopes to add Howard and Carroll counties next year.
Across the country, policymakers, advocates and school districts are trying to battle childhood obesity, encouraging more physical education classes and modifying school menus to increase healthful options. In Maryland, one estimate shows that 32 percent of children are obese or overweight by the time they enter kindergarten.
Denise Junis, Meghan's mother, said Marathon Kids also encouraged her to run alongside her daughter.
"Anybody can do it," Denise Junis said. "You just have to put in some effort."
A group of students at Summit Park Elementary in Pikesville celebrated their accomplishment with high-fives and pictures.
Jared Hardmond, a fourth-grader at Summit Park, said he enjoyed the program because it "works out our legs and it can help us to be many things."
It was the first year for the Baltimore County school, which encouraged the students throughout the six months by having a goal chart displayed in the hallway and by naming participants during schoolwide morning announcements. About 60 students signed up for the program.
"We got some runners, and I don't think some of them knew it was in them," said Donna Rothman, a physical education teacher at Summit Park.
Rothman said she hopes to have more students, especially the younger ones, to participate in the program next year.