GRAND RAPIDS -- An inordinate amount of attention naturally is going to be placed on race day events for the Fifth Third River Bank Run.

This year, though, organizers are making a concerted effort to include younger participants in that focus.

That’s why the Feelin’ Good Mileage Club, which started Monday, has expanded from 30,000 to 50,000 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. The program, which encourages healthy living for children, now includes 126 elementary schools in seven counties.

It’s been an incredible program, race director Kristen Aidif said. It just grows every year, and every year we’ve had this waiting list and we haven’t been able to make a big jump like this for a few years.

When the program started 16 years ago, it had 5,000 participants, most of whom were located in Grand Rapids. But demand for the program has increased as schools cut back physical education programs, so it stretched south into Kalamazoo this year and plans to head north next spring.

The program encourages students to be more active at school by providing incentives and guidance for walking, jogging and running during lunch and recess. Students can log miles to qualify for prizes.

They also can participate in one of two Fifth Third Junior events: May 11 at Rogers High School and Oct. 27 at the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo.

It’s getting kids thinking about health and wellness and turning to walking and running as a lifelong fitness tool, Aidif said. Unless you’ve got parents that run or are really into athletics, you may not even think in that direction. Our hope is to give kids the motivation to walk, run and jog for these six weeks in the spring and fall.

Ideally, we’d love for these kids to eventually grow up and come down the second Saturday of every May.

That, of course, is when the River Bank Run annually takes place. This year’s event will be May 14.

Aidif said the early participation numbers are double what they were last year at this point. In the 25K race, there are more than 3,300 registered runners, compared to 1,700 in 2010.

Overall, more than 6,200 people already have signed up for the 25K, 10K and 5K runs and 5K walk. Last year at this point, there was a little more than 3,000.

Last year’s final total was 21,337, including Junior events. That was about 4,000 more than in 2009.

Our numbers are way up right now. We just had the Irish Jig in town last Saturday, and their numbers were way up, Aidif said. People are continuing to come out and run and walk at various events around town and we’re excited to be a part of that.

The elite athlete field also is taking shape, behind the efforts of River Bank Run recruiter Greg Meyer. Confirmed participants include defending USA 25K open champion Andrew Carlson, 2006 River Bank Run winner Fernando Cabada and 2007 women’s winner Katie McGregor.

Aidif said she and Meyer also are working to find a way to recognize Sally Meyerhoff, the 2009 River Bank Run U.S. women’s champion in the 25K who died March 8 while training in her hometown of Maricopa, Ariz.

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