Twenty years ago, Nick Arciniaga, an elite marathoner, was a quiet kid in my fourth-grade class. Recently, Nick told me he remembered winning a relay race in physical education class that year and thinking, "I can do this."

At Monday's Boston Marathon, Nick crossed the finish line at two hours, 11 minutes, maintaining his place among the top 10 marathoners in the country.

The OC Marathon children's program, Kids Run the OC (KROC), offers 6,500 children the opportunity to be the next Nick Arciniaga. Teachers and volunteers give thousands of hours to lead kindergarten to eighth-grade students in a 12-week curriculum of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Over the weeks, kids accumulate 26.2 miles, culminating in their final mile on Event Day, May 3. To celebrate, families join racers for a finish-line festival.

Angie Rowe, program director for KROC, says that teachers who've long coached for the race tell her that youngsters who ran their first relay in the grade school program often go on to high school track teams. Since budget cuts erased most of Orange County's public elementary school physical education programs, KROC teachers and volunteers provide unique opportunities to prepare students for high school running teams.

Rowe and Gary Kutscher, race director for the OC Marathon, both credit the Orange County Department of Education for partnering with them to train teachers and volunteers in diet and exercise programs. A teachers leadership team worked with Department of Education staff to design age-appropriate relay races and games for youngsters in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Childhood obesity rates underline the importance of KROC's activities, which account for burning more that 12 million calories over the course of the program, its operators say.

"Teachers are in the trenches. They know what kids need to succeed," says Kutscher. "They use their own money to buy cones and stickers."

"Our nutritional program involves the whole family," says Rowe. "Kids earn stickers for going shopping with their moms, trying a new fruit or vegetable, or replacing fruit juice and soda with water for a week."

KROC online donations provide $29 race-entry-fee scholarships. Bill Sumner's Magic Shoe Foundation helps to provide shoes for some students.

Rowe tells the story of students who "can barely huff and puff" starting the KROC program. They tell their coaches they hate running and can't do it, but by Event Day, they're running the mile. They glow upon receiving a medal on Event Day and a second medal standing before their schoolmates at an assembly.

Kutscher and Rowe talk about the KROC program with pride and enthusiasm. They should. They run the largest training program of its kind in the state with 17,500 graduates focusing on goal-setting, exercise and diet.

While calorie burn and aerobic activity are abstract ideas to children, KROC's 92% program completion provides kids with a tangible life lesson: "I've done something hard, something I didn't think I could do."

One KROC alum put it this way: "If I can run a marathon, graduating will be a piece of cake."

Learn more at http://www.kidsruntheoc.org.

Newport Beach resident CARRIE LUGER SLAYBACK is a retired teacher who ran the Los Angeles Marathon at age 70, winning first place in her age group. Her blog is lazyracer@blogspot.com.