GROTON -- Xander Dunsmoor and his younger brother, Micah, had just hit the curve on the Groton-Dunstable Regional High School track one recent afternoon when their mother hollered some pointers.
"Kick it in!" Stephanie Dunsmoor shouted from behind the fence. "You've got it. Pump your arms! High knees!"
Xander is an ambitious 10-year-old. Since the Pepperell boy joined the Squannacook River Runners Club's Kids Summer Track and Field Program for another season last month, he has logged a 6-minute-and-40-second mile. His goal is to get under 6 minutes.
But challenging himself is only one part of what keeps him coming back. In this program, he gets to mingle with older youths, many of whom stop what they're doing to provide tips, Xander's mother said.
The program doesn't require participants to be talented athletes. From kindergartners to eighth-graders, children with various physical skills learn to run, jump and throw. And the Annual Adult Running Program that runs in tandem with the kids program also has a diverse group, from those trying to shake off a couch-potato lifestyle to advanced runners.
Sooner or later, beginners start to feel confident that they can tackle their goals, and that's the moment she lives for as a coach, said Kerri Strauss, organizer for both programs.
"I personally love seeing the internal transformations," Strauss said.
In the kids' program, Alycia Little, one of three head coaches, keeps a similar goal in mind -- to "spark an interest in sports and give them the baseline of what you need to know," she said.
The Kids Summer Track and Field Program, which marks its 20th year this summer, has been a popular program for children from throughout the region to get their feet wet in the runners' world.
Conventional track-and-field programs are for competitive athletes, which may explain why families come from as far as Fitchburg to be in the Squannacook Runners Club's program, Strauss said.
Squannacook handed over the kids' program to the town of Groton many years ago. But in 2004, when the town eliminated its recreation program, Strauss, the cross-country and track coach at Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School, took it over to operate it under Squannacook's umbrella again.
Seeing parents standing around the track to watch their children run, Strauss then thought about starting an adult program to help them stay in shape. The idea was an instant hit, with two dozen people signing up for the first season in 2009, Strauss said.
This year, the programs welcomed 154 children and 34 adults.
David Ambrose, a 50-something engineer from Dunstable, is one parent who is rediscovering the joy of running. Ambrose also wants his 6-year-old son, Luke, to get a taste of the same joy while running with his new friends. In other words, Ambrose said, he wants Luke to develop a strong desire to be active so that he will maintain a healthy lifestyle as an adult.
"Unlocking potential" is what coaches aim for, Little said. The program has 43 coaches -- three head coaches, 12 coaches, seven assistant coaches and 21 coaches-in-training -- who are college and high-school students and share their own experience of being on track teams to guide participants individually.
They demonstrate such running tips as pumping arms on the sides of the body instead of swinging them across the chest ( so as to maximize speed) and holding an imaginary potato chip in each hand and trying not to crush it while running (to keep the body relaxed).
For youngsters, coaches mix physical activities with games so that children want to come back until they grasp what track and field is all about. But they also adjust training for each student's interest.
Dunsmoor's 8-year-old son Micah, for example, is getting help to build long-distance skills. The coaches are flexible and pay attention to details, Dunsmoor said.
"It's like a well-oiled machine," she said of the program.
Strauss said introducing children to track and field at a young age has a benefit.
"The biggest challenge is to build the confidence, because kids are intimidated when on a team," said Strauss, a certified coach through the Road Runners Club of America who serves on Squannacook's board.
Strauss teaches adults stretching techniques and how to run up and down hills, among other tips. She divides participants into three skill levels to address their needs.
"Halfway through the season, they start saying, 'I can breath.' When they see a difference, that's my favorite part," Strauss said.
For more information about the programs, visit http://www.gdtrack.com/.
Follow HIroko Sato on Tout and Twitter at satolowellsun.