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OGDEN — Required by his Georgia junior high school to participate in a sport, 13-year-old Jeff Galloway chose cross country running.

It does not seem a logical choice for an overweight, exercise-avoiding pre-teen. But after talking with some of the other students who also hoped to avoid actual physical activity, Galloway figured out how to fool coaches into thinking he was training.

“Just tell the coach that you’re going to run on the trail (in a wooded area surrounding the school),” he recalled at a breakfast meeting presented by the GOAL Foundation as a prelude to Saturday’s Ogden Marathon. “You only have to run 200 yards, and then you hide out in the woods.”

He did that for two days.

“As fate would have it, an older kid that I liked came up to me and said, ‘Galloway, you’re running with us today,’ ” he said of his third day on the team. “I had my strategy in place. I was going to reach the edge of the woods, grab my hamstring and say, ‘Oh, I’m injured; I can’t go on.’ But they started telling jokes, and then they started telling gossip about the teachers, and I wanted more of that, so I hung on as long as I could. And it wasn’t very far that first day.”

But one friendly classmate and a single outing had created a change in him.

“Each day I came out to interact with these kids who were interesting, who had a lot of good arguments to get into,” he said. “And even on days when I was physically destroyed, I had something going on up here in my mental and spirit part that I had never experienced before. And it was good. It was really, really good.”

For the first time, Galloway, who attended 13 schools in seven years because of his father’s military service, was finding his place.

“And the friendships I was developing were a totally different type of friendship,” he said. “The type of friendships you develop in sports, and in workouts, in which people relate to one another as individual human beings, respect one another and help one another along. These folks I started out with 56 years ago are still close friends today.”

Galloway’s remarks kick off the events leading up to Saturday’s Ogden Marathon, in which Galloway and his wife, Barbara, are participating. The Georgia native was a member of the 1972 Olympic team and has become hugely popular because of his run-walk-run method that has made marathons not only more accessible to people, but has also made them more enjoyable to those who employ his methods.

The breakfast meeting was organized by the GOAL Foundation (Get Out And Live), and brought schoolteachers, administrators and select schoolchildren together to discuss the country’s childhood obesity epidemic and possible remedies. He praised the GOAL Foundation for being one of a handful of organizations around the country that are “on the front lines of empowering people to do things in life they didn’t think were possible.”

Galloway talked about the research he did for his new book “Fit Kids — Smarter Kids.” He said there are dozens of studies documenting the link to better academic achievement and exercise.

The studies he cited found that with increased physical activity children achieved better test scores, they earned higher math scores, their GPA and attendance improved and they had better brain activity, he said.

Some of the children who attended the breakfast meeting had earned their spot at the table. Four of those were fifth-graders from Brittany Jolley’s class at Shadow Valley Elementary. They produced a children’s book that chronicled how Bob the Carrot convinces Steve the Potato Chip into working out at Adam Apple’s Workout Hut. The workouts turn Steve the Potato Chip into Steve the Potato.

“I learned a lot,” said Ben Williams, 10, who came up with the idea after seeing a commercial featuring Michelle Obama on the subject. “I learned a lot of the causes. One of them is genetics and that’s a big cause. We also learned what to do about it.”

It’s personal for Ben and his 11-year-old friend Jorelle Dyle as they have a friend who struggles with his weight.

“We try to help him,” Ben said. “We try to get him outside, on the trampoline.”

Zigg Bauer is also friends with the boy and he said that he does “workout during the summer. He just loves video games. The biggest problem is that he doesn’t eat right.”

They’ve also seen weight issues affect their loved ones.

“It’s a big deal for me because my uncle almost died from being overweight,” said Jorelle.

The children enjoyed their project and the breakfast it earned them Wednesday morning at Weber State University.

So how does one begin to go from video games to being an Olympian? “It all starts with moving your feet,” said Galloway. He said there is something “magical” about Ogden and the Ogden Marathon.

“I can’t really put it into words,” he said. “The beauty, the energy of the people, the events, the events are really special, and as a result of all of the above, we’ve been looking forward to coming back ever since we left (four years ago),” he said. “I’m very excited.”

He added, "What is great about athletics is that it gives each one of us the opportunity to dig down deep and find out what's there."

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Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com