lives in the foothills with her husband and two sons

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Saturday at 7 a.m. sharp, students from Manzanita Elementary School started a 2-mile fun run/walk at Sabino Canyon called the Desert Dash.

As the students raced off, Manzanita parent Ashleigh Kruk said, "This is such a beautiful morning and such a great setting."

Kruk said her daughter Allie, 8, was not looking forward to waking up so early on a Saturday, but she was eager to see her classmates and friends.

All Manzanita students, kindergarten through fifth grade, were encouraged to participate in the Desert Dash. The students were grouped by grade, with starting times staggered. Parents and younger siblings were welcome to complete the course, too.

The first three boys and girls in each grade to cross the finish line received medals noting their place, and all other students who completed the race took home a finisher medal.

"It doesn't matter if you win. It just matters if you try," said Sarah Randall, 8.

The event's chairwoman, Manzanita parent Laura Wallace, said its purpose is two-fold: "It promotes physical fitness. The phrase, 'Fit Mind-Fit Body' appears on the Desert Dash T-shirts, and the two really go hand in hand. The event also raises money for the Family Faculty Organization."

The annual Desert Dash has no registration fee, so T-shirt sales, sponsorships by businesses and families, and a fundraiser dinner at Sweet Tomatoes brought in money. The funds will be used for a variety of programs that enrich the student experience, including curriculum-related field trips and artists in residence.

Manzanita physical education teacher Dawna Sipe led a pre-Dash warmup and said students had prepared for the run for weeks.

Parent-led "Fun, Fit Family Saturdays" included exercises and fitness games for five Saturdays prior to the Desert Dash. A program that continues throughout the school year called Miler's Club offers students the opportunity to run and track their laps during recess two days a week and earn a necklace with charms in the shape of feet.

"It's so wonderful to promote fitness and health at a young age," Sipe said. "We hope that being fit and healthy in life will be something that our students just do."

After the race, students, their families and teachers and staff who had volunteered for the event gathered under a ramada to socialize and enjoy water, fruit, bagels and ice pops.

Runners admired their medals and talked about the race. Jonathan Pershing, 10, said, "It was really fun to get outside and run with my friends."

Chase Campbell, 10, added, "I thought it was a challenge. The hills were tough, and I had to pace myself."

In addition to the race, Rural Metro firefighters from Station 73 were on hand to show their support and allow the children to check out their fire engine and tender.

As the crowd dispersed and the Desert Dash volunteers cleaned up, Wallace said, "That was a blast! I think everyone had a great time. We had a record turnout and gave out 250 medals."

E-mail Kelley Helfand at