Sahba Azarli, left, and Dylan Beckley participate in Dress Em Up Race during Thurston Middle School's Epic Challenge 2014 on Wednesday. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Coastline Pilot / February 13, 2014)

With the lights dimmed as they sit barefoot on mats, students at Thurston Middle School are usually quiet and contemplative as they practice yoga during physical education class.

This week, however, was quite different as students screamed and cheered loudly while competing in the school's fourth annual Epic Challenge.

Nearly 800 students raced each other and raised money by finding sponsors as they competed in a weeklong event of physical activities. The Epic Challenge is the Laguna Beach school's biggest fundraising event of the year and aims to promote a healthy environment, bodies, minds and kids.

Recently named a "school to watch" by the California Department of Education and the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, Thurston Middle School was one of only two schools in Orange County to make the list. Pioneer Middle School in Tustin was also named.

"Our main goal is to create the 21st century classroom," said Principal Jenny Salberg. "[Epic] is an amazing opportunity for kids to participate in team building."

Along with technological advancements in the classroom, where students use iPads to create marketing campaigns or take virtual field trips to the home of Anne Frank, Thurston also focuses on physical health.

"We have an outstanding P.E. program where teachers try to incorporate lifelong fitness goals," Salberg said. "Teachers challenge and motivate students individually, based on each student's needs."

Co-chairs Yvette Beebe and Kristi Matheson estimate the event will raise $35,000. About $2,000 will go to the P.E. programs and the rest will go to teacher support. Past Epic fundraisers have helped fund a shade system for classrooms, buses for field trips and classroom supplies.

The students competed in tug-of-war, a variety of races and minute-to-win-it puzzles. But most students seemed to favor the potato sack races.

"Sack racing was my favorite because I like jumping a lot and it was really fun. I like to do exercising," said 11-year-old Janine Johnson.

The potato sack race was also eighth-grader Beebe Bedell's favorite, mostly because everyone was falling, she said. Beebe likes to eat a balanced diet with a combination of her favorite foods, cookies and salads, she said.

"We don't have this type of thing in France. The sack race is my favorite because everybody was falling and cheering," said seventh-grader Coline Levieux, who moved from Grenoble, France, a little over a year ago.

In pairs, students raced to fit themselves into two 100-pound potato sacks sewn together as they raced down the gym, often tripping and falling over each other. As students turned the corner, teammates screamed and cheered them to the finish line.

The gym was especially thunderous during the sixth grade competitions.

"Sixth graders enjoy it more. For eighth graders, it loses some of its 'epicness,'" said P.E. teacher Mike Blair.

Blair, who has been with Thurston for seven years, and three other P.E. teachers are teaching a nine-week curriculum of yoga, team handball and basketball.

The school gym is also outfitted with two rock-climbing walls, audio visual capabilities and eight skylights. The soccer and baseball fields outside are outfitted with a view of the Pacific Ocean.

More than 50 parent volunteers also participated, helping to set up obstacle courses and keep track of timed races. Parents and organizers helped bring in sponsors including Volcom, Wilson Auto Group, Ryan Mechatronics and the local Wahoo's, which donated 800 kid's meal certificates.

[For the record, 12:01 p.m. Feb. 14: An earlier version of this story had the wrong name for Beebe Bedell.]