Earlier this year, I started a new nonprofit organization called Marathon High. The goal is to train high school students to run a 13.1 mile half-marathon, while also teaching them the valuable life skills that we all get from long-distance running. In a sense, it’s bringing the classroom onto the road. And with 20 years of running experience, I was sure I would be the one teaching them, but as it turns out, the students at one particular inner-city school are teaching me some pretty valuable lessons too.
I originally got the idea for this program after watching my own son and his friends in high school. What I saw was a segment of our society who is often left out. When kids reach this age, if they are not on a Varsity sport, there are few other options for them athletically (at least in our region). When I would pick him up after school, I would watch hundreds of other students slowly wander home, almost like they didn’t have anything better to do. This, coupled with the growing rates of unhealthy kids in our country, inspired me to want to create a program that would be perfect for them. One that would get them running and moving; one that would teach them the value of hard work, discipline, consistency and never giving up; and one that would build their self-esteem and confidence, while making them feel important in a world that is continually telling them they’re not.
It was then that I just happened to run across a program in California called Students Run L.A., where thousands of high school students train to complete the L.A. Marathon each year. Watching the video on their site showed me exactly what was possible with these kids, and it was then that I knew I had to bring a similar program here to students in Jacksonville, Florida. So I met with Jeff Galloway, former Olympian and well-know marathon coach for his run/walk method and Donna Deegan, founder of the 26.2 with Donna National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer and explained my vision for a program that was non-competitive, free and open to kids of all backgrounds and athletic abilities. Both were on board and agreed wholeheartedly to partner with me. After recruiting four high schools for our pilot year, I began going around to each school to speak to the students and give a presentation on Marathon High. Driving to the first school, I remember thinking, What if no one shows up? What if these kids think this is a stupid idea? Well, you know what? The classrooms were packed.
Two months into the five-month program, we have 120 students signed up and they are now up to 8 miles for their long run–a feat which is nothing short of amazing to them, because some of them had never even run a mile before. Through this, they are learning from experience and from their mentoring coaches about pacing, training, nutrition, hydration, injury prevention and all of the other aspects of running. Of the high schools involved, one inner-city school with over 40 students in this program is teaching me more than I think I’m teaching them. After running with them the other day, I just had to get in my car afterward and smile with tears of happiness and amazement because they reminded me of the pure joy and beauty of running, including:
Running is a privilege. Because these kids don’t have a lot, they appreciate the program and realize the value in being a part of something. They even wear their team sweatshirts to school because they are proud of their running accomplishments. Yes, running, being healthy, moving our bodies is a privilege–one that I tend to forget or take for granted in the midst of a hard run.
Don’t whine. Unlike other younger kids I have coached in the past, I was so amazed not to hear any whining or complaining during our runs. There is no, “Oh, do we haaave to run today?” or “How much loooonger until we’re finished?” Instead, it’s like, “OK, I have a job to do and I’m going to go do it.” That was a wonderful reminder to me.
Stay polite. The manners these kids have is so refreshing. Even though I have a personal thing against being called “ma’am”, I allow it here because, to them, it’s a sign of respect. We should all show such signs of respect to our fellow runners and athletes on the road.
Set high goals. One of the students told me the other day that he wants to run a full 26.2 marathon next year. Another said he wants to make the Olympics. Both said they never considered themselves athletes before this, but now that’s changed. Yes, running empowers us. It makes us realize our true potential. Great lesson!
Be a supportive teammate. No matter how fast or slow someone runs, the students never put each other down. Because this program is non-competitive, speed is never emphasized–finishing is the goal. What if we all had less pressure, less competition in life? We’d probably all be better friends to each other, too.
Stay positive. When I asked several of the students what they liked and didn’t like about Marathon High so far, they all gave me positive responses. “Come on,” I said. “Tell me what you don’t like.” “Nothing,” they repeatedly said. “We just like running and being a part of this.” Awesome.
Keep running, students–I can’t wait to cross the finish line with you!
Photo: Marathon High