Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Runner Who Mentors

As a Philadelphia runner, I saw them at 80% of the local runs I did: blue shirts. The badge of courage marking a student runner. The organization known as Students Run Philly Style works with youth ages 12 years to 18 years, mentoring and training them over 9 months to run a full marathon (26.2 miles to you non-runners). With every race, they encouraged and inspired me. Each race I ran, I felt more and more compelled to join the organization. Finally, this past February, I joined as a running leader. This is the breakdown of one of our practices.

12:34pm. I text one of the co-leaders to ask about practice. I want to send out a reminder to the students but need to confirm with him that practice is still on as usual. He responds that he cannot make it due to unexpectedly working late. I attempt to contact the other leaders, but no one is available. I am exhausted and have no desire to lead the group run, especially since I cannot run.

Later that afternoon. I suck it up and send out the mass text reminding the runners that there will indeed be a 6pm practice. Still tired, I give myself a pep talk that includes how important it is that the students run. The clinics this week have or are workout clinics, not running ones, so the practice is important. Then I contact Frank to make sure he can still get out on time so that I don't have to tote Olivia along with me.

5pm-ish. Frank arrives home from work. I begrudgingly change and gather my SRPS materials, which I bring to every practice. In this bag are forms, emergency contact information, and anything else relevant to the now. I text the student I am picking up to alert him of my ETA.

5:50pm. We arrive at school. Already 2 or 3 students have gathered. They are chatting energetically. One of our notoriously late students is walking up as we park. Exaggeratedly I note how on time she is as we join the others. Only after 5 minutes of hanging out do I realize she is not dressed in her running gear. Laughing and more teasing ensue as I urge her into the building to change.

When I joined Students Run, I was intimidated and nervous. I had serious concerns about how much of a time commitment it would be and what I would be required to do outside of running a practice. There were 4 other seasoned running leaders on the team I joined, so I figured I would be able to float along, learning as time went by. But since my personality is more bold than docile, more take charge than stand back, it did not take long for me to well, lead.

6:04pm. She has not yet returned. I start announcements as a way to stall. The group has to run 5 miles, and there is one student who averages a 15 minute run/walk pace. We need to get started soon. I alert the students to the upcoming clinics and times. There are two important facts they need to walk away with, and as I know from giving professional development trainings, they will remember only a small percentage of what I say. I will repeat these two items no less than 5 times each before the run begins. After the run, I will echo this about two more times. My general mood is improving as my back-and-forth banter with the students hits its peak. I am happy that I have such a good rapport with this group.

I think, compared to the other leaders, I am the "mom" of this team. It's an easy role for me to identify with: surrogate mother. My tendency to care for others is evident in most of my endeavors. Even my career path has evolved into one of training, guiding, and educating others. More so than the other leaders, I bring the items that the students might need. I know that one of our runners has an incredibly high metabolism and is usually hungry. On long run days, I try to bring something small for him to eat in case he has forgotten. We have a runner who stands off more than the others, and it is him whom I make sure to praise each practice for attending. I give rides, provide water, and for one student, hand-sanitizer... a girl after my own heart.

7 - 10 minutes later. She returns. The announcements commence from the beginning [again]. One of the older students speaks about the upcoming clinic at the Sporting Club, where the group will rotate through circuits with personal trainers. Both leaders and students have told me how fun this clinic is, and I hope that his words will impress that upon the new students. Summer retention is hard in Students Run Philly Style when the kids could be doing anything else with their time besides getting up early on a Saturday or even just running. Because of this my goal with every practice, more than just the miles, is to create a fun environment. When you are young, running is boring and often tedious, especially when friends call with other plans. I want them to walk away a family, dedicated to each other just as much as they are to the run.

Fun can be hard to infuse into running. We are in our 5th month of a 9 month season. Our team has evolved into a group of dedicated runners. More importantly, I have seen many friendships develop. Students who once spoke to no one during practices have become our loudest members. For my part, I have spent the past 2 months making each practice a little different. Currently we are not training for a "big" race. Broad Street [10 miler] is behind us, and the Philadelphia Marathon is still a good 3+ months away. The students have an excellent base and could all run 6 - 8 miles easily (or without complaint). The summer can be tough, even for me. I have brought food, everything from snacks to muffins to cupcakes to pretzels, and water to practices. We have done scavenger hunts and party games. Wanna have fun? Play musical chairs but without music or chairs... in the rain... with my 2 year old chaotically running with you. Over the 4th of July weekend when a good number of our team was at SRPS camp, we did a patriotic run to the Liberty Bell & back. And even though many would think it's cheesy or uncool, all but one of the students listened to my request and showed up in red, white, or blue. Fun.

6:20pm. I go over the run. They will be doing a 5 mile run that they have often done in the past. All of them know the route, which is important because I will not be with them. There are two junior leaders present that will go the distance. I ask all of them to run in pairs; they are not required to talk, just to look out for each other. I also ask any students who are able to carry a cell phone. Generally, this is not allowed, but today, given my absence, I want to make sure they are able to reach me in case of an emergency. All of them have my number, and they are all programmed in my phone. More reminders. Last minute notes about the route to make sure everyone is comfortable.

6:32pm. They are off. Giggling, teasing, & best of all for me, without complaint. I hole up in my car and wait.

Being an injured running leader stinks. Especially since my injury is a broken pinky toe, on the same foot as my sore ankle. I compensated for the pain in the toe by walking mostly on one side. The tendonitis in that ankle resurfaced due to the severe pronation. A recipe for disaster that yielded me in a walking shoe and ankle brace... and limited to exercising on a reclining bike. No running for at least 6 weeks and probable PT after that. The students have been fantastic about it: a mixture of teasing and sympathy.

6:44pm. I receive a phone call from a student who has fallen and skinned both of her knees. She purports to be hobbling and unable to run. Some leaders would tell her to suck it up and run. She is running at the back of the pack tonight, and I don't want the others in this group held up. I have her stay put, tell the others to keep on, and I am off to pick her up. I have no doubt that she is fully capable of finishing the route. However, in this moment, it is easier for me to get her than to worry about her running back on her own or continuing and slowing or furthering her pain. She regales me with the tale; I will hear this about 4 more times over the course of the practice as she shares it with whomever will listen. Like me, she has a flair for the dramatic, and I am amused by how this plays out over the course of the evening.

In the fall my schedule will change. I have taken a full-time position in South Jersey that will not get me back in time for weekday practices. I am anxious about how this will work with Students Run. I cannot imagine my life without it just as I cannot remember what I did before I volunteered. For now, I am blissfully living in the moment, not thinking about what will happen once the school year starts.

7pm-ish. While we wait, another leader happens by after finishing work. As students finish, we all wind down with more jokes and razzing. My mood has drastically improved. How could it not? Watching these students run 5 miles without flinching then come back and laugh at each other is worth it. By 7:40pm everyone has returned safely. More reminders before "props."

"Props" are an opportunity for any student who so wishes to recognize someone else on the team. In college, my all-girls choir called it "warm fuzzies." Restaurants or stores use recognition cards. Some schools do "stars" or "shout outs." Our team does "props." Generally, every prop session starts with acknowledging everyone who came, thanking them for making the trek and for running hard. Tonight is the same. The wonder that ensues is what students say next. I am always impressed by their thoughtfulness. Members are called out for running with someone, for being on time, and for just generally doing a great job without complaining. This is topped off with our Students Run Cheer.

Who are we?
What do we do?
How do we do it?

8pm. Practice is over. I gather my riders, and we make our way back home. My heart is happier. Turns out covering practicing at the last minute was the best thing that happened to me that day.

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