In The Long Run
An innovative program in Dutchess County trains city youth to run a marathon —and boosts their self-esteem in the process
By Karen Maserjian Shan
Wiping sweat from his forehead, 12-year-old Zachary Ericson slowly walks across Beacon High School’s parking lot on the first day of school this September. But he’s not nervous about the year ahead, and in fact, he’s not even headed to class just yet. Ericson has just completed his twice-weekly six a.m. run.
Ericson is part of the Marathon Project, a new program started by Susanne O’Neil of Dutchess County’s Council on Addiction Prevention and Education (CAPE), that uses long-distance running to empower city youth. Since joining the program last spring, Ericson’s morning runs have become such an ingrained habit that even the pressures of the first day of a new school year won’t interrupt his routine. “You have to make a commitment to doing it,” he says.
Ericson understands what’s needed to ready himself for the project’s big event: taking part in this month’s Philadelphia Marathon (he’ll compete in the half-marathon, 13.1 miles). “I like challenges,” he says. The week before, he had successfully completed a trial half-marathon with other Marathon Project participants. “I accomplished a goal,” he says. “There was a â€˜click’ — like, â€˜Yay!’ ”
And it’s a well-deserved cheer, at that. “This is really, really hard,” says Melissa Rutkoske, an attorney who, as an adult mentor for the program, spends five to six hours a week running with the kids. “It’s a struggle for a lot of the kids.” Besides necessitating a significant time commitment (by the time they reach the starting line, participants will have practiced for about nine months), marathon training is also physically demanding. Each week requires logging more and more miles of running, and includes one “long run” (which progressively extends from six to 20 miles). Sometimes Rutkoske walk-runs with kids who are having a hard time keeping up, offering words of encouragement along the way; at times, even Ericson has needed a pep talk to keep pace. “For them to understand that â€˜I can do something really difficult; all it takes is perseverance and ambition, and I can succeed’ — that’s a great lesson to learn,” she says.
Overcoming challenges is a major reason behind the success of the Marathon Project’s antecedent, Students Run Los Angeles (SRLA). The West Coast-based program prepares at-risk teens to run in the L.A. Marathon. Since its inception 18 years ago, a staggering 26,000 teens have trained for the marathon, with 97 percent of those who entered completing all 26.2 miles. (Even more significantly, of the high school seniors who finished the race, 90 percent went on to graduate from high school.) Based on the SRLA model, O’Neil established the Marathon Project in Poughkeepsie and Beacon this past spring. “The kids are looking for something big,” she says. “And marathons are big. When you hear someone has run a marathon, most people’s reaction is â€˜Wow, that’s fantastic!’ ” The success of SRLA (as well as similar programs in Philadelphia and Oakland) has helped the Marathon Project garner the support it needed right from the start. “This program is unique in that it has been proven to reduce obesity, reduce gang involvement, reduce substance abuse, reduce the school drop-out rate,” says Judy H. James, formerly CAPE’s executive director. “To me, this is prevention in its purest form.”
At the Marathon Project’s kick-off event last March, more than 60 students signed on from Beacon and about 20 from Poughkeepsie. Forty adult mentors also committed to the project. An integral part of the program, these volunteers (some of whom had never done any running before) include teachers, community members, and staffers from the county Department of Probation and the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie. At press time, approximately 55 students and mentors were gearing up to run in Philadelphia.
The program is already showing signs of success. Just ask single parent Yvonne Hunt of Beacon, who was worried about Spring, her 16-year-old daughter. Spring had run away from home twice, was sneaking friends into the house when her mother was out, and was falling in with the wrong crowd of friends. Yvonne tried talking to her daughter, and they attended joint counseling sessions; neither worked. Then Yvonne heard about the Marathon Project. Begrudgingly, Spring agreed to try the program. “In the beginning, I said, â€˜I can’t do this, this is too much,’ ” she recalls. But with encouragement from her mother and mentor Cindy Pomarico, Spring stuck with the training. She eventually discovered that, much to her surprise, she actually liked running — a lot. “It makes me feel great,” she says. “Now I say, â€˜I can do it.’ ” The change in the teen’s attitude is not lost on her mother. “I think Spring likes herself more, and I think it shows,” Yvonne says. “I cannot believe what this marathon has done for my daughter.”
Like Spring, inner-city teens often face tough situations at home and/or on the streets. Some have to skip school to take care of younger siblings while their parents work, says Pomarico, a Beacon High School teacher. Many have easy access to drugs and alcohol; others live in poverty that is hard to fathom. Mentor Judy Creedon remembers asking a 16-year-old girl from Poughkeepsie for her T-shirt size. “She said, â€˜I don’t know. I’ve never bought any clothes at a store before, I’ve only just worn hand-me-downs, so I don’t know what size I am.’ It brought tears to my eyes.”
The Marathon Project helps counterbalance life for these teens by “giving them something to do with their time that’s constructive,” says Anne Carruthers, a mentor and social worker at the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie. The program teaches youngsters what it means to commit to something, and gives them an activity that helps them feel good about themselves, she says. Moreover, “it gives them some place to be,” adds Pomarico. The training sessions fill empty afternoons and distance the teens from the temptation to get into trouble.
Twins Dennis and Edgar Rivera, who run on the streets near their home in the city of Poughkeepsie, have absolutely no time to get in trouble. The 11th-graders are each involved in many school and volunteer activities, but the Marathon Project often takes priority. “When you have all these activities, you have to balance them,” says Dennis. “Some days I might not go to this and do running instead.”
“In terms of school work, I can’t procrastinate because I want time to run,” explains Edgar, who’s set to run the full marathon in Philadelphia. “Wanting to run — it has a ripple effect. It makes me have to do other things faster.” Running, he says, feels good. That’s not always the case for Dennis: pounding the pavement sometimes hurts his feet.
“This is you against yourself,” he says. “It’s not a team sport. And while the program’s mentors are supportive and encouraging, they can’t run for anyone.”
True, but mentors do offer much-needed support. “ â€˜Look at how far you’ve come,’ ” O’Neil says she tells struggling teens. “ â€˜Initially you couldn’t do one mile; now you’re up to 13. Just keep putting one foot in front of the next.’ ”
Having the right attitude, according to Edgar Rivera, is what takes a runner where he wants to go. “You shouldn’t have that doubt in your mind if you want to run a marathon,” he says. “It will drag you down. You have to keep that positive mentality.”
How it works
Preparing Marathon Project students to run Philadelphia’s full (26.2 miles) or half (13.1 miles) marathon on November 18 requires a real marathon of training, including months of progressively intense physical activity performed at least three times a week, along with dietary adjustments. Teens attending middle and high schools in the cities of Poughkeepsie and Beacon were approached to participate, since the drop-out, obesity, and gang-involvement rates at these schools are the highest in the county. The areas in which the schools are located, O’Neil notes, also have a disproportionately large number of fast-food restaurants close by.
Students meet up with volunteer adult mentors three days a week to train, together completing short and long runs on local streets, speed workouts on the track, and (when appropriate) walk/run sessions. Larry Knapp, a Mid-Hudson Road Runner’s Club member and one-time coach for the American Stroke Association’s “Train to End Stroke” program, developed a full marathon training schedule for the high-schoolers and a somewhat less rigorous schedule for the middle-schoolers to ready them for the half-marathon.
Making it work
At a cost of $150,000 per year, the Marathon Project has relied heavily on the support of local businesses, organizations and volunteers. And they have responded. With grants from (among others) the Dyson Foundation, Dutchess County Children’s Services Council, and the Community Foundation — as well as donations of goods (shoes from the Susie Reizod Foundation) and services (free physicals from the Children’s Medical Group) — “the community has really stepped up to the plate,” says Judy James. The cost of race transportation, meals, and overnight accommodation — not to mention registration fees, T-shirts, water bottles, and other running necessities — quickly adds up. Currently, CAPE is working to secure grant money from the New York State Health Foundation and other groups in order to fund the program for another year. To make a contribution to the Marathon Project, call Sue O’Neil at 845-471-0194, ext. 101, or visit www.mhrrc.org (click on “Club News,” then “Marathon Project”)