Can you think of a more empowering experience than training for and running a marathon? What if you had done it as a high schooler? How would it have changed your life? Would you have had more confidence in your ability to accomplish the seemingly impossible?
That’s what the organizers and coaches of Marathon High — a program that trains middle- and high-schoolers to run a marathon or half marathon — are hoping, and with a successful first year under their belts, that hope is becoming a reality.
“It went well beyond expectations, “ says Sarah Madebach, a Marathon High coach. “The schools we’re targeting aren’t really involved in sports. In the beginning, we wanted five kids to come out and participate.”
In fact, 29 kids finished the program last year, most of them crossing the finish line of the Austin Marathon (10 middle-schoolers completed the program and ran the half marathon). Even more impressive, Marathon High had only about a 10 percent drop-out rate last year — meaning almost everyone who started the program finished it.
“That’s really a testament to the coaching and the program,” says Madebach. “They were getting more out of it than we really understood.”
Participants in Marathon High train for five months, participating in after-school sessions and long runs on Saturdays. They run a series of races over the course of the season, building distance and culminating in the Austin Marathon (or half marathon for middle-schoolers).
The program was open to students attending Ann Richards School and East Side Memorial High School last year, and this year will be expanding to include Dobie Middle School. The program is open to any interested student, and is completely free of charge.
“You’re not competing with your neighbor or classmate to get a spot on the team,” emphasizes Madebach. “Anyone can come out, even if they’ve never run a step in their life.”
Students are provided with necessities like shoes and sports bras if they can’t afford them, and even race fees are included in the program. The costs are picked up by Rogue Running and other sponsors, like the Trail Foundation, Austin Runners Club and Soleus, as well as donations from individuals.
The goal, of course, is empowerment. Marathon High’s mission is “to promote balanced, healthy lifestyles to young adults and show them that they can achieve anything they put their heart into, all by simply running.”
Olga Hernandez, a 7th grader at Ann Richards School, participated in the program last year and ran the Austin Half Marathon. She had only run about two miles at a time before starting with Marathon High, but now she has a preference for longer distances, she says, “because you see more interesting stuff.” The most important lesson she got out of Marathon High was, she says, “to just work hard and never give up.”
That lesson bleeds over into other areas of her life, too — Hernandez hopes to go to college at Texas A&M University, and she’d like to get into their running program. “I’m going to train right now and do my best so I can make my dream of going to A&M come true,” she says.
Madebach tells the story of one young girl she coached last year, who “doesn’t come from the most secure family.” Her parents fight, her brother is on the street, and her home life is generally pretty unstable.
“Kids like her are so vulnerable to distractions, and so many negative influences will come into their lives,” says Madebach. “If they get to her before we do, her chances of feeling good about herself and doing well and going to college are not good.”
This particular girl opened up to Madebach over the course of the season, and told her that she wanted to come to Rogue every weekend. It had become her “safe place,” and, sure enough, she kept coming and finished the program.
“If we can get them before they get involved in something negative — that’s my biggest goal,” says Madebach. “We want them to have a positive experience in their teenage years. They can get a positive influence from anything, but this is what we know we know — running — and it’s how we reach kids.”
Of course, there are also practical concerns with training teens to run a grueling distance race. Madebach says she is often asked whether it is healthy, or even safe, for high schoolers to run a marathon. This is a question that Marathon High organizers considered carefully in starting the program, and the training is conducted with the utmost focus on safety and avoiding injury.
“If you look at the way that we approach the program, we don’t say anything about time, and we start very early and start very slowly,” says Madebach. “The first day they’re running a mile or a mile and a half, depending on if they’ve run before.”
Trigger Point, a massage technique, is introduced at the beginning of the program, and kids attend periodic workshops to keep them healthy. They learn about rehab and taking care of themselves after a run. In addition, the program has partnered with local doctors who specialize in sports medicine. The key, though, is communication.
“The coaches encourage open communication with the students, one on one,” says Madebach. “We make it a point to watch the kids and be very conscious of what they’re doing, and also just ask. We’re going to know if there’s something going on.”
Looking at the training group over the course of the season, Madebach says she had no doubts about whether it was healthy. “They all grew up and got stronger,” she says. “It was a great experience for them.”
Of course, there were lessons learned, too — the need for more communication and organization chief among them — but, all in all, the first year was a smashing success.
Next year, Marathon High has even bigger plans, expanding to include another school and adding field trips and new partnerships into the mix. Marathon High and Urban Roots will be joining together to share their respective knowledge about running and farming, so that the runners can learn more about healthy food and how it can help them in their training.
And, being the second year, there will be at least a few kids back for more. Some have completed a marathon and would like to better their time. Others ran a half marathon last year but are ready to train for a full marathon this year.
Madebach hopes the repeat participants can act as mentors to new participants. “We’re hoping to give some of the reins over to them, and help teach them how to be leaders,” she says. “It will be a challenge to us to make sure everyone feels included and part of the process, and that no one feels excluded because they haven’t run the marathon.”
Of course, that’s a challenge they’re up for.
Hernandez, for one, definitely plans to participate in Marathon High again next year, and she hopes her experience can help some of the new runners.
“Marathon High is really fun and the coaches are great,” she says. “They really motivate you for everything.”
One of her mantras, which she hopes to pass on to new runners, is, “It hurts to keep going, but it will hurt more if you stop.” That’s really the lesson of Marathon High, not only in running, but in everything else: perseverance.
The new program kicks off in September, but recruiting will start in August. If you’re interested in helping Marathon High, financial contributions are always needed and welcome, and as little as $5 or $10 can help. Click on http://marathonhigh.com/share-the-high/ to donate. They also have a need for volunteer pacers to run with the kids on Saturday mornings during the season, starting from Rogue Running’s downtown location. Contact Chris Gowell for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction (6/16): Chris Gowell’s name and contact information were previously erroneous and have been updated to reflect the correct information.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.livemom.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/lauren.jpg[/author_image] [author_info] Lauren Walz is a freelance writer and editor and mama to a two-year-old girl. While she’s quick to brag about being a fifth-generation Texan, Lauren moved to Northern California in 2004 after graduating from UT Law and lived in the Silicon Valley area until last spring, when she and her family were drawn back to Austin. Lauren is busy getting re-acquainted with her old stomping grounds and is astonished by how the food and wine scene has changed in Austin in the past 8 years. Lauren also blogs about cooking and parenthood on gourmetveggiemama.com.[/author_info] [/author]