Youth Movement: The Extreme Version

Holly St. Lifer
March 28, 2007

Sasha Muce and his mother had not been getting along for months. So the summer following Muce's sophomore year, he was sent across the country from his home in Los Angeles to Connecticut to live with his father. He had trouble making new friends and fell in with the wrong crowd. Displaced and lonely, he started smoking pot, "as the only way I thought I could fit in." A year later, he found himself uprooted once more and back with his mom in L.A. The marijuana use continued.

Then a teacher suggested he sign up for Students Run L.A. (SRLA), a program that has trained more than 23,000 middle and high school students, the majority from some of L.A.'s toughest neighborhoods, to run the city's marathon. Muce's life turned around: "I signed on because I knew I needed to be motivated in a positive way. When you're doing drugs it seems like each day goes by without meaning, but when I had the marathon as a goal to work toward, suddenly my life had purpose. It also helped to be involved with a peer group that's focused on being healthy."

Two years ago, when 16 year-old Rudy Sanchez entered San Fernando High School, he was 40 pounds overweight from a steady diet of chips and McDonalds, was regularly suspended from school for disrupting class, and had failing grades. When asked to describe himself back then, he summed it up in one word: lazy.

Today Sanchez has two marathons under his much smaller belt, his grades are up and he's replaced junk food with lots of fruit and water. "I never thought I could accomplish anything, let alone run 26.2 miles. Now I know that with hard work and commitment, there's nothing I can't do," says Sanchez, whose parents are from Mexico.

More than a Race

Giving teenagers a sense of purpose by challenging them to succeed in ways they never thought possible is at the heart of SRLA's mission. "The program is not about running. It's about building character and self-esteem, goal setting and learning to make smart lifestyle choices. We use the training and the marathon as avenues to instill these values," says Paul Trapani, a high school social studies teacher who is one of the founders of SRLA.

Take Sanchez, for example. Now when he's bored, instead of getting into trouble, he calls a buddy from the team and heads out to the mountains for a run. When he graduates, he'll attend college and assist his current SRLA leader. Muce was just accepted to the University of California-Santa Cruz and plans to major in archaeology.

Helping Students Hit Their Stride

While SRLA is open to all Los Angeles-area secondary school students, most of the runners are from low-income families. The students are a diverse group: 71 percent are Latino, 12 percent are white, nine percent are Asian, four percent are African American, and four percent are a combination of ethnic backgrounds. The male-to-female ratio is 52 percent to 48 percent.

Sanchez and Muce are both students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Overall, just 68 percent of LAUSD's incoming freshmen graduate from high school. But among students participating in the running program as seniors, the graduation rate is over 90 percent. And they are succeeding in their running goals as well: more than 97 percent of SRLA students complete the marathon each year.

SRLA has grown since Trapani started the program with fellow teacher Eric Spears in 1989 with just 20 students—the program now enlists 300 teachers to be volunteer team leaders and recruits more than 2200 students from more than 150 schools each year. The program is funded through corporate, private and foundation donations. Honda is the major corporate sponsor. The LA Marathon waives entry fees to all SRLA qualifiers.

Success Builds Upon Success

Each September, the seven-month training program starts with a group of students and their leader meeting three to four times a week to run at least 30 minutes, gradually building to an hour. SRLA schedules benchmark distance events, beginning with a 5K in October and progressing to a 10K, 15K and then two half-marathons.

The 2007 LA Marathon was held on March 4. Each year, about 25,000 register and 21,000 actually run. The course starts and finishes in downtown LA and circles through the city's many diverse neighborhoods. Anyone can register, but SRLA students have to meet their training requirements in order to run.

"The kids see their improved performance quickly and they start to realize that with effort, commitment, perseverance and support, positive changes can come about," says Karen Kungie-Torres, an English teacher who trains Sanchez and has been with the program for 12 years.

"Then they start to take those same principles and apply them to other parts of their lives. We find students raise their GPA's as they embrace their own success in running and achieving," says Trapani. He says he has only encountered one student whose academic performance didn't get better while in the program. "Eating habits improve. Relationships with their teachers and parents improve."

Mentors stress that the idea is not so much to set records or beat other runners, but to set a goal and then do what it takes to reach it. The L.A. Marathon finish line is open for more than 10 hours and while SRLA runners generally finish in 8 hours or less, the program keeps no record of finish times. Just crossing the line is a victory.

The program can inspire health and training benefits for the mentors, as well. For Kungie-Torres, becoming a leader was the ideal way to balance work with a regular exercise routine. "I had always been a runner and when my principal found that out he said, 'I have a project for you,'" she recalls. "That was 11 years ago. Back then I was just running 5K's and now I can say I'm a marathon runner. I share the same sense of pride as my kids."

Temporarily Outrunning Stress

The training program is a healthy diversion from the pressures many of these teens face on a daily basis. For students like 17-year-old Carlos Taura, SRLA can be a haven of stability. His Salvadoran parents divorced when he was five and he now lives with his father. Taura alluded to stresses at home, but wasn't willing to talk about them in detail. He says, "I may not be able to do much about what's going on around me, but at least my running accomplishments are one aspect of my life I can control. All I have to do is put in the hard work, eat right to stay healthy and keep pushing myself to get to the next goal."

Since leaders typically run side-by-side with their kids during training, the long-distance runs provide quality mentoring time that would never be possible within the confines of a typical school day. "Students start to build trust and they begin to ask for help," says Kungie-Torres. "They know that their teachers care about them and are giving up personal time to be with them."

More than once, Kungie-Torres says, students have confided in her during their training runs that they were facing parental pressure to quit the program, either to help care for younger siblings at home or to take on a part-time job to help the family make ends meet. "In each case, I met with the families and we were able to work out a compromise."

Muce says SRLA provides support for many students that they can't get anywhere else. "A lot of these kids, their parents can't do much for them. They get lost in the system because they don't have the resources to make something of themselves. Running with SRLA allows them to see that even if their goals are far off they can still achieve them. Now I know that whether it's the marathon or anything else I want to achieve in life, as long as I put in the hard work, I can cross that finish line."

Learn more:

SRLA has a tool kit that provides materials and explains their model for those interested in building a similar program. It is currently running in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Portland, Oregon and Oakland, California.

Other youth running programs across the country: