Teens Run Modesto program teaches students life skills, camaraderie

01/29/2014 12:00 AM

01/28/2014 12:52 PM

The Teens Run Modesto program is getting closer and closer to its big marathon day on March 23. This is the fifth year the runners who “run this town” will undertake a marathon.

Over the years, the program has experienced a great increase in runners and mentors. It started with just 46 students its first year, 2009. Now, the program includes more than 500.

Runners get to spend time with their friends, get in shape together and receive a brand-new pair of shoes after running 80 miles. In addition, the program aims to help students become more productive and lead a better lifestyle.

Supervisor Mike Ariaza explains how the program challenges Valley youth through positive mentoring. “We want to help teach them how to set goals and learn self-discipline,” Ariaza said. “Running teaches them that.”

Many runners in the program dedicate six days a week to training. They have 4- to 6-mile runs on weekdays and 14- to 18-mile runs on Saturdays. Their motivation to run comes from both friends and the team. “The team keeps me motivated because they’re always so positive,” said Hilda Perez, a Modesto High freshman. “They’re always there to help me.”

Dana Miranda, a student at Cesar Chavez Junior High School in Ceres who’ll be running her second full marathon, said she loves the program. “Every single participant in Teens Run Modesto are strong, devoted people,” she said. “Each and every person from disabled to able-bodied have their own special motivations to help them pursue their goal in completing a half or full marathon, whether it is to live a healthier life or cross another item off the bucket list.

“I enjoy being a participant in the TRM organization because I got the chance to meet different people. Along the way, I met very supportive people, and I even met people who said that I have motivated them to become better or to even start running. I am glad to be a part of Teens Run Modesto because it is an experience that is not worth missing out on.”

Many students were not runners before joining the program. Austin Castro, a junior and student mentor of the Modesto High team, said, “My seventh-grade algebra teacher, Mr. (Jon) Olsen, inspired me to start running. He was also the coach for cross country and Teens Run Modesto. I never liked running before then, but he convinced me in class to do both. I’ve never regretted joining because running the marathon is something I’ve looked forward to each year for the past five years.”

The program is open to students ages 12 to 18, in junior high and high school. While they come from diverse backgrounds, the program ties them together and bonds them. Students 12 to 14 are encouraged to run a half marathon (13.1 miles) during their first year. After the first experience, many move up to the full marathon, 26.2 miles. Throughout the program, students learn about nutrition and their body, a training regimen and self-confidence.

Students start off on short run-walks and gradually progress into the long distances. They typically train at their own schools with their mentor, but on Saturdays, the students and mentors group with all the fellow runners at East La Loma Park in Modesto and run the long mileage. Runs may begin as early at 8 a.m.

Sometimes, the program takes the youth to fun runs such as the Modesto Spirit of Giving Jingle Bell 5K Run & Walk, which was in mid-December, and the annual Flat Arc Run in Oakdale, which included a breakfast of pancakes, fresh fruit and more.

The program generously provides participants with gear and covers race registration costs. Students earn a water bottle, TRM training shirt and cap after attending 20 practices. They earn shoes after attending 30 after-school practices and five Saturday practices. In order to earn paid Modesto Marathon entry, they must attend most of the long runs and be able to complete an 18-mile run in five hours or less. TRM also awards 11,000 in scholarships to students.

Usually, students are trained by teachers at their own schools. By having someone they personally know, students are much more motivated to complete their weekly mileage goals. Natalia Guzman, a freshman at Central Valley High School reveals, “I actually started running in eighth grade when my geometry teacher inspired me to. The mentors are very helpful and understanding. I ran a half marathon last year but this year I’m doing a full.”

Many of the mentors are runners themselves and run alongside the students. Austin exclaims, “Our mentor, Coach (Chris) Lewis is absolutely amazing! She is also one of our coaches for cross country, so I know her really well. Coach Lewis is the kind of person who’s willing to go out of her way to help us achieve our ultimate goal in March.”

Injury is always possible, especially in sports such as running. However, Ariaza explains, “If students ever feel an ache or pain that just doesn’t feel right, a coach is always available to stop and consult.”

The students are always provided with proper running attire, such as proper running shoes and a hydration pack, and snack stands set up during runs give them much-needed water, energy gels and snacks. To ensure safety, students are encouraged to not listen to music and stay on the right lane at all times. The training regimen also ensures that the students are not going overboard with running and gives the students a break between long, hard runs.

Many different schools participate in the program including eight high schools, three middle schools and an alternative education center. High schools included are: Modesto High, Beyer High, Central Valley High, Ceres High, Downey High, Davis High, Gregori High and Enochs High. Elliott Alternative Education Center is also part of the schools that participate in the program. Junior Highs and middle schools included are: Cesar Chavez Junior High, Prescott Junior High and Hickman Middle School. The schools are from all parts of Modesto and Ceres, allowing a wide group of students to run in the program.

The Teens Run Modesto group adapted the program from Los Angeles’ teen running group. Ninety-eight percent of the runners in the group graduated from high school, further proving how running teaches students. Previously, two Davis High graduates who were best friends won the Teens Run Modesto scholarship and admitted that they actually found each other through the program. The students learn to believe they can accomplish their goals, and they do through their hard work and effort.

The finish line for the half and full marathon is a glamorous moment for all runners who run the long-distance races. However, what we don’t see is the 26 weeks of dedication, hard work and perseverance of the student runners, mentors and supervisors.

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