Teens Run Modesto puts at-risk youths on 26.2-mile route to success

08/24/2014 7:00 PM

08/24/2014 7:01 PM

Sometimes, the straight and narrow can be a long and winding road. And in the case of the Teens Run Modesto program, that road is 26.2 miles.

TRM was created by Modesto’s ShadowChase Running Club as a means to engage at-risk youths, help them set goals and build self-esteem. The immediate goal for participating high school students is to run a marathon.

When the program was launched in 2010, “we didn’t have a race for them to run, so that’s why we started the Modesto Marathon,” said Mike Ariza, who’s been a ShadowChase member since 1997 and directs TRM for the club. “They kind of went hand in hand.”

Ariza, whose career was with Procter & Gamble before it closed its Modesto plant in 2001 and who now farms walnuts, led a meeting last week of TRM school- and community-based mentors. The training season begins next month.

Ariza took some time to talk with The Bee about Teens Run Modesto.

The TRM website says “at-risk” students are the program’s target group. Tell me a bit about how the program was begun and recruited its first youths?

Dating back to the late ’90s, several ShadowChase Running Club members had been telling anyone who would listen about an amazing program in Southern California targeting at-risk students in the East L.A. area called Students Run L.A., L.A. being the Los Angeles Marathon. Basically, through a six-month running training program, the students learned to set long-term goals, worked hard for those goals, built self-esteem and became more health-conscious. Documented studies of Students Run L.A. (SRLA) showed that high school graduation rates jumped to 95 percent for the SRLA students compared to a 60 percent average for the L.A. County school districts. Other findings from an independent study showed the SRLA students:

• Enjoy school and learning
• Think school is not a waste of time
• Are sure they will succeed when they set a goal
• Are able to deal with their problems
• Make better plans for after high school
• Think that teachers believe they can learn

After seeing these results, our club decided to bring the program to Modesto and see if we could make a difference in our community.

How has TRM grown, in numbers served and in its scope?

In 2010, the TRM program was established in conjunction with the Modesto Marathon. Starting with a small, dedicated group of about 10 teachers, we recruited students at local schools to join the TRM program. Students were recruited by these teachers at their schools through word of mouth and posted fliers. This first year, TRM mentored 50 students from five schools/organizations. In 2014, there were 225 students from 12 local schools participating in the program. Twenty-two of these students applied for and received college scholarships totaling $13,500. Some of the 22 were not only the first in their families to go to college, but also the first to graduate from high school. For 2015, we are looking to expand into Salida, adding Salida Middle School, as well as training a group of teens at the Juvenile Hall.

How do most kids come to join the program?

Initially, we advertised through school bulletins and announcements, while mentor/teachers recruited students from their classes. Now in our sixth year, a large segment of new students are younger siblings of past and present participants, with some families having as many as three students participating. There is also a lot of “I’ll do it if you will” challenges among friends.

If a teen doesn’t attend a participating school, is there still a way to join TRM? And how, typically, does the program expand to a new school?

The easiest way to participate in TRM is to have a program at your school, although you are not necessarily excluded if there isn’t one. Last year, a student from a Sylvan Union School District junior high school trained with the Davis High School TRM group. His mother picked him up after school and drove him to practice three times a week. If you can find transportation, you can find a TRM group to train with. Typically, a new school group can form if there are at least three qualified adults willing to dedicate one to four days a week for six months of training students to accomplish the impossible.

I see the TRM season’s start date is determined by counting back 26 weeks from the Modesto Marathon. Is that a nod to a marathon being 26.2 miles, or just a nice coincidence? Was that determined to be a natural amount of time to increase teens’ runs until they are marathon-ready?

Coincidence. We developed a longer-than-usual marathon training schedule based on what we felt would be a manageable schedule for a student who has not competed in sports and is living a sedentary lifestyle. We build up the miles very slowly, starting with walking 25 minutes the first week, to running a 22-mile-long run a month prior to the marathon. We have trained students who really needed the full 26 weeks to reach the level of fitness to be able to run a marathon, and we have trained students who were probably capable of running the 26.2 miles the first week of training.

What would you tell a kid who is thinking of joining TRM, is generally fit but hasn’t run more than a few miles at a time – maybe a 5K fun run?

I would encourage the teen to join us. Having completed a 5K is an accomplishment in itself and a great head start toward completing the program. There are many former TRM students who had never run, or even considered running, prior to joining, who proudly wore their marathon finishers medal to school the Monday after the race. For some, running has become part of who they are.

TRM expects high-schoolers to train for the full marathon and junior high kids to train for the half, though there are exceptions. Is that more about wanting kids to get a half marathon race under their belts before attempting the full? Or are there concerns about a growing body at the younger ages being adversely affected by the wear and tear of running a full marathon?

It is more about encouraging the high school students to run the full than anything else. A big part of our program is teaching students almost anything is possible if you believe in yourself and work for it. Letting a student “settle” for doing just the half marathon undermines what we are trying to teach them. I fully believe that any high school student who faithfully follows our training program could complete the marathon. We have built into the Modesto Marathon a longer-than-usual cutoff time, seven hours, so a student can run-walk a 16-minute pace and still finish in less than the seven-hour time limit. As for junior high students, because of the emotional and mental immaturity rather than their physical immaturity, we allow them to choose which path they take.

I imagine that, similar to most nonprofits, volunteers are the heart and – I have to say it, sorry – “sole” of TRM. Tell me a bit about what the mentors and sponsors bring to the program.

They commit to three after-school practices and a Saturday long run for a six-month period from late September until race day in March. They ferry students to and from practices and at times are surrogate parents to their students. I believe this adult/student connection is one of the most valuable services our mentors provide. Many students are lacking a parental role model, and their TRM mentor may be the only healthy adult relationship in their life. Our sponsors are obviously critical to our existence. Fortunately, the Modesto Marathon provides approximately 90 percent of our funding, with the remaining 10 percent coming from local businesses such as Doctors Medical Center and individual donors throughout the community.

How is the success of Teens Run Modesto being measured, and how would you say the program is doing?

We measure success in a couple different ways. One measure is to simply to track our completion rate of students running the full and half marathons. This year, we were at 99 percent completion, our highest ever. A more important completion rate is our high school graduation rate, and how our students fare after graduating from high school. How many go to college, how many go to a trade school. If the number of applications for a TRM college scholarship is any indicator, we are improving. This year there were 29 students vying for $13,500 in scholarship funds. One of our administrative goals is to develop a mechanism for tracking and quantifying our students’ success after they complete our program.

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