Finding a spark in an unlikely place

Last weekend, I took what more or less could be considered an impromptu trip Austin, Texas.  After a pretty mediocre race at the USA Half Marathon Championships in January, I returned to Eugene and began training for April’s Boston Marathon.  It didn’t take me as long as I thought it might to regain my fitness from the fall, as my workouts have progressed really well over the past few weeks.  But something was missing.  It felt like I was just going through the motions, which is definitely not normal for me.

I thought that the best way to break out of the funk would be to find a race in the sunny South — insert Austin, TX!  A little competition would break up the monotony of training and a taste of Spring would surely be energizing.  So I reached out the folks at the Austin Marathon and they graciously accepted a late entrant to their elite field.  Austin was everything I expected: the weather was fantastic, the race went well (more on that later), my hosts were wonderful (thanks Bob and Anita!), and I enjoyed being surrounded by a very fit and active community.  But the spark I was searching for came to me in the most unlikely of places.  Below is a story about 32 of the most inspiring runners I’ll meet this year…

The Austin Marathon committee asked me if I would be willing to speak to a group of middle school kids who were training to run the half marathon at their pasta dinner the night before the race.  My first thoughts: 1) of course, and 2) are middle school kids really going to run a half marathon?  I remember how long a half marathon seemed to me back in 2007, and I was a well-trained, recent college grad.  I can’t imagine what would be going through the minds of these middle school kids.

On my way out to Dobie Middle School on Saturday night, I learned more about Rogue Athletic Club’s Marathon High program.  The group provides a free, 5-month after school training program designed to give students who would not normally participate in standard interscholastic sports a chance to complete the Austin Marathon or Half Marathon. Three days a week – two after-school runs and one Saturday run – students participating in the program get the incredible opportunity to be coached by Olympic-level runners that are part of Rogue Athletic Club.  Nearly 90 middle school and high school students from Austin area schools were participating in the program; 32 were from Dobie Middle School, where I was en route to.

IMG_2519When I arrived at the school, I walked into a very vibrant and full cafeteria.  The room was buzzing with excitement.  Each of the kids running on Sunday were accompanied by parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings — it was a packed house!  I got a chance to meet with the school’s principal, along with several of the teachers, who gave me a quick rundown of their group.  It was so neat to hear the excitement in their voices as they shared stories of their training runs, and some of the shorter races they did in their build up.  There was tremendous pride in what their students were accomplishing.  And they were overjoyed to see all of the families having dinner together.

You see, events like this are a big deal to Dobie Middle School.  The majority of students come from low-income family backgrounds, the school’s academic ratings are considered low, and opportunities to participate in any after-school activities are few and far between.  But on this night, you wouldn’t have been able to tell.

After dinner, there was a short program to recognize some of the students who had stood out during the 5-month program.  The young boy who won most improved walked up to receive his award 50-lbs lighter than when he began training.  One of the girls spoke to the positive force and impact Marathon High had on her life.  And then they showed this video…

Marathon High from Mac Peña on Vimeo.

I had goosebumps throughout the night, but watching this video really hit home for me.  This is what our sport should be about, I thought.  These kids personified everything it meant to be a runner.  So what was I supposed to tell them?  Seems to me like these kids had taking to running like a fish takes to water.  I guess I was supposed to be the one inspiring them, but I found it to be the other way around.

After I returned to Eugene, I reached out to one of the teachers to get his account of how Sunday’s race went, and here was his reply:

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Thank you so much for coming to our dinner. It was an honor to meet someone who took their love for running to the next level. It was truly inspiring to our students. The dinner was fantastic!

The past few days have been indescribable. Our students showed up to Dobie at 4:45am, earlier then planned because they wanted to be mentally prepared for the day and they wanted to join in on the fun. Running with these kids was life changing. It is amazing to see the students so determined while they run. I ran with Carol, Mayra (featured in the video) Jasmine and Lizette. At mile 9 Carol says, “Mr. Gonzalez, these girls are starting to get weak, we need to do something.” So without hesitation Carol starts chanting “LETS GO DOBIE! LETS GO!”  behind the girls encouraging them to chant with her and moving them forward. All eyes were on these girls as they pushed themselves up the crazy Austin hills. Every single one of our students crossed the finish line! Luis Lopez (8th grader) finished in 1:42:41 and Oscar Terrazas (6th grader) finished in 1:45:50, AMAZING TIMES!

Yesterday the students came back to school proudly wearing their finisher shirts and medals. The other students were very proud and supportive of them (something we don’t see a lot of this age group). Many new students are approaching me asking how to join. Several students in Marathon High are my 8th grade history students. One in particular has had some behavior issues in his classes throughout the year. However, yesterday I saw something different. He couldn’t stop talking about Sunday and how amazing it was. He finished all his work early and decided to write a Thank You card to the coaches with his spare time. Couldn’t be happier with this new attitude. Some of the students have had this attitude change throughout the program, but the significance of crossing that finish line affected them ALL.

The sport of running is so much bigger than what I get to do.  It has the ability to change lives, especially given the obesity epidemic in America.  But these kids learned so much more than what it means to live a healthy lifestyle.  They learned how to set goals, how to work hard, and most importantly, how to finish what you start.  And those are lessons they can take with them for the remainder of their lives.  Thanks Dobie Middle School for providing not just a spark, but a fire, in me!  I hope that anyone reading this has the same reaction I did – how can I duplicate this in my community?

Training updates

I missed my weekly update last Sunday; I was happily enjoying my remaining time in Austin!  Here’s a quick race recap, along with what my training has looked like these last few weeks:

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Despite the vast majority of Texas resembling the elevation of your counter-top, Austin was surprisingly hilly.  As a result, the mile splits were all over the place (see below).  However, the effort was pretty consistent throughout, although I paid for the fast early pace on the hills over the last few miles.  I finished 2nd overall, with a time of 65:44.  Given the warm and humid temps, I definitely feel like this was a better performance than my run in Houston last month.  An encouraging sign, no doubt, especially for training right through the race.

I hopped right back into things this week with several good workouts and a quality long run this morning.  Next week is the big week – 150 miles, with a 28-mile long run.  It’s certainly pushing the limits, but my hope is that it’ll pay off in 8 weeks.  And I won’t know if I don’t try.  I will say that I love the challenge that comes with a high-mileage marathon training week.  It’s just like the race: you have to be aggressively cautious.  I think it’s great physical and mental practice for race day.

Austin Half Marathon Race Splits presented by Garmin

  • Mile 1 – 4:50
  • Mile 2 – 4:33
  • Mile 3 – 4:53
  • Mile 4 – 5:08
  • Mile 5 – 5:01
  • Mile 6 – 5:00
  • Mile 7 – 4:45
  • Mile 8 – 4:49
  • Mile 9 – 4:51
  • Mile 10 – 5:02
  • Mile 11 – 5:11
  • Mile 12 – 5:09
  • Mile 13 – 5:14

    2/10-16 AM PM Total
    Monday 45 mins S&C; 11 miles 7 miles 18
    Tuesday Row River BP: 3 mile warmup. 4 mile tempo. 5 x 1k, :90 sec rest. 4 mile cooldown. 14 miles total. 6 miles 20
    Wednesday 12 miles 7 miles 19
    Thursday 13 miles 13
    Friday 6 mile easy. 3 mile tempo. 8 x 200m. 11 miles total. 7 miles 18
    Saturday 8 miles 8
    Sunday Austin HM – 65:44. 18 miles 18
    114

    2/17-23 AM PM Total
    Monday 6 miles 10 miles 16
    Tuesday 13 miles 6 miles 19
    Wednesday Lorane Hwy: 3 mile warmup. 12 mile tempo (3 tempo, 1 hard x 3). 2 mile cooldown. 17 miles 17
    Thursday 45 mins S&C; 11 miles 6 miles 17
    Friday Hendricks Hill repeats. 4 mile warmup. 1xHH, 8 x 100m hill sprints, 7xHH. 4 mile cooldown. 13 miles total. 6 miles 19
    Saturday 12 miles 6 miles 18
    Sunday 20 miles + 8 x 100m strides 5 miles 25
    131

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    Comments (2)

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      Frank Youngwerth

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      Craig; Congratulations on your contributions to the middle school runners. Was special for you to take the time out to inspire so many young people. Suspect you got as much from the effort as the kids did. Going was back to my many years as a Little League Baseball Coach in Libertyville, I’ve always loved helping young people. In every case, I know I received so much personal satisfaction for the effort. Good luck in Boston. Suspect you’re just about ready.

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