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Chicago Running Mates Battle Sleet, Build Bridges

An ugly sleet-snowstorm scared off more than half the runners registered for the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle, held Sunday, March 29. Yet 21 middle-schoolers from Chicago Running Mates joined the 14,000 who braved the wet, wind and near-freezing cold.  For most of the Running Mates, it was their first-ever 8K.

Jesse Villanueva, center, and teammates practice for the Shamrock Shuffle at the Salvation Army Red Shield Center in Englewood.

Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Running Mates is the newest program of Chicago Run, which offers free after-school running programs to 4,000 students in 19 Chicago public schools. To Chicago Run executive director Alicia Gonzalez, her Shamrock Shufflers are winners all: “21 started, 21 finished,” she noted proudly.

In its pilot year, Chicago Running Mates has taken on more than just the training challenge of preparing mostly novice runners for the Shamrock Shuffle. This is Chicago Run’s first training program that brings together youth from different schools.

While Columbia Explorers, a predominantly Latino school in Brighton Park, has run a solid track program for years, LEARN Charter, a predominantly African-American school in North Lawndale, is just taking its first strides.

“There was some thought of just doing this at each school, but that would be like having a track team inside each school,” said Gonzalez. “I really wanted them to get to know each other.”

By late February, that was starting to happen. “Most of them hug each other when they come in. It’s just nice to see,” noted Columbia Explorers assistant coach Ivan Delgado.

Runners interviewed said they were beginning to make friends across schools. “Some of the kids from Columbia Explorers have been encouraging me,” said Jadah Jones, a 7th-grader from LEARN Charter.

Chicago Running Mates prepare to brave the elements at the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle.

Maureen Kelleher

Since last fall, students and coaches from both schools have been coming together twice a week at the Salvation Army Red Shield Center in Englewood for joint training.  Parents were initially concerned about the distances their children were traveling. “At first we had to explain to [parents] how we were going to get them here,” said LEARN coach Steven Beasley.

hicago Running Mates takes great care to start small and build its runners’ endurance. Kids say the approach works. “When I first got here, I was walking 10 or 12 laps,” said Jones. “Now I’m only walking five or six. I like it because they push you to not stop.”

By late February, the group was ready for its first 40-minute run. After some warm-up stretching, the youth and Columbia Explorers head coach Fernando Reyes took off, while Gonzalez and other coaches cheered them on from the sidelines. About halfway through, most of the group was still running, though some were walking or taking a slow jog. “That’s pretty good,” Beasley observed.

Like many inner-city kids, some of these runners have had tough growing-up years. One young man’s family just lost their home to foreclosure and a son to street violence. Yet he’s here, running hard and flashing his megawatt smile.

“He’s come a long way,” Delgado noted.

Tamairis Dixon, right, and friends stretch as they prepare for their first 40-minute run with Chicago Running Mates.

Maureen Kelleher

Jesse Villanueva of Columbia Explorers has come a long way, too, in a different arena. Now a 7th-grader, he’s been running with his school’s track program for two years.

“Before, I was kind of chubby, and now I’m skinny,” he said. Running encouraged him to make changes in his diet and activity levels outside of school. “I figured out that I didn’t want to be chubby. When I grow up, I don’t want my children to walk and get stuff for me.”

Villanueva also likes the support he gets from fellow runners. Through Chicago Running Mates, he’s made new friends both from his home school and from LEARN Charter. “I like having people that cheer me up and support me.”

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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