Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Students On The Run

One of the joys of being a 'man of leisure' is the incredible amount of flexibility I have in my schedule. I moonlight as a film critic and this frequently allows me to see 'advance' screenings of films during the light of day while most are shackled to their cubes.

I've recently been doing press coverage for the 49th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival. One of the more inspiring films I saw recently was Students On The Run. This documentary takes a fascinating look at a volunteer based running program (Students On The Run-SRO) for students in Oakland.

The Students Run Oakland(SRO) program trains any interested high school student to run the Los Angeles Marathon. The vast majority of the kids who participate in the program come from tough neighborhoods, tough families, or tough circumstances. Additionally, many of these kids attend grossly underfunded public schools.

While the kids are really the 'stars' of Students On The Run, Coach Alphonzo Jackson is arguably a co-star. I vividly recall meeting Alphonzo several years ago while training for my first marathon with TNT. It was a bright, sunny Saturday morning in the East Bay. Alphonzo had a broad smile on his face as he ardently barked at us, 'NO WIMPS!' It was a simple, but effective message. Behind that tough exterior is a man who is sensitive, empathic, and genuinely concerned about his community and the people who live there.

This comes across clearly in Students On The Run. Many of these kids are on the fringe with a real dearth of positive influences and little to inspire them that 'anything is possible'. As Alphonzo says to his young runners, 'You guys have done something out of the ordinary, so that makes you extraordinary'. What a wonderful and inspiring message to send.

Many who complete a marathon walk away with the sense that they did something extraordinary and it's not uncommon to see people chase even more daunting goals/dreams passionately as a result of their journey to 26.2. But, for kids who come from broken homes, live in neighborhoods where violence is a constant, and graduating high school without getting shot is a stretch, Alphonzo's message seems that much more powerful.

Independent of the positive and life affirming message that a film like Students On The Run sends, it also makes one reflect on the current state of physical education in public schools. So many physical education programs are disappearing in public schools during a time in which childhood obesity is at an all time high. There's a higher probability that a kid is going to play Grand Theft Auto than run a mile (let alone a marathon.

As if this isn't bad enough, you have many school cafeterias that are partnering with 'Pizza Hut', 'McDonalds', and other huge fast food chains to provide meals for these same kids! Fortunately, students have high quality beverages like Coke and Sprite to wash down their Big Macs and pizza as soft drink machines are ubiquitous at pretty much every public high school and middle school.

You look at a program like Students Run Oakland and wonder why more programs such as these aren't available to kids all over the country. Isn't it infinitely easier to teach the benefits of a healthy lifestyle at an early age rather than decades later when one has already adopted a sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle?

I was shocked last fall when I did some high school coaching at Gateway in San Francisco. The kids were great, but I was APPALLED at the kind of shape they were in! Running a 1/2 mile had them gasping for breath and claiming they were dehydrated. It wasn't that long ago that I was running for my high school cross country team. We ran 3 miles solid the very first day of practice without any water or gatorade! Needless to say, I had to adjust my expectations.

There's no easy solution, but programs like Students Run Oakland are clearly a step in the right direction.



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