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Running helps young people stay active long after they quit other sports

Tyeshawn Cohens (left) and Derrick Derrick Norman developed a love for running thanks to Chicago Run. | Provided

Tyeshawn Cohens was a “sad kid” when he started running in the 6th grade; it took some convincing for him to join the other kids at Leslie Lewis Elementary who worked out some mornings before school with coaches from Chicago Run.

But he decided to give it a try, and soon he was among the most enthusiastic students at the Austin school doing exercises, playing games and running laps in the hallways.

The Chicago Run coaches – teachers at the school and staffers from the nonprofit – “got us pumped up about running,” then they set their sights on running a 5k, an annual event held each fall and spring that draws students from across the city who participate in Chicago Run. Nearly 250 Chicago Run participants – including 12 students from Lewis Elementary – took part in this spring’s race, the St. Paddy’s Day 5K.

Tyeshawn remembers his first 5k a few years back: “Everyone was excited about it. It wasn’t a competition, it was just to run for fun,” says the Senn High School junior.

Running for fun is one of the lessons Chicago Run organizers hope participants learn, says Alex Landberg, who just left his position as deputy director.

Another lesson: Everybody’s a runner, anyone can do it.

Landberg notes 75 percent of kids — boys or girls — stop playing a sport by the age of 13. “That’s such a shame” because being physically active helps with both mental and physical health, he says. And “from a cost-effective standpoint, it’s one of those things that can really move the needle, especially in a lot of the communities we work in” – where there’s an increased risk for diabetes, obesity and witnessing trauma.

“The more people we can get to start calling themselves a runner, or an athlete or a physically active person, then the better off our communities are.”

Chicago Run operates in 36 neighborhoods and offers programs at 57 sites, the majority of them Chicago Public Schools. The nonprofit – founded in 2008 by Dr. Bryan Traubert and his wife, former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker – serves more than 18,000 students.

On a recent Wednesday morning at Lewis Elementary, eight students ran back and forth in the school gym then headed upstairs to work out alongside two teachers and two Chicago Run coaches.

Students from James Ward Elementary gather for a group photo at the 2019 St. Patrick’s Day Chicago Run. | Courtesy Chicago Run Staff
Students from James Ward Elementary gather for a group photo at the 2019 St. Patrick’s Day Chicago Run. | Courtesy Chicago Run Staff

“Does anyone want to lead stretches?” asked one of the coaches. One of the 7th graders raised her hand then began instructing the others. At another point, they played freeze tag while taking occasional water breaks. An hour later, they changed and quickly ate a snack bar before heading to their classrooms.

Fourth grade teacher Erica Tully joined the coaching ranks in September when she began teaching at the West Side school. “It’s a good way to get to know other students,” she says.

It’s also good for students “to see and understand why exercise is important … Long-term, I want students to have a love of working out and also an idea of how to get better at something outside of school.”

Mallory Dignin, another 4th grade teacher at Lewis, started coaching in fall 2015, thinking she would help out just that year. Three years later, she’s still involved.

Dingin loves seeing the kids set goals, like finishing a 5K. And it’s gratifying to see the way the students work together; at a recent morning practice, a 5th grader was running with an 8th grader who had joined the group for the first time.

From time to time, former students like Tyeshawn come back to help as part of Chicago Run’s “lace-up” program. He was one of the first students Dingin coached back in 2015.

She remembers one practice when he asked to give a motivational speech, something they had not been doing. From that day on, Tyeshawn would give a two- to five-minute inspirational speech before longer runs around the school.

“Chicago Run is my family, the family I didn’t have growing up,” says Tyeshawn, now 17.

He was living with an aunt on the West Side when he joined Chicago Run. It was a tough time – his dad was in prison and his mother was on drugs – and he needed some “positive energy” in his life. It didn’t take long for the good feelings to set in.

“I was finally present and felt like myself,” Tyeshawn says of those first few months of running. “Chicago Run made a lot of difference in my life.”

“Chicago Run is my family, the family I didn’t have growing up,” says Tyeshawn Cohens, 17. | Courtesy Chicago Run Staff
“Chicago Run is my family, the family I didn’t have growing up,” says Tyeshawn Cohens, 17. | Courtesy Chicago Run Staff

Running is still a pivotal part of his life – he sometimes runs to or from high school, with his bag strapped to his back – giving him “power” and “courage.”

Another Lewis alum, Derrick Norman, says running has made him realize how important some things, like his education, are. “It gave me a new outlook.”

Derrick has helped out at Lewis, and he spent part of last summer working as a Chicago Run coach at Little Village Lawndale High School. There were some challenges working with the older students, like getting them to listen. He also had to figure out how to motivate the teens.

“You’re like a mentor,” says Derrick, now a junior at CICS ChicagoQuest in Lincoln Park. “It’s not about me, it’s about making sure everyone else enjoys what they’re doing.”

Goal setting is really important, says Lauren Shirk, Chicago Run’s director of communication. At each 5k race, there will be kids who run the 3.1 mile race under 20 minutes and others who will take an hour. No matter their time, young people participating and working at something is the key, she says.

Derrick agrees. He loves seeing the students he coaches knock time off their personal best. “Just keep on improving.”