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Running teaches teens life lessons

Wendy Jaehn executive director Chicago AreRunners Association.  | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Wendy Jaehn, executive director of the Chicago Area Runners Association. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 16, 2014 6:14AM



You think running’s all about the physical?

No way, says 16-year-old Icabel Rodriguez. “It’s all mental,” she told me during a recent phone interview. “If you tell yourself you can do, you can do it.”

That’s just the lesson the CARA (Chicago Area Runners Association) Road Scholar Program wants Rodriguez and the other 150-plus program participants to take away from their 14 weeks of training.

Started in 2008 and modeled after a similar initiative in Los Angeles, the Road Scholar program attempts to teach teens 14 to 18 life skills through running, according to Wendy Jaehn, CARA’s executive director.

The program works with a number of CPS high schools and Y’s, drawing students who are predominantly lower income and often at risk. Some 60 volunteers help train the teens. CARA and its sponsors cover all the race entry fees, shoes and uniforms.

The program is set up so that the students run a couple of days at their schools or nearby Y. Every Saturday they are picked up in their neighborhoods and taken to the lakefront to do a long run.

For many of them, this is their first time seeing the lakefront, according to Jaehn. They arrive the first day, kick off their shoes and soak in the beauty. “They are in awe,” she said. The program “is their freedom, their escape from where they are.”

They do a couple 5K and 10K runs, so they can get the feel of what a race is like. All this training is the lead-up to the Chicago Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon, which will be held Sunday.

Rodriguez, who will be a junior next school year at Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, got into the program at the urging of her counselor, Arturo Fuentes, who suggested the training when he learned she didn’t have anything in particular planned for her summer.

He leads their neighborhood training, and twice a week they meet for a 6:15 a.m. run. (While some of the students had never run before, Rodriguez had, while training for soccer and cheerleading.)

She says the program is really fun, and she’s learned a lot about the mechanics of running. “You have to be dedicated; you have to be patient,” she said. “I’ve learned to take my time, go at my own pace.”

While the physical is important, the life skills, the confidence and self-esteem from training and completing the half-marathon are priceless lessons, according to Jaehn. Some of the kids have friends and family doubting they can finish. But when they do, “they realize they have the potential to do anything, that they are worthy and that they can do anything if they work hard enough.”

And it’s not just the kids who get something out of the program. The adult volunteers do too. Many have told Jaehn it’s been a life-changing experience. It’s so popular they have a waiting list of potential volunteers.

The weekend before I talked to Rodriguez, who is from Clearing on the Southwest Side, her group ran 10 miles (one extra because they became a little lost). “I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

But she did. And now she knows she has it in her to complete any goal. That’s some lesson.

Email: sontiveros@suntimes.com

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