Running for more than a good cause

Students Run Philly Style gives teens tools for success — in marathons and in life.

Teenagers in Philadelphia aren’t any different than teens in other cities. Their idea of “running” is hopping on SEPTA to meet friends. But with nearly half of kids under the age of 18 overweight, the organization Students Run Philly Style is trying to coax them out of the mall, away from their computers and off the couch to run toward a healthier lifestyle.

SRPS was created to improve the health of teens at risk for obesity, diabetes, asthma and drug and alcohol abuse by having them train and complete a marathon.

Heather McDanel, program director for SRPS who is an advent runner, said she chartered the program in Philadelphia to give something valuable to the community.

“I had some tough things happen, and during that time, it was the people that I ran with [who] made the hugest difference in my life,” McDanel said. “I knew [there] was something unique about long-distance running and the amount of time you spend with people, sharing and becoming close in a non-threatening way.”

The program is available to teenagers in predominantly low-income, minority communities in North and West Philadelphia, where rates of childhood and adult obesity are high and access to athletic facilities are low.

“There’s something unique about the way a relationship is formed through running that’s particularly helpful to teenagers,” McDanel said.

SRPS is affiliated with the National Nursing Centers Consortium, which receives help from the School District of Philadelphia, various charities, youth organizations and Temple.

The program is funded through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and resources that include private donations from the community.

The program’s concept is simple: to use adult mentors to show young people the benefits running has on improving health, lifestyle, physical fitness and education. It teaches students how to set and achieve goals through the running of a marathon. It also shows youths who have been labeled as slackers, underachievers and misfits that they can go the distance with the right amount of training, discipline and help from friends.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, obesity among ages 12 to 19 increased from 5 percent in 1980 to 17.6 percent in 2006. The NCHS data also show that at least 80 percent of children who were overweight at ages 10 to 15 became obese by age 25.

The pilot program, Students Run L.A., began in 1987 when a Los Angeles high school teacher challenged six of his students to train and run with him in the city’s marathon in order to prove they can achieve their goals. Not only did the six complete the city’s marathon, they received their high school diplomas and went on to college.

The success of the Students Run L.A. didn’t go unnoticed. By 1993, the program was being incorporated in school districts around the country, including the Philly chapter.

SRPS has increased high school graduation rates, helped improve students’ health and provided a safer after-school choice for hundreds of teens.

It has also helped build self-esteem and positive relationships between local teens and their adult mentors.

North Philadelphia native Isaiah Smith, 14, had never run long distance when he signed on to compete in the SRPS marathon.

He said his friends thought he was crazy, but he decided to give it a try, despite admittedly having self-esteem issues and feeling sensitive about his weight.

“If you realize that you can work hard for nine months and come to practice every day and complete a marathon when you’re only 14, you realize that you are capable of really great things beyond that,” Smith said. “You know that you are able to ace your tests, or go to college – whatever it may be. You see that there are bigger goals for you.”

Lauren Williams can be reached at

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