By Mike Terry
San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol

Last weekend, Woodley Park in Van Nuys was filled with more than 2,500 young runners of various sizes, shapes and backgrounds, all taking part in a 15K (9.3 miles race) on Sunday, Nov. 14, with one goal in mind: getting another step closer to qualifying for the 2022 LA Marathon.

Among them were dozens of middle and high school student runners from the San Fernando Valley who are with the Students Run LA (SRLA) program.

More than 3,000 SRLA students and their teachers/coaches are eventually expected to qualify for the LA race, which takes place next March. Most of those youngsters at Woodley Park on Sunday were not elite athletes who run for their school cross-country teams or belong to club teams. But through hard work and determination, they may accomplish something not many people can.

The 2022 Los Angeles Marathon presented by ASICS will take place on March 20. The 26.2 mile race is less than five months away. These runners at Woodley Park—some who had never done any distance training before — have been pounding pavements and roadways since late August or early September.

But SRLA officials admit some of their students are behind in their training through no fault of their own, but because of COVID-19 protocols.

(Photo Courtesy of SRLA)
Hector Gill from Monroe High Police Academy (right) keeps pace with Austin Kunkle during the 15K run at Woodley Park

So SRLA — and its runners — are catching up. It is why there were plenty of sweaty faces, heavy legs and gasps for air on Sunday, and not just because of the unseasonable daytime temperatures that reached between 90- and 100-degrees 

“The enthusiasm [for running] was there,” said Eric Spears, a founder and SRLA board member. “[But the pandemic] definitely had an effect on getting our programs up and running again. That’s part of the reason why we’re a little behind — but not terribly so.

“These kids over the next month, have some work to do to catchup on their training. But they’re getting there.”

Getting The Right Mindset

SRLA holds several qualifying training runs leading up to the marathon. The 15K on Sunday was “the ‘crossover’ distance into being a distance runner,” Spears said. “The mindset has to change when you get to this distance. Now we only have four more miles to go to get to the half-marathon distance. So we do this in-between run to push the benchmark up.”

The half-marathon qualifying race will take place in January of 2022 in Pasadena, Spears said.

“I would say no one I saw [on Sunday] would not be able to run [the full] marathon if they keep training. Even though they were a bit slower than they thought they were gonna be, they stuck it out. The grit was there, the determination was there.”

Eric Spears, SRLA co-founder and board member

SRLA has, for the past 32 years, provided a free youth mentoring, marathon-training program throughout Los Angeles. Each year, it works with more than 180 schools, many of them in underserved communities, and annually prepares more than 3,250 students and volunteer teachers/coaches to run in the LA Marathon.

Spears said the organization was excited about resuming in-person training on campuses again although it was difficult initially to get the word out that the programs had returned.

“Many of these [on-campus] groups have started out this fall with smaller numbers than they are used to because they didn’t have the word-of-mouth, or the examples of kids walking around with their medals,” he said. “They didn’t have some of the same incentives that used to bring the kids to them. Or there were new students in [middle and high] schools that didn’t know anything about it.”

(The organization could not officially have its student runners in the 2021 LA event, which had been postponed until Nov. 7, because of COVID-19 pandemic protocols.)

The runners are expected to maintain a 16-minutes per mile pace for the entire marathon. They are currently running in training races of various lengths at different locations — flat, hilly, coastline, higher altitudes — to develop the needed muscle strength and stamina by March.

The fact that 2,500 participants completed the 15K course at Woodley Park was a positive sign, Spears said.

“I would say no one I saw [on Sunday] would not be able to run [the full] marathon if they keep training,” said Spears, who ran near the back of the pack to monitor the slower runners. “Even though they were a bit slower than they thought they were gonna be, they stuck it out. The grit was there, the determination was there.

“We’re sitting right around our 3,000 student level, which would be just a couple hundred short of what we were pre-pandemic. We’re back.”

Benefits of Training 

Besides the general health benefits from running, more than 95% of the students who attempt the marathon complete the 26.2-mile course, according to the SRLA website. And more than 95% of the seniors in SRLA graduate from high school with plans to attend college the following fall, 75% of whom are the first in their families to go to college.

Organization officials say more than 55,000 students have participated in the marathon over the 32 years, and many of them have run more than one marathon race.

After January’s half-marathon event, students who have yet to  qualify for their LA race number bib will have one final chance to earn one by completing a 30K (18.6 miles) qualifier run in February.

“They have to complete that in front of me at the 16-minute per mile pace,” he said. “If a runner cannot maintain that, they’re not completely out of the LA Marathon; but they will have to have additional supports in place (an adult with them in the second half of the run and other caveats) to enter.

“The whole point is they need to be safe. And the streets are going to open up (to resume traffic) right at my pace. So if [the kids are] behind me, they’ll end up on the sidewalks where there is no other support or water stations. And it can go bad if people aren’t careful. So we make sure if anybody is going to continue, there is an adult supervising them.”

Still it didn’t sound as if he expected to be swamped with stragglers, at least among those he saw running at Woodley Park.

“This group of students [this year] is impressive,” Spears said. “I see the back of the pack, not the ones who just run it out and they’re done. I see the back of the pack where they’re really having to push and dig deep. I saw all the grit and determination you could hope for from somebody who’s not going to quit, and who’s developing their character to be able to handle really tough situations.

“And they’re getting better at this as they go into the next set of runs. I have all the confidence in the world in every kid that I saw can be at the marathon if they want to be.”