At-risk teens find motivation in Run to Stay Warm
By Joe Harwood, EWEB
Group photo of the running class from Albany Options School

In September when teacher Mark Wolfe started the running class at Albany’s alternative high school for at-risk teens, his goal for students was that they simply be able to run a mile after six weeks.

Some of the participating students at Albany Options School had never really run before, but were willing to give Wolfe’s class a try.

Fast-forward to November, and the six students Wolfe has been coaching are preparing to complete the Eugene Water & Electric Board’s Run to Stay Warm 5K on Sunday. In fact, by race day, Wolfe said the students will have run about 100 miles each.

“I was a teacher who was kind of nervous and skeptical in September and now I’m in a place where I’m so proud and so excited for these students,” Wolfe said.

Anthony Cross, 18, has become a self-described fitness fanatic since he started the running class, which mixes distance, speed and agility work four days each week.

“Running just feels good and it’s a great stress reliever” Cross said. “It’s helped me do better in school and with grades because of the self-discipline you need.”

Cross estimates he’s lost about 11 pounds since he started the class, which takes students through city parks, running paths and the local neighborhood. The small school with about 75 students doesn’t have a gymnasium, so conducting physical education classes can be challenging.

But the running bug bit the students, and many now run on weekends. “They tell me it’s a healthy coping mechanism, and they’re right," Wolfe said.

Students on a final training run

Six weeks into the course, it was Cross who suggested the class run a race as a graduation of sorts. “He planted the seed in my head,” Wolfe said. “I thought, hey, we should run a race.”

Wolfe, who has run 26 marathons, including the past 10 Boston Marathons, had participated in the Run to Stay Warm half marathon twice before, and that’s the race he and the boys decided upon.

It helps that the all proceeds raised with the Run to Stay Warm go to help income-eligible families pay their heating bills during the winter months. If there’s one common theme running through the students Wolfe teaches, it’s that most live in poverty. “And this race helps that population,” he said.

Bryce Spowehn, 16, said he initially joined the running class because he had friends in it. But like Cross, has found motivation through the regular physical activity. Spowehn plans to enlist in the Army after graduation, and sees running as a good way to get through basic training. “It makes you feel good,” Spowehn said, noting that he’s had to tighten his belt several notches since he started running.

He might have to give back a notch after Sunday. Following the race, Wolfe will take his six runners to Voodoo Donuts in downtown Eugene to celebrate, and then stop by Pre’s Rock on the way home to Albany.

The race “adds a greater sense of achievement for me, and I also get to help people who can’t pay their bills,” Spowehn said.

Since its inception seven years ago, the Run to Stay Warm has raised more than $115,000 for EWEB’s Customer Care programs, which help thousands of families stay warm throughout the winter months.

Sunday’s race kicks off with the Kids’ 400-meter dash at 8:30 a.m., followed by the half marathon at 9 a.m. The 5k and 10K runners depart at 9:15 a.m.

Anyone not interested in running on Sunday can still help by sleeping in to stay warm. Call EWEB Customer Service at 541-685-7000 to learn how to donate to the Customer Care programs.