The Real Reason I Started Marathon High
by Deborah Dunham, Founder of Marathon High, Inc.
When I was eight years old my dad taught me a valuable lesson that, unbeknownst to me at the time, would change the course of my life.
It was the Fourth of July in upstate New York, and like hundreds of other families, we were leaving the local lake after the fireworks extravaganza. But instead of everyone exiting gracefully, there was a colossal traffic jam. Cars were jockeying for position like minnows trapped in a bucket, tempers were flaring not unlike the explosions we just watched, and the potential for disaster loomed large. But instead of sitting there complaining about the frustrating situation at hand, my dad pulled our light blue wood-paneled station wagon over to the side of the road, walked into the busy intersection, and began directing traffic. He waved his arms frantically like an umpire calling a player out at second base until every last vehicle was gone. Then he calmly got back into our car and, without a word, took us home. Witnessing that one small act taught me a priceless life lesson: When you see something that needs to get done, you just do it. That’s the type of person my dad was. And that became the type of person I wanted to be.
Fast forward 30-plus years. I was picking up my teenage son from high school one day, and I noticed something unsettling -- the majority of kids were wandering slowly, aimlessly away from campus like they didn’t have anywhere important to go or anything important to do. Sure there were varsity athletes who were in uniform and out on the fields, but what about the rest of the students? The other 90 percent? What were those teens doing? In today’s latchkey society, who was focusing on them after school? Granted these kids are old enough not to need childlike supervision, but that doesn’t mean their after-school hours are always filled with positive, healthy endeavors.
Armed with my dad’s lesson firmly ingrained in my mind, it was then that the idea for Marathon High was born.
The vision for this program was really the culmination of a troubling stereotype I have noticed for years with teenagers. Like the kids without anything meaningful to do after the final bell rings, they are often a forgotten segment of our society. Teens are sometimes treated like they don’t matter, like they don’t have a voice or an opinion that people want to hear. Like they are not individuals brimming with potential and greatness if only we, as a culture, could figure out a better way to tap into that and give all of them a chance.
Instead, these young adults are sometimes regarded as troublemakers with bad attitudes, a lack of ambition and the propensity to engage in a myriad of problematic behaviors. Not all teens are treated this way, of course, but in my experience, I have seen enough of this. Let’s just say that they are not always treated with the mutual respect that we as adults like to demand.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some truly wonderful teachers and parents and members of society out there (those are the individuals we attract to Marathon High who go on to become our coaches and mentors). But there are also some who tend to shut out the 13 to 18 age group.
Take education, for example. I’ve often found it strange that in a time of such need for reform and so much controversy and debate flying around about the best way to educate our kids -- and get them to perform well on standardized tests (a pet peeve of mine that I will save for another discussion) -- we tend not to ask students what they think. What would work better for them in school? What will they respond to? How we can serve and teach them in a more positive, effective, relevant and fun (hello!) way? We, as a society, don’t ask.
Add to that a media and Hollywood frenzy that tells teens they’re not good enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not whatever enough. Is it any wonder that they don’t always feel great about themselves and what they can contribute to this world? Is it any wonder that they can feel insignificant? Like they don’t matter?
Then there is the unfortunate judgement that sometimes still exists with our urban youth. I know this because the kids have told me about the treatment they encounter, just because they’re a minority without an affluent home life. “They judge us by how we look versus what we have to say and who we are on the inside,” one teen told me. It’s a shame, really, that they feel the very discrimination that our country has fought so hard to overcome. Again, not all the time. But isn’t just once one time too many?
I believe we have been cheating teens and doing them a disservice.
It occurred to me that solving this problem required something bigger than addressing the offenses directly. Sure we could spend countless hours fighting the media, school districts, and community members, but transforming the future for teens in a positive, life-altering way required getting directly into their hearts and minds.
So I began to think...what if.
What if...we could inspire teenagers to view themselves as worthy and full of potential, no matter how other people sometimes make them feel?
What if...we could change the direction of their lives by getting them to accomplish something big?
What if...we could offer a positive option for them after school that would allow them to feel valued, included, capable, and respected on their own terms?
What if...running was the way to get them there?
Throughout everything in my life, one thing that I’ve always been is a runner. It makes me feel strong, powerful, beautiful, creative, and alive. At times, it’s my best friend. It challenges me like nothing and no one can. And it brings out the very best in me.
It’s also open to anyone. Running doesn't discriminate. Instead, it reminds us that we are all one, all the same. You can’t really tell who’s having a hard time in life, who comes from a difficult background, who has financial struggles, who comes from a broken home. Even so, teens -- particularly inner-city ones -- can seem like an unlikely group of long-distance runners, but you know what? They aren’t.
Since I started Marathon High nine years ago, I have grown and learned and opened up more because of these kids. They are truly beautiful when they run. Free and open and full of life. It’s like someone turned on their inner-most light switch that radiates confidence, joy, strength, power and, most of all, potential. And that light spreads to anyone and everyone around them.
We all want the same things in life -- to be noticed, to be recognized, to be challenged, to be given permission to be our true selves, and to be given an opportunity for greatness. So what if combining running with adult mentors and a very challenging goal could be the means to making that happen for teens today?
When the idea for a non-competitive running club to train high school students for a half-marathon first came into my head, I instantly knew it was right. True, I didn’t have all the answers, but I believed in the concept wholeheartedly. I also believed that when I went to the first school to make my pitch, the students were going to look at me like, who is this crazy lady standing up here telling me that I can run 13.1 miles? That I have to train after school and early every Saturday morning for four months? And why does she keep smiling when she talks about how great it is to run that far?
But you know what? Those thoughts were all in my head. These teens couldn’t have been more receptive to the idea -- especially when they found out that it was non-competitive, they could run their own pace, and they could do what felt right for their own bodies (with no one making them feel like they weren't good enough). Be yourself! What a concept!!
In order to make this program fly, there were three components that I scribbled down on a scrap piece of paper, which, to this day, I will not waver:
1. The program had to be free. There could be no barriers to entry.
2. Mentoring had to be a major part. This was not going to be like other sports programs where coaches were on the sidelines. Adults would become actively involved in the lives of these kids and take a genuine interest in getting to know them week in and week out.
3. Community service had to be part of the deal. I cannot stand people and organizations who take, take, take. I have seen too much of that and feel that a sense of entitlement is a problematic trend with some youth today. Our kids would give back in a meaningful way.
I would also demand excellence, commitment, and determination from these teens -- the same qualities that I demand from myself.
Since the visit to that first school almost nine years ago, the Marathon High circle has grown. We have served over 1,800 teens in the Jacksonville area, a number that I am proud of. There is a buzz now that is constantly flowing with positive energy and possibilities. And every day I get emails, text messages, or phone calls from others who want to be involved in our work and help further our mission. More importantly, I have received hundreds of comments from our teens about how this program has helped or changed their often difficult and turbulent lives.
I could go on and on about the physical benefits of running including stronger lungs and stronger legs, but what I really want these teens to get out of Marathon High is a stronger heart, mind, and soul. I want them to know that they are powerful, capable, and worthy -- not only in a race, but on the road of life, no matter how others sometimes make them feel. I want them to know that running is a sport that is open to anyone of any background, size, shape, or ability. I want them to know it’s a freakin’ amazing way to work through your problems, to make big issues seem smaller, and to release stress and negativity -- leave it on the road, I always tell them.
I also want these kids to know that they are destined for greatness in life, that crossing the finish line on race day is only just the beginning. If they can train hard for months, stay committed, not give up when the going gets tough (and it most definitely does at times), then they can truly accomplish anything in life.
This may seem like a tall order, but if I can get the community to come together to make these things happen, then I will have succeeded in my mission. And I will have honored that important lesson my dad taught me all those years ago.