On the Road with Dave and Dan: Notes from the 2016 MILE DAYS Grassroots Tour

Publisher’s note: we are sharing this story written by our Editor Jeff Venables for the Summer AMAA JOURNAL. It captures some of the fun we see in NATIONAL RUN A MILE DAYS

By Jeff Venables

American Running Association-AMAA executive director Dave Watt wants your attention. More specifically, in order to generate interest and involvement in the ARA’s flagship youth-fitness program NATIONAL RUN A MILE DAYS (NRAMD), Dave believes in not just grassroots organizing but grassroots public relations tactics as well.

ARA - AMAA Executive Director Dave Watt on the road, and in "serious" mode. Olé!

The now nearly month-long series of local mile runs the program helps organize annually in schools and communities across the country is now in its 10th year. That alone brands it a success. Yet the need to grow is always apparent, as P.E. programs for America’s youth continue to be marginalized, in spite of many promising top-down efforts like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, started in 2013. Even the much-vaunted President’s Challenge Youth Fitness Program advises officials to start kids running one mile only as late as the fourth grade. An overwhelming majority of lifelong runners, coaches and trainers will tell you that this is far too late; many will tell you age four is much more like it.

In any case, Dave Watt believes that the battle for the true political will to change the nation’s trajectory away from youth sedentarism will always be an uphill one. True change happens not within vast bureaucracies but in what Dave calls “hot spots,” small communities in cities and towns that from the bottom up lead the way organizing MILE DAYS events and similar programs to show kids firsthand the lifelong joys and benefits of running and physical activity. These hot spots, in his experience, are almost always the result of a tiny handful of people—or often single individuals—who deeply care enough to volunteer, organize, fundraise and cajole their communities and schools into action.

And so it is only natural that Dave wants to get out among these communities each year to help draw attention at the local level, as well as to see how they’re doing. Over the years the ARA has offered much support for local mile runs in as much as its meager budget allows—by providing t-shirts, fitness literature, information on effective organizing and other assets. Registered host schools currently receive free promotional, training and logistical support tools and “Are you a Miler?” t-shirts for every student participant. But many of the programs that have been hauling out the traffic cones, setting up the water stations, ordering the race medals and wrangling students, parents and teachers to participate each year are largely self-sustaining.

For an up-close look, on May 1, Dave Watt and Dan Kesterson, publisher of ARA-partner Youth Runner magazine set out in a boldly-decorated NRAMD cargo van to check in with as many of these events as they could. “It was a tight turnaround,” Dave says. “Coming from the AMAA symposium at the Boston Marathon, I had just one week in between.”

Dave Watt poolside (left) with Dan Kesterson

Kesterson, who is based in Portland, Oregon, flew out to meet Dave in Atlanta, where they were first tasked with finding the colorfully shrink-wrapped van in the airport parking garage where it had been left by MILE DAYS program coordinator Maria Kolanowski. “I had Maria position the van in Georgia because her daughter is a student athlete at the University of Georgia,” Dave explains. Like a scene out of the beat-the-clock adventure reality show The Amazing Race, they located the van in a garage “in the most obscure spot possible,” he laughs.

This first hurdle vanquished, the two-man NRAMD 2016 Tour headed south to Columbus, Georgia, where they had to set up by 3 p.m. in a park for the first event. There they met up with longtime ARA associate, podiatrist and AMAA member Ed Lopez, who, having worked as a venue manager for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, coordinated the tent setup and the rest of the logistics for a successful first MILE DAYS race.

7th Graders, Robious, VA

Immediately following that, Dave and Dan began driving some 300 miles east, with Dan at the wheel and Dave navigating. Destination: The RUN A MILE DAYS “annual strategic planning conference,” as Dave refers to it, in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where the two would map out their plans for the next six weeks in detail.

Teacher Amy Canada runs
with one of her students

“It was not quite ‘Bing and Bob’ but ‘Dave and Dan’ had some good times together both on the road and at schools in the U.S.,” says Watt, referring to The Road to Morocco and other classic Bing Crosby-Bob Hope road comedy films.

A few days later, traveling nearly 500 miles, the NRAMD 2016 Tour rolled into Midlothian, Virginia, in all its shrink-wrapped glory. It was here, about 13 miles west of Richmond, where a large middle school was hosting its first ever MILE DAYS events, held ambitiously over two days in early May, with some 1,400 kids participating.

In addition to robust participation in this year’s NRAMD, the Robious Middle School had previously created “Fitness Fridays” during the school’s first academic semester. Every Friday for 30 minutes, students and teachers participated in a physical activity appropriate to a specific fitness theme. “In October, the UCI World Championships took place in our town,” Health and Physical Education teacher Amy Canada told runamile.org writer Jennifer Pellegrini, “so the theme that month was biking.”

Such initiatives help ensure students are ready for NRAMD. And in addition to the usual course preparations, according to Pellegrini, Robious school principal Dr. Patrick Held even emailed parents to remind them about the upcoming MILE DAYS events.

Watt praised Canada and the other administrators’ efforts. “I like to see a community or school embrace the concept of getting every single kid to run the mile,” he says. “It’s about getting out there and moving.”

It is ideal for schools to keep kids active all year round, of course, and yet too often what can happen is that competitive sports lead that charge, becoming de rigueur and inevitably excluding many students. MILE DAYS seeks to bring an entire school together one one day—and there is great power in that all-inclusiveness. When a whole school does a physical event together, Dave points out, “Even the jaded eighth graders who are too cool for school,” can feel a kind of reverse peer pressure to participate.

Over the course of the spring and into mid-June, Dave and Dan both visited NRAMD events on their respective coasts.

Dan garnered some prime MILE DAYS visibility by strategically parking the NRAMD vehicle right outside the entrance to Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, where running luminaries like Nike chairman emeritus Phil Knight were entering and exiting during the 2016 NCAA Track & Field Championships in June.

Kesterson also visited schools in Seattle, Salem and elsewhere. Along with AMAA members Patrick Hogan, MD, who is based in Tacoma, Washington, and [Tanie Hotan, MD], who helped organize a private school event, Dan has been hugely instrumental in bringing attention and organizational expertise to communities in the Pacific Northwest.

Dan Kesterson with Jennifer Pellegrin

“Every school set up their MILE DAYS a little differently,” Dan says. He recalls one Seattle school at which the “hard chargers” among the first and second graders there all ran the mile’s four laps, and then went on to voluntarily complete a few extra laps—giving the lie to the idea that the mile is beyond the reach of children as young as six or seven.

At the widely successful event at [Abiqua Academy], the private school in Salem, a roughly square course in the middle of a field featured cheerleaders, students blowing bubbles, music and various other entertainments set in each corner to entertain and encourage the runners as they passed.

Dan watched as veteran MILE DAYS middle schools added their elementary-school counterparts into the festivities for the first time this year. He also witnessed veteran schools from last year attracting additional schools from the same district who were new to MILE DAYS this year. He observed what Dave has as well: There is often a single “point person” who then tells other teachers, friends and others in the community, “and it grows.”

In western Pennsylvania, Watt met up with AMAA board member and longtime event organizer S. Mark Courtney in Grove City. It was here that Watt witnessed an entirely uncoerced occurrence that epitomizes the spirit of NRAMD: “The elementary school kids had come to watch the older runners, and they spontaneously began cheering the slower finishers among the middle school kids, without the teachers having to tell the kids what to do,” he recalls.

The contrast is stark between these grassroots, earnest scenes of genuine enthusiasm and the standoffish hedging that can occur in bureaucratic circles whenever Dave tries to start MILE DAYS programs through more political channels. This year he’d arranged to meet with at least one city mayor’s office, and wound up in a drawn out meeting wrought with noncommittal doublespeak, thinking, “This isn’t going to go anywhere. This staffer is going to go talk to his boss, who might draft a memo to the mayor, and…nothing ever happened.”

Still, the boots-on-the-ground approach to searching for new schools remains hard work. In a perfect world, being an exercise enthusiast would be a prerequisite for hiring all new teachers. So what if you could go to where they gather, en masse?

This is precisely what Toni Aluisi, a public relations professional for NRAMD, did in April. Aluisi attended the SHAPE America National Convention & Expo, held this year in Minneapolis.SHAPE America is a national association of P.E. teachers based in nearby Reston, Virginia—just across the Potomac from the Bethesda-based ARA-AMAA headquarters.

Toni immersed herself in the scene, which attracts some 5,000 health and physical education professionals annually. She handed out fliers and, amazingly, got several new schools to join this year’s MILE DAYS, even though it was but one month away.

Next year the association meets in Boston, which is quite serendipitous for Dave Watt and the other hardworking directors of AMAA, who as it happens organize a certain gathering every April there as well. He has submitted a proposal to deliver a presentation at the 2017 expo, a perfect fit of pitch and audience if ever there was one. To learn more about SHAPE America, visit shapeamerica.org.

For information and resources on how to join the NATIONAL RUN A MILE DAYS effort, as well as to read more about the many great schools and communities now fully committed to the cause, visit runamile.org.

Fundraising continues to present challenges to MILE DAYS, but in the big picture Dave sees it as growing pains. He is currently looking for sponsorships, and doesn’t rule out crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter. Just as there are many motivated individuals who have single-handedly transformed entire communities—Watt estimates 15,000 kids are now involved in a program Patrick Hogan started by himself in his Puget Sound community—there are just as many equally committed private citizens who understand the importance of introducing children to a lifetime of physical fitness. They are the ones who get it, not the cumbersome bureaucracies. As Dave Watt puts it, “When you stay away from politics, it works.”

Jeff Venables is the editor of Running & FitNews® and a regular contributor to the AMAA Journal.

Cacapon XC Camp 2016 – Bringing back
the Past

Cabin 22. It has been home to the West Springfield Cross Country (XC) team for virtually every year since their former legendary coach Vic Kelbaugh started taking the boys’ team to West Virginia in the late 70s. In the recent past, it has been the Top 12 of each gender who earns the opportunity to spend 3 ½ days in Cabin 22. Some team members who hear of the chance to earn a spot wonder what is the big deal. For anyone who has gone on a team’s XC Camp, the answer is somewhat obvious. For one you are away from home. Two, you realize that this is special. You bond with 12 other runners. It is the essence of being a member of a cross county team. Throw together 4 seniors, 3 juniors, 3 sophomores and 2 freshmen. What other high school sport has this mix of athletes in all years of high school forming a varsity team?

[The following diary of events is similar for each gender group. The only difference with the Boys is that they are on their own to make meals. No Moms come along, as there is no space for them to stay overnight. Groups had formed pre-Cacapon to come up with meal planning, shopping and packaging. One other difference in the Boys’ 3+ days is the final long distance point-to-point run. They start where the girls finish and run a couple extra tenths of a mile. ]

Day 1. 13 Girls arrive and settle in as the two Moms who act as Chefs and chaperones organize the kitchen. The 12 girls claim rooms, beds and floor space. There is a pecking order that determines who gets what. Senior Captains have one room. Other seniors grab a bed to share. Usually, the underclassmen end up on air mattresses in the center open room. Thirty minutes later it’s time for Run #1, Tour of the Park. This run began in the early days and encompasses all areas of Cacapon State Park, roughly a 4+ mile run that has uphill climbs leading back to Cabin 22. Dinner and showers are next. The head coach gathers the girls and lays out the plan for the next morning, the famous Mountain Run. This is the first of 3 key “runs” that make up the 3 plus days at Cacapon.

Boys Pre-mountain run
Leaps of joy after reaching the mountain top

Day 2. Mountain Run. Just saying those words brings fear to some and respect to others. Why would anyone want to run 4 miles up a mountain? Well, this team finds out every year. It turns out that Coach Kelbaugh had a method to his madness. He figured that testing his runners on a true uphill climb over 4 miles with a 1600 ft. elevation climb would be the toughest run his runners would see all season. Running up the Mountain would give them a sense of calm when it is race day in the season. So this team of girls does a light jog from the Cabin to the starting point on the road that leads to the top of the mountain. The coaches split the runners into groups based on ability, current health, fitness level to-date and past performances. The goal is to have as many runners finish at the top around the same time. The spread for the girls is around 11 minutes from the first group to the last. Coaches head up in cars along with the Moms who hand out water at the 2-mile mark. The weather is good with temps in the mid to upper 50s at 7am. At the top, the two coaches await who will appear first. It turns out that one runner ran better than seeding and was never caught by other runners who started later. Then our #1 or #2 runner depending on the day and course, finishes and nabs a spot on the All-Time Top 20 list. Once all are finished the girls walk on a cool-down towards the Overlook. With watermelon in hand, the girls walk as big blog down the gravel road. We are pretty happy coaches as all 13 had completed the Mountain Run, something not seen in over 10 years. The rest of the day is rest and some team activities. In mid to late afternoon, the girls go on another 4+-mile run. This time it’s outside the park and is a big square; thus nicknamed the “Box Run”.

Day 3. The morning begins with the 13 girls given a 25 to 30 min run of their own within the confines of the Park. They form 3 groups and head off. The two coaches, Head Coach Chris Pellegrini and myself, start preparing for the “Scavenger Hunt Run”. We aim to get it started at 10:30. We assign the group of 13 into 3 groups. Speed is not the key element of the teams in winning the scavenger hunt. Success is being aware of things seen on the Park “Familiarization Runs”. Each team has the use of their cell phones so using clues online can reveal the correct answer. In many cases, the online searches can lead to possible answers that are nowhere close to the correct location. The starting point for the Scavenger Run is outside Cabin 22. The Finish spot is in the main game room in the Lodge. The teams will pick up a plastic oversized pencil at each Clue location. Inside the pencil is the next location’s clue plus some candy as a reward. All 3 teams order of clue locations has them running in opposite directions to start. This exercise is simply a group event with running thrown in to make it extra challenging. The goal is to have fun and create more bonding among the teammates. It certainly worked on the girls’ team that finished first in just over 31 minutes. The last place team that skipped the final clue was a bit less enthusiastic at the end. Next up: Goal setting, the most important element of the Camp. After a lunch break and nap, we gathered in Cabin 22 and had each girl (boy when they had their goal-setting on the day after their Scavenger Run) write down their personal and team goals along with any general comments. For many of the runners, this is the first time they have written down or thought about personal and team goals. We prod the girls to expand upon a goal or comment. Some girls admit to their own demons when it comes to racing and being fearful at the start of races. The open forum is a big plus for each of the runners. This winds down with the coaches giving them our own reflection. In my case, I thank the girls from 2015 for thinking of me when I could not make it to Cacapon due to complications from side effects for my immunotherapy drug Trial against melanoma. This year, life has changed and I tell the girls that just being here is motivation enough for me.

Last event on a Full day: the Team Relays. This team event splits the team into 3 teams where the coaches do their best to make the teams of equal speed. The course is approximately 800m on grass that surrounds the Main Lodge and near the golf course. The race has each runner running twice. On the second lap for the team, we permitted the teams to change their order, provided someone on that team could race on shorter rest. Once the start was given, the three teams went out racing hard. Gaps were close between teams.

Now it was phase 2 or the second 800m for each runner. This tested the strength and showcased those runners who are both healthy and have run for a year or more. In the end, teams were only separated by 35+ seconds 1st place to 3rd place over a 24 minute race. The day of running was over, but the evening of ice cream, bowling and scary story night followed. Two coaches had a near-death match in bowling with the young female “Coach Paige” besting the Head Coach Chris Pellegrini with the highest score of the night and a tie in another game. Chris did win two games to have the edge. The scary story event went off well for all the “newbie runners”. Yours truly led the scary event to its frightful conclusion. Off to bed as the final running event was early the next morning –

Day 4: “The Junkyard Dog”. This is the final run of the big 3 running events, the first two being the Mountain run and the Team Relays. This is a point-to-point run on back roads outside the Cacapon State Park. Much like the Mountain Run, we handicap the lineup of our Top 13 and start them off on the 7.3-mile run. The goal is to have the team finish in a tight pack. The gap from first runners off (the expected slower-paced girls) to the final pairing was roughly 10 minutes. The name of the run reflects back about 15-20 years when dogs not on leashes would come out towards the street in full barking mode. In recent years, we have seen more deer darting out across the road then the wild barking dog. The finish line is at the Fish Hatchery near the main road. This location serves as the Start Point for the Boys distance run aptly called the “Fish Hatchery Run”. The boys race 7.4 miles back along similar roads and finish in the Cacapon State Park. On this day, the girls had fairly ideal running conditions. We got them to the start area by 7:15 with a 7:30 start. At the finish, 10 of the 13 broke 60 minutes with our top finisher (Emily) running in the mid 52 minute range to add her name to the Top 20 All-Time list. *It must be noted that our Boys team who is heavy on senior talent raced in an aggressive pack on their long distance run. The result was 4 Boys making our All-Time list and all 4 being in the top 11 of All-Time.

Girls team coaches

The Camp ends for both genders after the long distance run. The life in Cabin 22 quiets down. The girls turn over a spotless cabin to the Boys and then they clean the cabin to an equally pristine state for the next cabin guests. The coaches leave with great memories and motivation for the upcoming season. Lastly, we all collapse for a long night of sleep.

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