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Running with... Chicago Run

Changing Lives: One Step, One Mile at a Time

· community,coaching,inclusivity,running with,chicago


Ever since I started this project back in the summer of 2017, I've been searching for organisations that are using running to enhance the lives of those in 'marginalised' areas. I have found an abundance of organisations catering for those with the means to take part in physical activity but not those working in more challenging environments where sport is not easily accessible or participation is not the accepted norm. Whilst I was researching ahead of my return to Chicago, I found an organisation that looked to be the perfect fit - Chicago Run.

Chicago Run provides over 18,000 children and youth with high-quality enriching physical activity programs. Their goal is to improve the physical fitness and social/emotional well-being of participants by following a Sports Based Youth Development model and using 'trauma sensitive' coaches. Chicago Run’s programs reach the full continuum of childhood from early childhood through the teenage years. Their aim is to promote teamwork, commitment, perseverance, and a deeper understanding of community and diversity.

After a brief email exchange, I arranged to meet Alex (Director of Chicago Run) at a coffee shop in the suburbs. We spend a good hour discussing our experiences and learning from working in running for community development. After a fruitful exchange of ideas, Alex suggested I attend one of their 'Running Mates' events the following weekend.

Running Mates

The Running Mates program is designed to prepare young people of middle school and high school age to run in a local 5km race. During the program, participants learn about teamwork, commitment, and perseverance through a curriculum that incorporates running workouts, goal setting, nutrition lessons, and team-building activities. Running Mates aims to break down racial and cultural stereotypes by bringing students from different schools together for training runs, community service projects, local races, and other celebratory events.

Midway through the program, participants attend a community/team building field trip which includes a shorter 'practice' race. It's here that I first get to witness Chicago Run's work up close. The 2018 autumn outing took place at one of the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) 'Go Run' events at Humboldt Park. These events are similar to the parkrun concept many are familiar with outside of the US, offering free 5km runs for the local community. The students ran a 1 mile loop with members of the community as preparation for their big race the following month before taking part in team building exercises afterward.

A week later, I'm invited along to a coaching session at the National Teachers Academy, located in the south of city. Here I meet with Ryan & James who are coaches at Chicago Run and Jenna who teaches at the school and also works with Chicago Run to provide after-school running sessions for her students. The students energetically tackle a session of drills and games in the playground despite the bitter cold as they gear up for the season's 5km finale.

The program concluded with the big day at 'Pumpkins in the Park' - a Halloween themed 5k race in Lincoln Park. A group of volunteers and participants wrapped up warm in the freezing temperatures as the Running Mates joined the crowds in the race pens, excitedly waiting for the event they'd spent the entire Autumn preparing for. The excitement was too much for some and as the starting horn sounded, they eagerly sprinted away from the start before remembering conversations about the need for pacing and wisely slowing down to adopt a run-walk tactic. A river of orange spread through the race field as the Running Mates and volunteers accompanied each other round the course. I ran alongside two lads who were giving it their all and barely had they stopped to take a breath, started up again to tear away along the course. We take a brief moment at the finishing bend where the boys compose themselves before sprinting down the final straight leaving me for dead. For many of these kids, this race would have been their first time to cross a finish line and it was a privilege to witness them revelling in that 'finish line moment'. In other news, the post-race offer of pumpkin pie and toffee apples was a welcome change from brightly coloured sugar drinks and energy bars that taste like carpet.

A group of Chicago Run volunteer runners gathered in Lincoln Park, Chicago before the 'Pumpkins in the Park' 5km run

Volunteers prepare to accompany the Running Mates graduates around their 5km race on a freezing October afternoon at 'Pumpkins in the Park' (photo: Chicago Run)

A group of young runners excitedly sprint away at the start of the 'Pumpkins in the Park' in Lincoln Park, Chicago

The Running Mates tear away at the start of the 'Pumpkins in the Park' 5km, the smiles say it all (photo: Chicago Run)

Architecture Run

LACE (Leadership, Action, Community, Endurance) Up! is a program designed for Chicago Run program alumni who were previously involved in Running Mates and are now in high school. Participants have the opportunity to build leadership, mentoring, coaching, and career-readiness skills that will aid in their success through high school and beyond. In addition, LACE Up! students will continue their commitment to service and fitness by participating in community volunteer projects and running in local races.

On an October Saturday morning, I made my way to the famous Navy Pier to meet the Chicago Run team, LACE Up! participants and representatives from local architect firm JGMA. Every few months, JGMA lead an architecture tour (which rotates from neighbourhood to neighbourhood). Today's outing is Downtown, along the river that runs through the heart of the city. The aim is to provide an opportunity for a group run whilst learning about the history of Chicago's architecture. A healthy group of almost thirty make their way along the riverside, past bemused onlookers. At regular intervals along the three mile route, we would stop at points of interest for a quick talk from one of the team from JGMA. This broke the effort up nicely (and offered some audible relief) for those who were not used to running such a distance. At the end of the run, bagels, bananas and water were provided. I thought this was a great example of how local companies can partner with non-profits to build community, share expertise and encourage active lifestyles for their employees.

LACE Up! students, Chicago Run coaches and associates from JGMA at the conclusion of the Chicago Architectural Run

JTDC Running Program

The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) provides temporary secure housing for youth from the age of 10 through 17 years who are awaiting adjudication of their cases by the Juvenile Division of the Cook County Courts. The Center also provides care for youth who have been transferred from Juvenile Court jurisdiction to Criminal Court. These youth would otherwise be incarcerated in the county jail.

Children are provided with a safe, secure and caring environment with programs and structure that enhance personal development and improve opportunity for success upon return to the community.

Chicago Run introduced a running program to the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) in the spring of 2018. The success of the first iteration meant that they brought it back for a second season this autumn with the intention to commit long term. The program involves practices three days a week for a seven week season, concluding with a 3km race staged within the facility. All of the Chicago Run staff are trained to coach with trauma sensitive methods as most to all residents in the JTDC have been exposed to trauma in some capacity. The program aims to provide the JTDC residents with the physical benefits of running as well as the mental. The pattern of running has actually been shown to help clear and distract the mind and the approaches employed by Chicago Run aim to go deeper by helping to build the lifelong habit of running and to try to show that running can be used as a method to calm yourself and clear your mind in stressful situations.

I felt privileged to join the Chicago Run team organising the 3km run at the facility. Once we had signed in and completed the necessary security checks on arrival, we met the staff and set up a ~300m track in the yard which participants would run ten times. We encountered some challenges whilst erecting an inflatable start/finish arch in windy conditions and after the arch was retrieved from across the complex, it was secured with anything heavy we could lay our hands on. The residents arrived and after introductions and a race brief, we were underway. A chaotic start ensued as those at the front jostled for space and some serious athletic ability became apparent as a couple of the lads broke away to race at high speed. I ran alongside two teenagers who had adopted a more sedate pace and chatted to them about their experiences with running whilst giving them the occasional encouraging nudge when they began to flag. Both finished with impressive sprints before digging in to the snacks on offer at the finish.

On a personal note, as a teenager, I made poor decisions which resulted in some reckless, unacceptable behaviour. I was fortunate enough to have circumstances and a support framework around me that allowed me to recognise that I was on the wrong path and to make changes before any serious repercussions. It really struck me how the positive mentorship and thought processes that this program provides give these young men and women an opportunity to make positive changes in their lives at the right time. Witnessing this initiative and it's benefits first hand was undoubtedly the highlight of my time with Chicago Run.

Thank you to the staff at the JTDC and Chicago Run who made it possible for me to attend this event and learn more about such an innovative program.

With staff from Cook County JTDC and Chicago Run at the 3km event

With thanks to all at Chicago Run, particularly Alex, Ryan and Crystal for the warm welcome and making time to get me involved (and for the Thanksgiving lunch!).

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