After dropping out of high school nearly two years ago, 18-year-old Daniel Allen is back in classes and shaping up before joining the military.
With a dad in prison and a mom addicted to drugs, Kenneth Wooden, 18, has discovered the importance of adult role models and support networks with friends.
The two Stanislaus County teens are reaping the benefits of training for Teens Run Modesto, a full 26.2-mile marathon for county schoolchildren.
Workouts began in the fall and the Modesto Marathon is set for March 21. About 40 teenagers are participating in the event, which is in its first year.
"I wanted to exercise, lose weight," said Wooden, a senior enrolled in Beyer High School's AdvancePath Academy for at-risk students. "I'm also learning about commitment. You go, you run and you have to be committed to running. ... I want to finish and have some type of accomplishment."
Participants and educators say Wooden's description of what he's getting from the experience matches their objectives: teach teenagers how to set goals, pursue them, exercise, stay away from distractions, gain self- confidence and graduate.
Six schools have signed up students, with teachers organizing and leading running practices. They target at-risk students, but others have joined.
Each week, students add a mile to their regime, running at East La Loma Park and Modesto Junior College's track, among other areas.
Lured by shoes, PE credit
For many students, the lure was free running shoes, PE class credit and a way to lose weight, but they've stayed for other benefits.
"It gives me something to look forward to," said Allen, a senior at Elliott Continuation High School. "Training takes 26 weeks. It's going to take a long time. There are some cool teachers, people you can look up to, who encourage you. Not just teens, even as adults, everybody needs encouragement to get through life."
Members of the Modesto ShadowChase Running Club are organizing the program.
"It's good being around other people that you know actually care about you," Wooden said.
The adults mentor students as well as collect donations for training shirts, registration into races, and running shoes for the young runners — at a cost of about $150 each. Participants had their feet measured for shoes tailored to their running style, said Mike Araiza, program director.
"Something as simple as running can change a person's attitude about themselves," he said.
Juvenile Court Judge Linda McFadden originally pushed for Teens Run Modesto after encountering Students Run Los Angeles while competing in the Los Angeles Marathon. She said running is a rela- tively cheap sport and en- courages weight loss and goal setting.
Students Run LA started 21 years ago. This year, 3,000 students will participate, most of them attending schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Organizers target at-risk students who are not athletes.
Started with LA race
Last year, 99 percent of the students finished the LA Marathon, 98 percent graduated high school and 95 percent went on to some type of college.
The marathon approach is successful for several reasons, including introducing teens to benchmarks, said Eric Spears, co-founder of Students Run LA and prin- cipal of the Elementary and Secondary Community Day School at LA Unified.
"With running, the accomplishment is finishing. And we're showing them that doing something is important, that short-term goals lead to long-term goals," he said. "You'll keep getting better. We tell them it's the same with school — if you do your homework, you'll get better and do better in class.
"If you do better in class, you'll get better grades, which betters your chances of getting a diploma."
Teachers seeing results
Teachers already have noticed students absorbing that concept.
"These kids aren't used to setting goals, like 'this is my goal — how do I do it?' This event is all about delayed gratification," said Ed Jackson, teacher at Beyer's AdvancePath and lead teacher for Beyer's youth runners. "It helps when you're telling students to work hard for four years to graduate high school. It's one step at a time."
For Wooden — who has tallied a dozen miles so far — the Teens Run Modesto ex- perience has given him a chance to reach out.
"It's allowed me to impact others. I see some kids having trouble running, like they'll run a little, then walk some. I'll stay back with other runners and talk with them, encourage them to keep going," he said. "You can encourage and help someone with some of their problems."
For more information or to donate to Teens Run Modesto, visit www.teensrunmodesto.org.