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Los Angeles Marathon training builds life skills for ‘Students Run LA’ youths

You could say that running is in teenager Stacie Mayorga’s DNA – even if it hasn’t been easy.

Both her mother and uncle ran the Los Angeles Marathon in their youth. And this Sunday, March 17, the 16-year-old from North Hollywood is set to complete her second L.A. Marathon.

Mayorga is one of more than 3,000 students from throughout the region – from the San Fernando Valley, coastal communities like San Pedro and inland areas including San Bernardino County – who plans to run the marathon as a member of Students Run LA (SRLA), a nonprofit that offers free marathon training programs and mentorships to students at some 200 public schools.



Although Mayorga looked up to members of her family, running did not come naturally to her. Now a junior at Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, Mayorga recalled how difficult it was to run even a mile, when she tried it for the first time in gym class.

But she decided to join Students Run LA nonetheless.

“I love the whole training process. It’s really cool to see my pace and my general well-being improve,” said Mayorga.

Like many other students in the program, Mayorga said there were moments she doubted her ability to complete long races, let alone a marathon. And last year, when she ran her first L.A. Marathon, she struggled once she hit the 18-mile mark. Her mom was there, cheering her on, and Mayorga started crying.

“I started realizing, ‘Wow, I have 8 more miles left,’” she recalled. But she pushed on. “When I crossed that finish line, I was so, so happy because I had been running for over seven hours. … I was so excited to go back home and show my family my medal.”

Evelin Fuentes, Mayorga’s mother, said she never pushed her daughter to join Students Run LA. When Mayorga told Fuentes that she joined because of her mother’s own experiences in the program, Fuentes said she started crying.

Fuentes said she’s proud of how her daughter has pushed to challenge herself.

“Now she knows she can do more – she can do what she wants. She’s more confident,” Fuentes said. “And she’s making a lot of friends. She’s meeting new people” through SRLA.

Students Run LA is intended to provide supports to historically underserved students.

Over 95% of SRLA students who race in the L.A. Marathon complete it, and more than 95% of seniors in the program graduate high school with plans to go to college. Of those, three-quarters are the first in their family to pursue higher education, according to the organization, which has trained more than 75,000 student runners in the past 35 years.

The volunteer coaches are often teachers – who run alongside their students on race day.

While Students Run LA is designed to train students for marathons, its objectives run much deeper.

Alberto Alvarez Estrada, who coaches SRLA students at San Pedro High School in L.A.’s Harbor community, said Students Run LA focuses on teaching life skills like goal-setting and follow-through. They’re less concerned about how long it takes a student to finish a race; more importantly is that they cross the finish line.

“These are not kids who join cross-country normally,” he said. “They’re just regular kids who heard of the program … and are inspired to give it their all. … A lot of them realize later on, ‘Hey, I can do this. I can go to college. I can do anything.’”

San Pedro High senior Damian Mendoza, 18, is getting set for his fourth L.A. Marathon this weekend. He joined SRLA at his mom’s urging because she wanted him to try something new. What’s kept him going, he said, is the challenge of constantly improving himself and forming friendships with students outside his normal social circle.

Besides training for a marathon, Mendoza works about 18 hours a week in part to help support his family, and he also plays on his school’s tennis team. He admits that juggling everything can be stressful, but turns to running as an outlet.

“Running helps with all the stress and especially with trying to balance work and school. It’s helped a lot to keep my mind off worrying too much about everything,” said Mendoza, who is considering vocational school after he graduates to become an auto mechanic.

He credits Students Run LA for helping him set goals in life.

“It helped me as a person to become who I am now and strive for the best and try to achieve,” he said.

Similar stories about learning to persevere are echoed in the Inland Empire.

At Carter High School in Rialto, 16-year-old junior Joanna Ruiz is preparing for her third L.A. Marathon. She got into running after watching her brother, 11 years her senior, participate in SRLA. Today, he helps coach in the school’s Students Run LA program.

Joanna Ruiz said her biggest takeaway is learning to not quit “even when it’s hard and that’s all you want to do – just mentally being strong.”

Her brother, Hector Ruiz, said the program teaches students about commitment since training starts in August or September.

“It builds character. It’s hard. It doesn’t matter how well-prepared you are. You will hit a wall at some point, and it becomes mental,” he said about running a marathon.

Hector Ruiz, who also teaches as a substitute, said the values instilled in a marathon runner are also stressed in school.

“In school, you learn how to get through things when it’s hard,” he said.

Source: Orange County Register

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