Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Downtown community finds its stride in running club

It's a grey but dry afternoon, and our little group is on the run -- down to the bottom of Pandora, a sharp left past the "whale wall," onward to the Inner Harbour and beyond. In a city full of runners, we blend in nicely.

But this is no ordinary running club. Based on an innovative program that got its start in Philadelphia two years ago, Victoria's newest running group is for people living in tough circumstance and poverty in the downtown. They run for half an hour twice a week, starting out in borrowed running shoes and working their way toward brand-new ones once they've stuck it out for 15 runs.

"This is my 10th time out, and I'm loving it," says Desi, a middle-aged participant who's new to running. "I hadn't run before other than for the bus, but it's been really good."

The concept for Every Step Counts is deliberately simple: A brief warm-up and a little conversation at the Cool Aid Society's Downtown Activity Centre; a 30-minute run; a quick stretch and some food back at the activity centre to wrap things up. The challenges people have in their lives are left behind for the duration.

"It's an exceptional program. I wish it had occurred to somebody in the medical and mental-health community long before this," enthused one participant with chronic mental illness. "It's very simple, it's very direct -- no psychobabble. I'm a 46-year smoker and am now determined to quit because I want to be able to keep this up."

The impetus for Every Step Counts came from Victoria Foundation executive director Sandy Richardson, who'd heard about Philadelphia marathoner Anne Mahlum and the success she'd had starting a homeless running group in that city.

Mahlum got the idea after running regularly past a homeless shelter during her marathon training. What started out as a few friendly words exchanged with the shelter residents she'd pass every morning eventually grew into the program Back on My Feet, which now operates out of five shelters in the Philadelphia area.

Richardson turned to local Frontrunners business owner and running enthusiast Rob Reid to help get something similar going in Victoria. The foundation, Frontrunners and a variety of other sponsors chipped in for funding and gear, and a part-time co-ordinator was hired in early February and Every Step Counts was launched.

It's very much a collective effort. Reid uses his extensive running contacts to pull together "gently used" running shoes and clothing for participants. Co-ordinator Gillie Easdon makes the food for the post-run snacks. On the day I joined the group for its run, two staff from Cool Aid were taking part, making sure that the slower runners always had company as we made our way through the downtown.

Easdon has her own interesting story for how she came to the job. She's a downtown resident who up until a year ago was more likely to find herself griping about the impact of street issues on her life rather than rolling up her sleeves to do something about them. "I held some ill-informed but common opinions," she says.

That changed when she decided to "get informed" by volunteering at a one-day event for the street community put on last October by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. Project Connect gave Easdon a new perspective on the issues around homelessness, and a desire to do more to help.

A runner herself, she loves seeing participants find their stride through the new running program. The group is now training for the Times Colonist 10K on April 26, with a few participants even pondering the Royal Victoria Marathon in the fall. Those interested in donating money, food or good-quality running gear to the program, contact Easdon at gillie.easdon@gmail.com.

The participant who'd earlier told me he was grateful for a lack of "psychobabble" says the program has brought him back to running after more than seven years of sedentary, unhappy living due to his struggles with worsening mental-health problems.

"When you're on medication for all of that, you don't get out much, and you start feeling worse and worse because you're not getting out," he says. "It's a negative cycle.

"But these runs are a simple achievement. We've got simple goals from one week to the next. It's all about just putting one foot in front of the other."

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Speaking of sports gear for good causes, the Cool Aid floor hockey team could really use some proper goalie equipment. If you can donate, call Mike at 250-380-8768.

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