South Charlotte

Guys like this, they were born to run

The first boys' running practice at Elizabeth Lane Elementary this fall turned into somewhat of a counseling session.

The nine boys were at the track for running and a get-to-know you discussion.

"We were amazed at how much the boys were opening up," said Laura Fricano, a parent, triathlete and coach of the new Let Me Run program at Elizabeth Lane.

Discussing life experiences - especially hard ones, like feeling left out and getting angry - are just as important in Let Me Run as the actual running. The goal is to let the boys be themselves.

Let Me Run began in Charlotte two years ago, founded by Ashley Armistead. Armistead had seen girls participate in Girls on the Run, a popular girls running club, and wondered why there was nothing like it for boys.

Armistead, a runner herself, knew that running could have a strong impact more than just physically.

The program began with four schools in 2009 and now is in 26 private and public schools in Charlotte - including many in south Charlotte - working with 255 boys. It is open to fourth-grade through middle-school-age boys, who run a 5K together at the end of six weeks of training.

Armistead has received more than 500 emails, representing all 50 states, inquiring about expanding the club.

Perfect example

Early on, Let Me Run caught the attention of William Pollack, an associate clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of "Real Boys." Pollack has called Let Me Run the poster child for healthy programs for boys.

"Boys and young males are in crisis in our society," said Pollack. He ascribes some blame to the "boy code": Messages telling boys they should become pumped-up heroes and winners at all costs.

"What's unique about Let Me Run is they've taken the aspect of health and the aspect of sport and united them with a positive, proactive message about the psychology of what it means to grow up a young male in our society," Pollack said.

Armistead called Pollack to tell him about her ideas for Let Me Run. Pollack then visited Charlotte to meet with LMR's board of directors and review the program's curriculum, which Armistead wrote.

Boys are taught a lesson at each practice. They talk, play games and do activities to enforce that day's topic, which could range from bullying to gratitude to facing failure.

LMR also has practical ways of building character. The boys set personal goals, be that lowering their mile times or stopping to walk only three times in the 5K.

At some practices, they write encouraging messages to each other on index cards, which coaches distribute at the end of the season.

Sharing experiences

Emails from grateful parents have poured in to Let Me Run.

A parent of a sedentary, heavy-set child wrote to say her son came home from practice and went running again.

Others have described the joy in watching boys finish the 5K race and then staying by the course to encourage teammates.

Klingman said she savors a mental picture from a recent 5K, where sweaty, tired LMR boys gathered around the finish with red sports-drink mustaches.

"They were just glowing," she said.

Many boys don't pursue running regularly outside of LMR, but others, like Max Berger, 12, have gone on to competitive running. He joined LMR as a fourth-grader at St. Gabriel Catholic School.

Max now is at Holy Trinity Catholic Middle School, where he is on the cross-country team and is the school's third-fastest sixth-grader.

Two weeks into the season, Fricano said, she already has seen improvements in her team at Elizabeth Lane.

She's observed good behavior, increased endurance and more energy.

Last week, Fricano invited members of the Providence High School cross-country team to practice.

Three teenagers ran relays with the boys, jogged around the track with them and demonstrated proper push-up form.

"I saw more energy on Monday from those boys than I saw the week before," Fricano said. "One child who's really struggled, he got after it and really ran. That was just so amazing."

This year the boys will compete in the new Fix4TheDay 5K on Nov. 19. The race is organized by Charlotte running enthusiast Bob Weeks to benefit LMR.

Armistead said the only thing keeping LMR from expanding nationally is funding.

The club recently received $3,500 from The 704 Project, which paid for scholarships for 35 boys.

"We have the demand, we have the people - it's ready to go," she said. "We just need the money."