by Tom Rademacher
Forget everything you’ve ever read or heard about the so-called “loneliness of the long-distance runner.”
At Lee High School, you’ll find a unique running club in full swing, an after-school fitness party where students and staff are invited to come together and embrace not only running, but the benefits of belonging to something greater than themselves.
It’s entitled the “Runnin’ Rebels” running club, the brainchild of David Britten, superintendent of the Godfrey-Lee School District, to which Lee High belongs.
Where another educator might pack up for the afternoon and head home after the bell rings, Britten sees an opening to make a difference in the life of a student or staffer. All they gotta do is show up with a pair of sneakers and a little desire.
“It actually began when I was in Wayland, and working as a principal, and we had a running club for 5th- and 6th-graders called ‘Little Cats,'” says Britten. “When I came here in 2002, we began the running club, and it’s been in place ever since.”
The district probably couldn’t have found a better advocate for running than Britten. A 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army, fitness has been an integral part of the superintendent’s regimen his entire life.
He ran his first River Bank Run in 1985, the Chicago Marathon in 1990, and has graduated in the last decade or so to ultra-marathoning, with races of more than 62 miles under his belt.
On the day I visited the high school, though, the only goal was to do your best on a loop established throughout the high school hallways that measures one-seventh of a mile long.
Enter the school’s gymnasium from the west side, and you’re immediately confronted by blur after blur, as students and teachers pass by in a counter-clockwise direction, settled in for a 30-minute stint.
“I needed to change my lifestyle, knew I needed to join this club.”
Britten is usually among the group, but today, he’s taking the time to explain the genesis of the club, the rationale for keeping it intact, and the impact it’s had on participants.
“For one thing, a lot of these kids don’t have anything to do after school,” he explains. “This gives them an avenue; otherwise, they’re just going to be hustled out of the building.”
His method of recruiting more and more students into the Runnin’ Rebels is simple: “I just badger ’em enough where they eventually realize that they can do something they didn’t think possible.
“I would have hated to do my next career and just deal with adults,” he says of the transformation from the armed forces to education. “I did that in the Army. But I want to be with kids, and I found I could easily encourage kids to run.”
During the “inside” season, which includes 30 daily runs from November until March – or until the weather improves to allow jogging outside — the goal is to cover the loop as many times as possible within 30 minutes or so.
For those who choose to walk – like Guidance Counselor Betty Killoran, for instance — that translates to a mile or two. For the speediest in the group, it can mean up to three or four miles, even a bit more.
Those who show up for at least 20 of the 30 inside runs qualify for a T-shirt, and this year’s giveaway boasts a quote on the back from one of Britten’s mentors, ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes, which in part urges people to “immerse yourself in something deeply and with heartfelt intensity,” and implores those same people to “continually improve, never give up – this is fulfillment, this is success.”
Britten, 60, leads the club with humility. Rather than boast about his running achievements and coaching record in cross-country and track, he’s more apt to point out a day in his life when he did his best and scored average.
“I was addressing the senior class after they bombed the MMEs (Michigan Merit Examinations),” he recalls, and shared with them in a parallel way how he was able to complete only 68 miles of a 100-mile run.
“You know what a 68 is?” he asked them.
“It’s a ‘C.’ I was supposed to run 100 miles and get an ‘A.’
Britten acknowledges that the lesson had some incidental “shock value,” because many of Lee’s students have never known anyone to run or even try to cover 100 miles at a stretch.
But what he wanted them to walk away with was the realization that if you’re capable of more, you can’t settle for average. “Be determined to do better next time,” he remembers telling them.
Britten’s philosophy is gaining momentum and drawing in more and more participants. In the beginning years, the club operated with a handful of runners. Today, it’s not unusual for dozens to turn out.
Among them is a social studies instructor, Tom DeGennaro, who has endured 14 knee surgeries. Just over a year ago, he weighed nearly 300 pounds and suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure.
Today, his weight is around 230 and he’s got his sugar and BP under control.
He began by alternately walking and jogging for intervals of three to five minutes. Now, he’s kicking out runs of up to six miles at a time. On the day I visited, he was celebrating his 124th straight day of running.
DeGennaro’s three daughters – ages 7, 11 and 13 – provide him extra inspiration: “I want to walk ’em all down the aisle some day.”
Lee High senior Jordan Lovett enjoys belonging to the club not only for health reasons, but because “I’ve made a lot of friends, and it helps relieve a lot of stress from high school. It gives us an escape from reality.”
Lovett hopes to study social work at Aquinas College, and compete for the school’s track and cross-country teams. “I probably wouldn’t be as good a runner as I am,” she says, had she not joined the Runnin’ Rebels.
Sophomore Hector Grande is into soccer and martial arts. The running club is a natural extension of both, providing him an aerobic activity that, same as Lovett, doubles as a mental outlet.
“There are stresses in life that you need to get past,” he says, “and sometimes, running is the answer to that.”
For senior Paulina Cabrera, running may help pave her way into the U.S Marine Corps, in which she hopes to enlist following graduation. “I’m tired,” she said after cruising the halls for 30 minutes, “but I feel better for it.”
The Runnin’ Rebels don’t limit their miles to schooldays. It’s an active group that involves even more amateur athletes in summertime, at nearby Pinery Park.
That’s where alumni and parents will join students and teachers in a walk-jog-run that helps bind the school family to one another, often celebrating two and even three generations of Lee faithful.
Most the time, participants in the Runnin’ Rebels simply find their own pace and rhythm, without the need for a lot of coaching.
Not so, however, for some of the fledglings who turn out, especially during summer months.
“The young ones have to learn how to run,” Britten says with a measure of sageness. “At a certain age, they think everything’s a sprint.”