If Estella M. is to be believed, she used to just sit around on her living unit “being a bum.” But on Saturday, Dec. 8, she and seven other young people at Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility participated in their first half-marathon. Estella ran seven miles before being sidelined by foot pain.
She took up running earlier this year, after another youth and Eleni Ruzicka, a qualified mental health professional at Oak Creek, encouraged her to do so.
“It’s become a passion,” Estella says now. “Before, if I’d tried to run a mile, I would’ve died. Ever since I started running, I’ve been more peaceful and mindful. It pushes me into doing things I didn’t think I could do. I ran a mile in nine minutes last Tuesday – I didn’t know I could do that. So it’s motivating.”
The half-marathon didn’t come out of nowhere. In June, Ruzicka and Scott Palmer, a group life coordinator at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, started a regular running group at Oak Creek. To train, the runners take part in three runs each week, focusing on speed and strength during the week, and then doing six- to 10-mile runs on Saturdays.
Since the group’s founding, the youth have competed in a 10k, a 5k, and another 10k. The half-marathon was the group’s fourth race. According to Ruzicka, 15 youth signed up for it, but that number dwindled to eight by race day. Besides Estella, the other runners included Shawn E., Cheyenne P., Sarah P., Josefina R., Naseria T., Esperanza (“Essie”) W., and Hannah W.
Josefina won the first place medal with a time of 2:51:47. It was not the farthest she’s run — once, she ran 16 miles “inside the box” (on a course that follows the inside perimeter of the Oak Creek facility, around its courtyard). But she says the half-marathon was harder because she was competing against others.
It was also harder because, in order to complete the 13.1 mile race, the youth had to complete roughly 39 laps on a course that took them outside “the box” and around the “backfield.” Several runners reported that the squishy bark-chip surface there was harder to run on and more tiring than the concrete in the facility courtyard.
Josefina got into running after Palmer asked her if she was interested in running a marathon. At first, she rejected the idea. “I said, ‘That’s funny—me exercise? No.’” But she started anyway. Ruzicka became her running buddy and coach, and soon they were doing daily doubles: six miles in the morning, and six miles in the evening. Now Josefina has been running regularly for about 18 months, and loves it.
Like Estella, Shawn E., began running earlier this year, when the running group was launched. Unlike Estella, he’d had major knee surgery not long before. Even so, he still finished the race in second place, with a time of 3:15:04. “I’ve always worried about my health, so I like to run,” he says. “Makes me feel good.” It wasn’t an easy run for him, though. Why keep going? “Because I knew I could do it. I’m competitive and I wanted that medal. And I wanted to feel like I accomplished something today.”
Sarah P. had run 10 miles before, and she thought running 13.1 would be simple. “But it’s not!” she says, laughing. When asked what the hardest thing about the run was, she says, “Wanting to stop, but knowing I didn’t want to.”
Thinking about her family kept her going. “At first,” she says, “I didn’t really care what place I got in the race.” But she knew her family was coming for a visit later in the day, and she knew that medals would be given out for first, second, and third place. She thought, “‘Actually, I want to come in at least third! So I kept running.” The motivation must have worked, because she finished third at 3:24:40, and happily showed off her medal afterwards.
At the race’s conclusion, all eight of the runners gathered to cool off, swap tips and stories about how the run went for them. For their participation, they were all presented with gloves, socks, and personalized water bottles donated by Joy Koenig, principal of Three Lakes and Riverside High Schools. The logo on the bottles was created by youth taking part in the facility’s “Fab Lab” – a fabrication lab where they learn job-related skills.
All of the contestants seemed happy to have taken part, but Sarah probably spoke for them all when she said she was looking forward to a well-earned holiday break. “I’m just glad we’re going to take a break for a while after this,” she says, “and we’re going eat ice cream and watch movies!”