When the pandemic halted middle school cross country, two women stepped in to give kids a season

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Denise Smith ached for local middle school children whose cross country seasons were going to be wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smith, the owner of Smith Physical Therapy and Running Academy in Crystal Lake, dreaded seeing the kids miss an opportunity to further themselves and their health through running.

So she did something about it.

Smith enlisted the help of her friend, Megan Sloan, a Crystal Lake woman who competes in running and triathlon events, and formed the Fall Middle School Running Club, which has given 38 local middle school students some semblance of a cross country season this fall.

“Every summer I do a running camp,” said Smith, a physical therapist and running technique specialist. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we make this like a club, just with more kids and we’ll socially distance?’ It hit me at 3 in the morning. I’ve learned a lot about what motivates these kids from their wonderful coaches.”

Smith, who had been Sloan’s physical therapist when she was recovering from an injury, figured Sloan was the ideal fit as a partner in the venture.

“She has an energy that is unstoppable with these kids,” Smith said. “Using her as the coach and programming side, and me for the education and technique side, together we were able to put together this really special program.”

The club will have its final race at 8 a.m. Saturday at Veteran Acres Park in Crystal Lake. The club has met three times a week (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays) for the last seven weeks and will have run four races after Saturday’s finale.

Among the 38 participants in the program, which costed $150 for the seven weeks, were students from Alden-Hebron, Cary Junior High, Creekside, Emmons, Fox River Grove, Bernotas, Hannah Beardsley, Heineman, Huntley, Lundahl, Montessori, Northwood, Prairie Grove, St. Margaret Mary and Trinity Oaks Christian middle schools.

Initially, the IESA cut all fall programs, but later came back. Since the local schools were not competing, Smith and Sloan gave those athletes a chance to do something.

They posted an announcement on Smith’s business Facebook page and on the Crystal Lake Facebook page. They contacted teachers and coaches in District 47, and also put out a flyer about the club.

“It’s been an extremely fulfilling experience,” Sloan said. “I wasn’t really expecting this amount of warmth and welcoming from all the athletes. I’ve definitely gone home with a tear in my eye a couple nights when I have some compliments or things said at practice from an athlete or a parent. It has been a very heartwarming experience.”

Each week, Smith and Sloan change up the programs. On Tuesday, they had a Pilates instructor come to the class at Smith’s building. On other weeks, they have had a yoga instructor, a nutritionist, a strength trainer and a mental health professional address the club about physical and mental fitness. Sloan said typically there are 33 to 35 of the students enrolled present at most sessions.

“A lot of them were interested in running, some were involved in soccer, basketball, football or other sports that involved a large amount of running and were canceled,” Sloan said. “They wanted to continue, they were just grateful to be here and do something.”

Two of the Fall Middle School Running Club members – Hadley Ferrero (Bernotas) and Tommy Nitz (Heineman) – received berths to the ShaZam Invitational, an unofficial state meet which will be run Oct. 31 at Three Sisters Park in Chillicothe.

“It has been more than I hoped it would be,” Smith said. “COVID has taught this group to be very thankful. These kids have been very gracious, very fun, very light-hearted about everything, and very hard-working at the same time. I want these kids to understand the power running can have as they grow up.

“They really seem to like the things I want them to learn, the technique, the strength, the flexibility and mobility, the nutrition, the role psychology plays. I hope they’ve learned a lot from us and I feel like they really jelled as a club. I hope this creates a lifelong respect for each other as runners, so when they go on to compete against each other in high school there’s a respect and this camaraderie that only running as a sport can bring.”