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Bay Area high school seniors have certainly had their share of challenges this school year with remote learning, curtailed social lives and figuring out college applications without knowing what the 2021 fall semester will entail.
And for 11 courageous East Bay students, their 12th year of secondary education includes another challenge: running 100 miles.
“At first, I was like, ‘Oh, 100 miles? That sounds insane!’” confessed Charlotte Admokom, a senior at Oakland Technical High School.
Though initially taken aback by the distance, Admokom and 10 of her peers are now more than a month into The Bay Race Three Bridge Challenge, an endurance event that requires individuals to work toward the 100-mile goal on their own or on a team of two or three over the course of 60 days.
Admokom and the other seniors are members of Running for a Better Oakland (RBO), a nonprofit organization that caters to K-12 graders and seeks to inspire students to incorporate running into their daily lives.
Ebo Dawson-Andoh, one of the RBO coaches, described it as “a program for Oakland kids across the spectrum of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds to get out and develop a lifelong appreciation for physical activity, to spend time with their families and stay healthy.”
The seniors’ participation in the Three Bridge Challenge is one requirement for the RBO’s scholarship program. For the past several years, Running for a Better Oakland has established a scholarship fund for seniors who are actively involved in RBO; the scholarships help students cover some upcoming college expenses, such as dorm furniture, food and textbooks.
Head RBO coach Christine Chapon recalled her consideration of the Three Bridge Challenge for the students: “I said, ‘Oh, maybe we can get our kids to do that … to be part of that.’ So the RBO coaches and I eventually decided, ‘Okay, the kids have to do this 100-mile challenge. They get the medals; they get the shirts. There is visibility; it’s a real event. It’s better than us telling them, ‘You need to run 10 miles a week,’ you know?”
The race “challenges everyone to move on from 2020 with a healthy mindset for a breakout 2021,” according to The Bay Race Three Bridge Challenge web page. As it is a virtual race, after registering online, participants can get in their miles at any location and record them on a GPS device, such as a Garmin watch.
Adam Ray, Scena Performance race director, took a thoughtful approach to creating the event.
“I began to think about what the digital experience should be for somebody who’s either an athlete or somebody who’s just been penned up at home,” he said. “I wanted to create a long, kind of endurance event that encouraged people to get out and do a little bit every day.”
The need to “get out” for the challenge is particularly important for these high school students, as their senior year has involved a lot of screen time and far less outdoor time. The lingering reliance on virtual education and learning at home rather than in school has resulted in students’ feeling isolated from their peers.
“For me, I think the hardest part is that I really like to engage in my classes,” Admokom said. “Unfortunately, with this whole virtual learning, there’s an option to kind of opt out of school in the sense that you can mute yourself or just not show your face. It’s hard for me to connect with other kids in my classes because I’ve never seen their faces; I’ve just heard their voices. I never thought that that would be how my senior year would pan out.”
Blake Buckner, who is enrolled in Oakland’s East Bay Innovation Academy, described his senior year as “very weird.”
“With online classes, it’s definitely tougher,” he said. “I haven’t seen any classmates (in person) since we went into quarantine back last March.”
The challenge itself is inspiring Admokom, Buckner and the other seniors to spend more time outdoors, solo or with friends and family, and it has reinvigorated their interest in running.
“It’s just a nice way to go out and also work towards a competition,” said Admokom. “I love setting goals and then getting them done, so I think it’s exciting to have 100 miles to complete.”
Buckner is equally appreciative of having a reason to put on his running shoes. “So far it’s been kind of cool,” he said. “I usually run from my house, down and around Lake Merritt. The lake is where RBO used to always meet when we had the in-person practices, and it’s just a really great place to run.”
By participating in the Three Bridge Challenge, the seniors have built-in ways to stay connected, receive support when needed and seek motivation on days when they feel overwhelmed, doubtful or uninspired.
Their race registration, for instance, includes the opportunity to view and appear in an online racing system’s “leaderboard.” And their perseverance in the challenge is rewarded with virtual badges: The completion of the very first mile is worthy of an “Initiative” badge, while higher mileage prompts the awarding of badges such as “family,” “friendship” and “determination.”
“I’m hoping the inclusion of meaningful badges and things like celebrating family and friendship … I hope that having that layer in there adds something more for them,” said Ray.
The RBO coaches are another source of connection and motivation. At the end of Saturday morning practices — currently held virtually — they touch base with the seniors, offer advice and encourage them to continue working toward those 100 miles.
RBO has also created a private “club” on Strava for the seniors, where they can see each other’s position on the club leaderboard based on the mileage they accumulate as well as details about their runs. The seven coaches who are part of the “RBO Seniors Club” are able to cheer on the students in this platform, while also monitoring their progress.
“It’s great,” Chapon said. “They give each other kudos all the time. We can see them on Strava, and we can see that they’re increasing their running — most of them are. And the paces: They’re picking up the pace.”
For the coaches, it’s been rewarding seeing these 11 RBO students not only advance mileage-wise in the Three Bridge Challenge but also develop as athletes and latch onto running, which becomes a source of confidence and general well-being for them.
In an interview, Dawson-Andoh reflected on the progress of high school senior and Three Bridge Challenge participant Christopher Ramirez: “I ran the Oakland Running Festival half marathon with him four years ago … And it was really nice because he was training really hard, and I just worked with him and he ended up hitting a PR (personal record) that day, so he was really excited about that. It’s been really cool seeing him progress over the years. I mean, now I can’t keep up with him.”
The 11 seniors also rely on each other for support, as they are braving this long-distance journey together, even if running separately.
“Since I’m doing it with a friend,” said Admokom, “we have each other to lean on. It’s not just solely dependent on me completing the 100 miles — it’s also a group effort. That really helps me to keep going.”
Completing a three-digit distance can understandably seem like an insurmountable feat at first, but it really comes down to how one approaches getting in the miles. The seniors have seemingly caught on to this idea, settling into the habit of fitting runs into their schedules and aiming for weekly mileage totals.
For Buckner, it’s all about consistency.
“I’ve been trying to run around five miles three times a week, just on my own, which is nice,” he said. With this routine in place, he feels sure he can reach the 100-mile finish line by the race’s mid-April end date.
Back into the habit of morning runs around Lake Merritt, Admokom is well acclimated to the challenge at this point. Expressing confidence in her plan, she said, “I feel like as long as I’m running just a little bit or walking a little bit, doing some kind of movement, eventually I’ll make it there.”
And that’s really what it’s all about. Putting in the effort, moving forward as a result, and, in time, getting there.
Registration is open until March 21 for The Bay Race Three Bridge Challenge. Participants have until April 15 to complete 100 miles individually or as part of a team. For more information on the RBO senior Scholarship Program and to contribute to the scholarship fund, go here.