Running on a dirt road alongside cotton fields and irrigation ditches with the heat of the day beating down, my brush with cross-country during my eighth-grade academic year in Chandler, Arizona, provided a needed break. It’s been so long ago now but in general, it served as an opportunity to collect my thoughts during a time when my parents were going through a divorce.
In the coming years of high school, I continued to run but not those longer distances. Coaches discovered that I could run pretty fast so they made a sprinter out of me. It’s an entirely different type of running — certainly no time to get into deep thought. For some, running becomes a lifelong passion not only for the physical benefits, but for what it provides mentally.
So, it makes a lot of sense why schools introduce running to students during those middle school years. Kings Valley Charter School, for example, took the step this year to establish a middle school program.
Coach Jannet Kohanek said she’s found cross-country to be a delight.
“I look forward to running with our students every day, rain or shine,” she said. “It has truly been an amazing highlight to my year and hopefully theirs as well.”
The team has four students running — Liam Castle with the boys, and Blaire Durant, Jade Kiersey and Arianna Davila with the girls. Kohanek said others also participate occasionally.
The KVCS program has already produced several positive results among the group of runners that were inexperienced heading into the season. Kohanek shared this story:
“At the first race of the year, I went out on the course to cheer our students on. One was walking. I tried to encourage her to run. She said, ‘I can’t, Mrs. K. I feel like my body is shutting down.’ I tried not to giggle as I reminded her the race was less than 2 miles long. She finished the race in last place. Yesterday (Oct. 19), that same student improved her time from the first race by almost 4 minutes!
“Now, I believe, our students have a little more perspective about what they are capable of accomplishing,” she added. “They have learned to persevere.”
KVCS Athletic Director Michael Chung, a Santiam Christian graduate, said his high school experience “made a positive impact on me regarding participating in sports and that has been my standard about how sports programs should look like, where we have loving and caring coaches supporting athletes on and off the field.”
For Chung, participation in athletics served as an outlet to reduce stress and anxiety from the school day.
“I believe these programs are beneficial to students as they allow students to focus on something else other than academics,” he said.
He also sees them learning about teamwork and setting SMART goals — something he often teaches middle schoolers. SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound and is a method to create clear and reachable goals.
“It is also fun to watch how the friendships develop throughout the season by being a part of the team,” he added.
Chung said the program serves as a way to provide more opportunities for students and to help them stay physically active during the school year.
“Besides cross-country, we are also providing students with an option of playing soccer and football,” Chung said. “We started our elementary soccer program this fall and am planning to run a year-round program with Corvallis AYSO.”
In addition, KVCS partners with Falls City for high school football and Santiam Christian for high school soccer.
The Pumpkin Run
KVCS hosted its first meet this past Tuesday with schools out of Philomath, Scio, Turner, McMinnville, Salem, Dallas and Newport sending participants. Philomath Middle School dominated from a competitive standpoint with both team titles and individual champions in Leo Pausch for the boys and Reagan Nuno for the girls.
“The event was a great way to bring the community together,” Chung said. “Lots of parents and community members helped out, our senior class did some fundraising, Philomath High School cross-country team came along to help.”
The cross-country meet was called the “Pumpkin Run” with the top 10 finishers receiving pumpkins as an award. The top three earned the largest pumpkins with water bottles.
The course begins and ends on the school’s athletic field.
“It heads off campus and onto a nature preserve, parts of which have been replanted as mixed forest recently,” KVCS coach Dan Bixler said. “It heads out to the Luckiamute River among mature woods and loops back toward campus. It then heads out along another part of the preserve which runs along Maxfield Creek. It follows it to the confluence with the Luckiamute and back on the same path towards campus and the finish line.”
The course is primarily flat with some hills mixed in and mostly grass with a few dirt paths.
“It is the kind of course that I feel is runner and spectator friendly,” Bixler added. “It ran much faster than I thought it would.”
Philomath High School coach Joe Fulton helped out by measuring the 3,000-meter course. Philomath Middle School coach Brian Skaar and Fulton both lended some necessary equipment. Kevin Collins mowed the course with his tractor in preparation for the meet. And PHS runners volunteered to serve as course monitors.
Fulton hopes the program develops and would like to see KVCS runners compete with the Warriors through a co-op agreement when they reach high school. KVCS student Noah King ran on the Philomath High varsity squad that won the state title in 2019.
Kohanek called it a beautiful route and referred to the rolling hills that runners encounter as “the roller coaster.”
“To say that it is scenic does not do it justice,” Kohanek said. “The smells of fir trees and fallen leaves are a wonderful reminder of the season.”
As Kohanek shared, she has discovered a number of positive impacts on students. She runs with the kids and has found that they are willing to share their thoughts outside of the traditional classroom environment.
“They tell me about their dreams, aspirations, struggles and triumphs,” she said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as an argument with parents. Other times talks are more serious. It has been an honor to be a trusted adult speaking positive things into their lives.”
And with that beautiful running route, there are other topics that come up, such as nature.
“There are many elk tracks that we sometimes trip over,” she said. “That gets students talking about why the elk are in certain locations and find out that they are drawn to fruit trees at this time of year as well as the creek. Students have ‘rescued’ many caterpillars from certain death on our path, too!”
Fulton described Luckiamute Meadows as “a gorgeous resource for anyone interested in hiking, running, birdwatching, etc.,” and as the best-kept secret in Benton County.
“The Kings Valley Community Trust is currently raising money in hopes of purchasing it from the owners, Cliff and Gay Hall, who want to sell it but want it to remain a wildlife/nature sanctuary,” Fulton added. “They also support the idea of having cross-country races there.”
(Brad Fuqua is publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He can be reached at [email protected]).