When it was over, this mile-long run in June heat, Fantroy grinned wide and big.
“That felt good,” he said. He shook his head. “Yeah, I’ve felt pretty good these past few days.”
Fantroy, an incoming senior at the high school, is one of a handful of Anniston adolescents who participates in a new running group designed especially for area youth. “We All Run” and its sister program “We All Ride” are two recent efforts by community leaders to encourage city students and west Anniston kids to live healthier lives.
Joe Jankoski, the driving force behind both groups, said the goal of the programs is multi-faceted. He wants to help expose the area’s running and cycling opportunities — like the Woodstock 5K footrace and the Coldwater Mountain bike trail system — to kids who might otherwise not experience them, while also encouraging the kind of vigorous lifestyle that keeps obesity, an epidemic in Alabama and across the nation, at bay.
“If they enjoy it now and keep at it, they’ll be runners in five years,” said Jankoski, who is also director of the Calhoun County Community Development Corporation. “It’s a healthy activity, and it’s a healthy lifestyle choice.”
No gym needed
The running group started two weeks ago and meets regularly at Anniston High to help kids train for the Woodstock 5K, a nationally acclaimed event that draws hundreds of runners from around the country and similar numbers from the city itself — but has attracted low levels of participation from west Anniston neighborhoods, according to a 2011 Star analysis. Meanwhile, “We All Ride” began last Thursday and provides interested youth with donated mountain bikes, lessons on bike safety and supervised trips to the new Coldwater Mountain trails.
The efforts come on the heels of a federal study that shows obesity rates in Alabama high schools are some of the highest in the nation. Promoting lifelong physical activity — one of the objectives of We All Run and We All Ride — effectively curbs obesity and the health issues it can cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which conducted the study.
“It shows them more things that are available to them in the community, and it gets everyone involved,” Jankoski said during the first We All Ride meeting at the Carver Community Center. “That’s how we’re going to change some of these things: You can run. You can ride a bike.
“You don’t necessarily need a gym.”
The exposure of local running events and biking trails to a broader section of Anniston residents has leaders of the area’s well-established sports clubs excited about the efforts. The Anniston Runners Club voted in March to incorporate We All Run into its 800-member network, president Steven Miles said. Likewise, the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association backs We All Ride, helps collect the donated bikes and has extended its liability insurance coverage to the fledgling group.
“Kids that may just ride around their neighborhoods — or if they can’t afford bikes — we want to expose them to mountain biking,” said Patrick Wigley, owner of a local bike shop and a member of the bicycle association.
Similarly, Miles said he is excited about We All Run because it introduces running to a segment of the population that traditionally doesn’t participate in the runners club and its sponsored events.
“Right now, these kids think their only avenue is basketball and football,” said Miles, who often works with youth in west Anniston communities through his job with the Boy Scouts. “But this shows you: ‘Hey, there is also this really cool thing called running that you can do.’”
A hard choice
Early participation in the groups hasn’t been exactly what Jankoski hoped for. Between three and 12 kids have showed up at each of the running sessions over the past few weeks. Only three students — all them also participants in We All Run — came to the inaugural bike meeting.
“The hope is the more we do, the more people will come out,” Jankoski said as he watched the three participants at We All Ride try out their new bikes. “As people have fun and do this, they’ll come back.”
But making the choice to come at all is a difficult one, 16-year-old Fantroy admits. Kids his age don’t run, he said, at least not in his west Anniston neighborhood. His friends who play sports already spend their time weight-training or prepping for their athletic seasons. The others stay up late playing video games, then sleep in and maybe hit the basketball courts in the afternoon.
In fact, Fantroy admitted, he skipped a training run on a recent Saturday morning because he had done just that.
“But I’m going to try to come to every one this week,” he said at the We All Run session last Tuesday.
West Anniston residents and community leaders alike echo Fantroy’s words when they discuss some of the participation barriers that We All Run and We All Ride are up against. Video games, late nights, other sports, absent parents and the allure of drugs and alcohol are just a sampling of what the groups are competing against.
“And it’s a brand-new program,” Jankoski said. “It takes some time.”
He said the program was set up for high schoolers, but so far most of the interest has been from the middle school age group. Two of the boys at the first meeting of We All Ride were 8 and 11 years old. The lone girl was 12. Across the street from the track where they rode, groups of older teenagers sat on porches at Cooper Homes.
“If you take the time to look, you don’t see any kids riding any bikes in west Anniston,” said Victor Williams, a member of community group REAL Men of Anniston. He attended the We All Ride meeting last Thursday, taking stock of the empty streets near Carver Community Center, the vacant yards along West 13th Street. Williams refocused on the three kids whooping as they tested out their new bicycles on the community center track.
“If we don’t try to teach our children now, where are we going to be?” he asked.
Building successful running and cycling programs like these also takes a large support network, according to people who have started similar successful groups in other cities across the country. The founder of Trips for Kids, a national cycling program that started as a grassroots effort in Marin, Calif., said she relied heavily on educators and nonprofit groups that already existed to help her generate interest in the group.
“And it’s certainly good to let bike clubs know, and bike shops, any gathering of people who are cyclists,” Marilyn Price said. “You’ve got to get yourself in front of the right people.”
A woman who began the Birmingham chapter of Girls On The Run, a 12-week running program that mentors girls while training them for a 5K, had similar advice. Working with people already embedded in the communities, people who already interact with kids on a daily basis, is always a great way to start, Catherine Gregory said. In the year since she began the Birmingham group, participation has grown from 30 girls to 150.
In Anniston, Jankoski seems to be on the right track. In addition to involving the local running and bike clubs, he’s enlisted help from the Junior League, Wig’s Wheels bicycle shop, community groups like REAL Men, and Anniston High School. He’s handed out fliers and talked to kids on the Anniston High track team. He’s provided incentives for those who join the programs: Mountain bikes at no cost to kids in We All Ride and new shoes for the ones who run in the Woodstock. Those bicycles can cost between a couple hundred and a couple thousand dollars, according to a website of frequently asked questions about mountain biking. And runners usually expect to pay around $100 or more for a good pair of shoes.
Jankoski also has received help from people like Tamika Felton, a 33-year-old mother who lives in an apartment on Cooper Avenue. She’s been spreading the word about We All Run and We All Ride to her friends and neighbors in west Anniston.
“Someone like Tamika is what you’re looking for,” Jankoski said.
A family activity
Felton has four boys of her own and has brought two of them, Jarod and Jimmy, as well as her nephew and niece to both the running and cycling groups.
It’s important, she said, to keep her family active, healthy and out of trouble. For her, We All Run and We All Ride are great ways to do just that.
“Where I stay is kind of a bad neighborhood, and this is a good way for me to get them out for a while,” said Felton, who is a stay-at-home mom during the summer and has a job directing crosswalk traffic at Carver Elementary when school is in session.
Williams, the REAL Men member, has worked in west Anniston communities for years and also stresses the need for We All Run and We All Ride.
“This opens doors,” he said. “It gives them something new to try and an opportunity to learn. The group is all about promoting west Anniston kids and giving them something to look forward to in the future.”
Felton participates in the groups right alongside her sons, niece and nephew.
“It’s like a family activity,” she said, sweating at the end of a recent training run at the high school. “We want to stick this out for the whole summer.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.