Vernon Hills running coach goes the extra mile for middle school runners

  • One of the young runners during the 5K on Nov. 6. "It's so important that the kids be able to run around after being at home all day in their virtual classrooms," Coach Mary Connolly said.

    One of the young runners during the 5K on Nov. 6. "It's so important that the kids be able to run around after being at home all day in their virtual classrooms," Coach Mary Connolly said. Courtesy of Cathy Wolfson

 
Posted11/25/2020 6:00 AM

Mary Connolly of Vernon Hills is a professional running coach whose clients have ranged from adults involved with the Chicago Area Runners Association to children in the "Let Me Run" wellness program for boys.

Yet, her most recent group came about informally when local mothers contacted her about organizing a running club for their middle school children after their cross-country program at school was canceled.

 

"We were trying to come up with something for our kids to get them off the computer, socialize with their peers and let off some steam," says Cathy Wolfson of Vernon Hills.

They found Connolly through the Vernon Hills Moms Facebook page, but, in the end, they say they got far more than they envisioned.

Coach Mary Connolly of Vernon Hills with 10-year-old Aaron Malenkii.
Coach Mary Connolly of Vernon Hills with 10-year-old Aaron Malenkii. - Courtesy of Julie Malenkii

For starters, Connolly only started running as an adult, turning to the sport after a cancer diagnosis and the sudden death of her husband eight months later. Yet since taking it up, she has completed nearly 300 races, including 48 half marathons and 10 marathons.

"I don't run every day. I run to stay fit. I run to stay sane," Connolly says on her blog at www.theCauseCoach.com.

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It was her mission of sharing the joy of running that these mothers liked.

"My vision was that we would get a bunch of kids together, stretch a little and run," Wolfson says. "Mary had a whole other vision. She put together a well-organized club, with her main focus on teaching kids the joy of running."

Children in the running club led by Mary Connolly warm up by running up the sled hill at Century Park in Vernon Hills.
Children in the running club led by Mary Connolly warm up by running up the sled hill at Century Park in Vernon Hills. - Courtesy of Julie Malenkii

The group included 15 children in grades five through seven. They began meeting with Connolly in September, gathering for an hour on Mondays and Fridays for eight weeks. They met at Century Park in Vernon Hills, with its five miles of paved trails that weave around Big Bear and Little Bear lakes.

Each session began with stretching and a different warm-up game -- like running up the big Century Park sled hill -- before heading out to run. The sessions ended with yoga. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"They were such a nice group of kids," Wolfson says. "They all seemed happy to be there, so it wasn't hard to motivate them."

Runners spread out to stretch before a practice run. They were participating in a running club that formed on social media after their middle school canceled cross-country.
Runners spread out to stretch before a practice run. They were participating in a running club that formed on social media after their middle school canceled cross-country. - Courtesy of Cathy Wolfson

In fact, after a mile time trial in their second session, Connolly realized she had a talented group on her hands, with more speed and endurance than most beginner adults, she says.

The youngsters ran the gamut in terms of their experience. Aaron Malenkii, 10, already ran every day with his mother, Julie, but he learned more aspects of the sport than either one expected.

"Besides the great socialization aspect and the general mood boost that came with being with kids that are all there with the same goal, Mary taught them to be nice to each other," Julie Malenkii says, "to cheer each other on and support one another."

Coach Mary Connolly with 11-year-old Grace Rubenstein, a member of the running club that was formed for middle schoolers in Vernon Hills.
Coach Mary Connolly with 11-year-old Grace Rubenstein, a member of the running club that was formed for middle schoolers in Vernon Hills. - Courtesy of Cathy Wolfson

Wolfson says that her 11-year-old daughter, Grace Rubenstein, was so excited to join the cross-country team once she started middle school, and then was so disappointed when it was canceled.

"She gained so much from this experience," Wolfson says. "She left with a smile on her face each day and a whole lot more confidence." 

They ended the program with a 5K on Nov. 6. Connolly marked out the course, and came prepared with running bibs and medals for each participant.

"All the kids did better than their mile time trial," Connolly says. "Everyone finished without any problems."

Coach Mary Connolly goes over the 5K racecourse with runners at Century Park in Vernon Hills.
Coach Mary Connolly goes over the 5K racecourse with runners at Century Park in Vernon Hills. - Courtesy of Julie Malenkii

The fastest runners came in at 22 minutes, with the last ones coming in at 36 minutes, which she described as a typical range of times for a 5K. But more than their times, Connolly hopes they come away with a desire to keep running.

"It's so important that the kids be able to run around after being at home all day in their virtual classrooms," she says. "Running is a way to let off a little steam, and get through the pandemic, that I hope lasts the rest of their lives."

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