Zane Smyrni and his team have gotten used to the looks by now.
Wearing running tights and jackets, they regularly walk past the after-school crowd milling about on the steps of Brookline High and head out into the cold to run 10 or 15 miles through the streets of Brookline and Boston. But this is no track team, and most of these teens will tell you they’re no athletes.
“The only thing I’d run from is the cops,” said Smyrni, a Brookline High senior whose deadpan tone makes it hard to tell whether he’s serious.
Smyrni is one of about a dozen Brookline High students on track to run the Cox Marathon in Providence this may. Like his teammates, he never ran regularly before November and certainly never expected to find himself training to run 26.2 miles in one go.
“Every runner on the team has never ran before,” said Paul Epstein, a Brookline High social worker and twin brother of Red Sox manager Theo Epstein. “They had no experience.”
The team is working alongside three other eastern Massachusetts high schools in DreamFar, and three-year-old program designed to prepare so-called “at-risk” students for the challenges of running a marathon. Modeled after a similar program in Los Angeles, DreamFar aims to help get high school students on a track to college by teaching them the determination and hard work that comes with marathon training.
Already, a core group of Brookline runners have dedicated to running twice during the school week regardless of weather, then again with the other schools over the weekend. By the end of January, Epstein’s team will be running 14 to 15 miles on Saturdays, and the social worker insists that kind of determination doesn’t go away when his teens unlace their running shoes.
“There’s no question in my mind that it will carry over to the other pars of their lives,” he said.
The grueling training regiment, which organizers have planned out to the mile and the day, has meant running even in the midst of last month’s blizzard. Visibility was so bad, the runners became separated in Downtown Crossing and one student, senior Jonathon Mande, had to ask an employee at CVS/pharmacy if they could use a phone to call Epstein.
The social worker-turned-trainer only cancelled training this week when the snow and freezing rain turned Brookline’s streets into a minefield of ice and frigid puddles.
Given the work they put into their training, the runners are surprisingly ambivalent about their reasons for joining. Mande said he wasn’t doing anything better with his time; Smyrni said he didn’t want to become known as “that kid” that does nothing all day; and Jeffrey Poyndexter, a sophomor on the team, said Epstein actually “kidnapped” him when he stopped by to pick up his brother for a team dinner.
But clearly, a good part of what drives the students is the encouragement and unending energy of their trainer, who’s worked closely with many of Brookline’s teens over the last several years on a completely separate project, the long-anticipated Teen Center.
Epstein said his job as trainer is to show the teens how to set “outrageous goals.”
“Any time they face any difficulty, I want them to think, ‘Well, I didn’t think I could run a marathon either,” he said.
It’s hard to know whether any of those lessons are starting to take hold, but there are some promising signs. Mande said he’s already given up smoking, and Smyrni knows he’ll have to as race day approaches. And though Smyrni says he hasn’t started to love school, he now does what it takes to get through it.
“I work harder when I’m working,” he said. “No matter what, you just gotta do it.”