Posted: Wed February 20, 2013 9:02AM; Updated: Wed February 20, 2013 9:02AM
Michael Bamberger
Michael Bamberger>VIEWPOINT

How running changed the life of one Philadelphia teenager

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Jonathan Ros, a high school senior in Philadelphia, has embraced a healthier lifestyle through running.
Jonathan Ros, a high school senior in Philadelphia, has embraced a healthier lifestyle through running.
Michael Bamberger/SI

The kid figured it out for himself, and that made all the difference. Jonathan Ros was 17, not even 5-foot-9, with two small-boned Cambodian parents. One day he stepped on a digital scale with red lights that screamed a weight he had not seen before: 205. "I knew I had to do something," Jonathan said. This moment of clarity arrived last spring, when Jonathan was a junior at Parkway High in Philadelphia. The revelation came to him during a break from playing Halo 3, a violent video game. He knew he wasn't fast, or even particularly athletic. Still, he decided to join the Parkway track team. True drive comes from within.

For years, Jonathan's weekend breakfast had been a box of microwaved Hot Pockets. Lunch was a box of Hot Pockets with a side of rice, washed down with a Coke. A long trail of potato chips led from lunch to dinner, where he'd eat a box of Hot Pockets with rice and whatever traditional Cambodian dish his mother, a Hyatt housekeeper, was making. On a slow day he logged 10 hours playing Halo 3, but 12 was typical and some days went longer than that.

He didn't work. He didn't play in the various rec leagues that are as common in his South Philadelphia neighborhood as cheesesteak shops. When his mother and father, a factory worker at a Dietz & Watson food processing plant in South Philadelphia, pointed him to the great outdoors -- or to the Murphy Rec Center, practically in his backyard -- he retreated to a nearby screen. Halo awaited.

The Eagles, the Phillies and the Sixers play their games a half-mile from the tidy Ros family rowhouse, but those games were little more than an expensive rumor to Jonathan. Rocky's inspiring training run through the nearby Italian Market, known to generations of Philadelphia kids by way of battered DVDs, meant nothing to him. For a third of his life or more, Jonathan Ros's thing was Halo 3 and Hot Pockets. Until last spring, when the scale woke him up.

His first steps as a runner were in secret. He could barely make it from his house to Broad Street, about 10 city blocks away, and didn't want anyone to know.

He quickly realized there wasn't really an event for him on the Parkway track team, not one in which he could be competitive. But Jonathan wasn't looking to be a competitive runner, not in the usual sense. He wasn't in position to help Pathway win meets in Philadelphia's historic Public School League, where there are teams named after Lincoln and Franklin and King, among other giants. More than once Jonathan finished eighth of eight in the 400. "I'd look behind me," he said in a recent interview at his school. "There was nobody." When he ran the 800 -- two trips around a 400-meter track -- he worried that the fastest runners might lap him.

Still, in his own way, he was competing. No question about that. He was attempting about the hardest challenge the human experience can pose: he was trying to change.

In life, for good or for bad, one thing always leads to another. When the Pathway track team would practice, Jonathan would sometimes see another group of kid runners off in a corner, doing their own thing. They stretched and huddled for long periods and when they actually ran speed seemed like an afterthought. By May, following the lead of a friend, Johnny Lee, Jonathan migrated over to that group of runners, to the Pathway branch of a distance-running movement called Students Run Philly Style.

The goal of SRPS is to get Philadelphia city kids off their couches and onto the city's streets (and sidewalks and parks) as they train for 5K runs, 8K runs, the annual 10-mile Broad Street Run and, ultimately, the Philadelphia Marathon, held each November. (I became aware of the organization through my son, who had an unpaid SRPS internship as a high school senior.) The program's runners and volunteer coaches, called mentors, are much more likely to celebrate miles logged than the speed of those miles. Here and there, on Philadelphia's many miles of beautiful running trails, you'll see people in Students Run Philly Style running shirts stenciled with the words I RUN THIS CITY.

"When I first saw Jonathan -- well, kids are bigger today than they used to be," Erik Wiessmann, a Students Run mentor, seeking just the right words. "But I would have described Jonathan as ... chunky."

Wiessmann, a serious distance runner, is not. He's an RPI-educated computer scientist/whippet who was an owner of a company that designed board games for PalmPilot. (He knows about video addiction and even Halo 3.) About seven years ago, looking for more meaningful work, Wiessmann became a science and technology teacher in the Philadelphia school system and an SRPS mentor. Wiessmann, 39, is an accomplished distance runner himself who has run marathons in under three hours.

"It's actually a strong trait, to be able to play these video games for one, two, three hours at a time," Wiessman said. "You can take that trait and apply it to running."

Jonathan did what every beginning long-distance runner does. He started short, and over time stretched things out. His weight fell not quickly but steadily. When he earned his first pair of free running shoes through steady participation in the program, he beamed. When kids at Parkway noticed his waist size going from 36 to 34 to 32 to 30, he felt a pride that not even his Halo 3 victories brought him.

Distance runners are odd eaters. These days, Jonathan will often have baked chicken for breakfast and lunch, then for dinner he eats his mother's traditional Cambodian dinners. He snacks on fruit. He drinks only water. On his iPhone is a picture of his digital scale on a recent morning when he weighed 153.8. "He told me to stop buying the Hot Pockets," Jonathan's mother, Kim, told me. "I was happy."

There are other Jonathans, many of them, in Philadelphia and across the country. Los Angeles has the oldest city-wide distance-running program for schoolchildren, called Students Run LA. In 2004, a Philadelphian named Heather McDanel, a distance runner and a public health administrator, followed suit in the cheesesteak capital of the world. Now there are a dozen or so other major cities with similar programs.

When she started, McDanel went from one Philadelphia school to another, trying to sell distance running to kids who weren't playing basketball or soccer or, typically, anything. Talk about your tough sells: she was often pitching to kids who were on track for obesity and diabetes. And all she was offering them were the joys of running long distances in the early morning.

"Our first year, we had 30 kids run the Broad Street," McDanel said the other day, in the SRPS offices on Broad Street in Philadelphia, where she works with the organization's three other paid staffers. The 10-mile Broad Street Run goes right by her building, which houses the National Nursing Centers Consortium, of which SRPS is an offshoot. "This year we had 450." McDanel, a running zealot, was beaming. The Nursing Consortium is a not-for-profit group committed to public health. It's doing its job.

Eric Wiessmann, the slender SRPS mentor, will tell you that almost any teenager, when his or her first marathon is approaching, will look for reasons to quit. It's like they are standing at the base of Everest. All of Jonathan's training for last month's Philadelphia Marathon was right on a track, but then he suffered a twisted ankle about a week before the race, a twist severe enough that he had to walk the hallways of Pathway on crutches. He could have easily dropped out, even though a doctor gave him clearance to run. But he didn't.

He got up at 3:30 in the morning on race day, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. He put on his running shoes and his SRPS technical running shirt. He already had on the lime-green wristband that bears the three-word motto of the program: Courage, Effort, Respect. He took the Broad Street subway line toward City Hall and met up with Johnny Lee and hundreds of other SRPS runners and volunteers. His ankle was tender. The morning was cold and windy. He hydrated and stretched and pretended that he had everything under control.

The race began at 7:30, with Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter at the start line high-fiving hundreds and hundreds of runners. Jonathan, in his starting corral far back from the elite runners, stood in the wind on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, his back to the Art Museum and its Rocky steps. Hundreds of other SRPS runners were in the crowd, too. The race began and Jonathan started chugging along. At various time he heard "Gonna Fly Now," the Rocky theme song; a chorus of cow bells; Nicki Minaj; various string bands. The race course took him past City Hall, practically past his school, and into the heart of South Philadelphia, in the vicinity of his family home. Around Mile 4 there was a sign: Paul Ryan Would Have Been Here an Hour Ago.

The streets, in places, were lined with cheering people. Jonathan concentrated on the fall of his feet on the old Philadelphia streets. Mile 10 turned to Mile 12. Fourteen turned to 20. Quitting was never a thought. He ran with his buddy Johnny Lee for a spell. He saw bunches of other kids in SRPS shirts. He kept on going. He crossed the finish line and thought, "I did it. I actually did it. I can't believe I did it." A year earlier, he could not have run a single mile.

If you look at the race website, Jonathan's performance in the Philadelphia Marathon is summed up by these three facts. His time was 5 hours, 32 minutes. Of the 11,635 finishers, he was number 10,907. His average mile was 12 minutes, 41 seconds. Those numbers obscure a deeper truth. He's now in the fitness elite. After all, what percent of the world's population can run 26.2 miles at all?

Jonathan has his marathon medal in his house, and this thought in his head: he set out to do something, and he did it. "It takes courage because there's a lot of pain, running for a really long time," Jonathan said. He's a shy and quiet kid, unsure whether he is going to college or the military after he graduates from Parkway in June. "It takes effort because you have to build up to it. It takes respect because you have to respect yourself to be a serious runner. You have to treat yourself right."

Those three words -- courage, effort, respect -- are more than a motto to Heather McDanel, the dynamo behind Students Run Philly Style. They are game-changers. Life-changers. She's seen it, with Jonathan and with many others. "His life was changed by an athletic pursuit," she said the other day. "Most people can't handle the things life throws them." She was referring to obesity and diabetes and other health issues. She was referring to way more than that. "Our runners can handle anything."

The marathon came and went. Christmas, New Year's, too. Slow and slush and some days winter days that were warm and windy. And Jonathan Ros kept running, running to gradution, whatever comes next. Running for his life.

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