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TRF Kids High Country Running

Members of Team Run Flagstaff’s youth program work out in the Walkup Skydome on the Northern Arizona University campus.

Running never came naturally to me. I didn’t automatically enjoy it, nor was I that good at it.

Growing up, I was a swimmer -- year-round, before and after school, on every weekend. But during a sliver of time in the fall, our parents implored us to do something different. Because I had no interest in sports that required agility or a ball, cross country seemed like the only option.

Like many who become lifelong runners, I found it while trying to stay fit for something else. I joined the team in middle school, lured by the proximity to cute boys and my best friend. I could barely make it around the 1.5-mile course. I was usually last.

The weird thing was, I loved it. Afternoons were filled with belly laughs and jogs along tree-lined roads near school. We played games and bonded on bus rides to away meets. We celebrated milestones -- a teammate running farther than she could before or a new best time -- with ice cream and picnics.

The scent of damp leaves on fresh-cut grass, when the air chills in early September, still smells like cross country season to me -- which only ever meant a solid two months of fun (and, yes, cute boys). I never really improved -- I was the girl who reliably won the team “spirit award” every year. But some of my best memories are because I gave it a try.

As an adult who still runs, I know how fortunate I was to have coaches who emphasized the fun part. Without them, I wouldn’t have considered the sport anything but grueling. They kept the long view in mind, knowing that although state championships were nice (and our boys did win those, too), it was more important to meet us where we were, with varying degrees of interest and wide-ranging goals, and encourage us consistently, with a dose of humor.

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I can’t help but project my own experiences on Team Run Flagstaff’s youth program now. When I share a Tuesday evening practice with a group of middle and high school kids, I know that some of them enjoy competition and improvement. Others are mandated by their parents to attend. Perhaps a girl just like me spies a couple of cute boys? What TRF wants to create is a place for all of them -- where they can find a reason to love running for years to come.

Fifth- through 12th-graders can register for 12-month memberships or try TRF by season (it’s not too late to join the nine-week winter session at the Northern Arizona University indoor track). We welcome all abilities. Our coaches Jarred Cornfield, assistant coach of the NAU cross country team, and Stephanie Bruce, professional runner with Northern Arizona Elite, are among the most knowledgeable and caring you’ll find anywhere.

What we wish for TRF Youth members is that they’ll look back on their decision to give running a shot with the same degree of gratitude I have -- and that the sport will enrich their lives in significant ways from the start.

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Erin Strout is the executive director of Team Run Flagstaff and a freelance journalist whose bylines appear in Runner’s World and Outside. You can reach her with questions about TRF at info@teamrunflagstaff.com.

Do you have a column, tip or idea for High Country Running? Run it over to coordinating editor Julie Hammonds at runner@juliehammonds.com, or tweet her @highcountry_run.

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