Making a Difference and Going the Distance-An Interview with New England Distance

8/24/2018
 

Woonsocket, Rhode Island

August 24th, 2018

USATF-New England

Interviewees: Nich Haber, Katrina Spratford of New England Distance

 

USATF- New England recently sat down with New England Distance to interview their work and training. New England Distance is an elite post-collegiate training group located in Woonsocket, RI with a dual mission “to promote health and well-being among children while providing support to post-collegiate athletes on a training path to top-level competition.” NED worked with the local schools to restart their cross country and track programs after budget cuts in 2009. Today, NED coaches numerous youth clubs in the area, and has successfully restarted numerous after school running programs. In terms of professional success, they have three Team USA members in Katrina Spratford, Obsie Birru, and Rachel Schilkowski (nee Sorna). This interview was conducted with co-founder Nich Haber and Executive Director and elite athlete, Katrina Spratford.


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2009: The US economy continues its downward spiral. Unemployment rates rise, public and private debts grow to almost unfathomable levels, and local middle and high schools in northern Rhode Island are faced with yet another round of budget cuts. In addition to laying off faculty and increasing class sizes, the public school administrators decide to cut after school programs and sport teams. Soon enough, youth cross country and track find their place on the chopping block and are cut.

In the footsteps of the 2012 London Olympics, Nich Haber and Bob Rothenburg wondered why no professional distance running club existed in the Northeast. With 5 Olympians and the large running companies of Saucony and New Balance in the area, it would only make sense. But how, and where would this new club thrive. They knew they wanted to model this new club after Hansons-Brooks, but what would make it different? Then it hit them. Let’s not build just a club, but a community. Our runners are going to train together, live together, and…. volunteer together. Let’s build a community where our elite athletes train together in the morning and evening, and work in the schools during the day to spread the joy of running and track and field into the hearts of the children of the area.  


On Mission Statement

Q: NE-Distance’s mission statement states that NE Distance has a “dual mission” to “promote health and well-being among children while providing support to post-collegiate athletes on a training path to top-level competition” who came up with this idea?


Nich - This was a collaboration among the founders of NE Distance, me and Bob Rothenberg.  In 2012 when we started the program, there were no distance projects east of Hanson’s in Michigan and north of Zap in North Carolina.  There were 5 track & field athletes who called Providence home that were competing at the London Olympics. I wondered why the community wasn’t celebrating this fact and why there were no programs to provide support to local elite runners.  Bob said to me, “I don’t know, why don’t you start something”?


I did a lot of research to understand what was needed and talked to a lot of athletes.  The main elements broke down to - housing, coaching, part-time work and travel assistance.  I was a bit surprised by the part-time work. It was obvious that it’s more difficult for an athlete to train at a high level while holding a full-time job, but what I learned is that athletes who have nothing to break up their day often fare worse than those who have something to take them out of themselves for a bit.


Providing housing and part-time work for post-collegiate athletes seemed daunting at first, but I spoke with a friend, Christian Caldarone, who worked at NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, a community development corporation and he showed me what they were doing in Woonsocket.  They had a new building called the C3 Center that provided free housing for what they called community builders (artists, teachers etc.) provided they work 16 hours a week with youth in the center. I saw that as a great model for NE Distance.


Many youth organizations have trouble finding and keeping good people to work with kids during after school hours.  We initially partnered with third-party youth organizations to provide them with good people to help run their programs.  It was a couple of years before we started our own direct programming. Now that we do our own programming, running middle school youth cross country and track programs to urban schools that gave few opportunities for their students to play sports was an obvious fit and direction for us.  


These two elements in our mission - the youth and the elite athletes - have needs that are fulfilled by the other group.  Kids need adults who understand the sport to coach and mentor them and elite athletes need part-time work to earn income and keep their minds sharp.  It’s a good fit and it’s why we refer to our program as a “Community-based Distance Project”.


On Youth Programs


Q: NE Distance pairs its elite athletes with middle schoolers in order to mentor the kids into trying our great sport. How does one start this conversation with a middle schooler and their family. How do you get them to try XC and T&F?


Nich - Katie describes this well below your next question. Would like to add - The initial step was to be able to work with the school departments in these communities and get a program started.  Woonsocket had eliminated its middle school sports in 2009 due to budget cuts. Providence has its own unique challenges in starting sports programs. In both cities we were lucky to find champions that helped with the logistics to start these programs and give middle schoolers in these cities opportunities that they didn’t have below.


Q: How often does the mentor meet with the kids they mentee? Is the mentor open and available outside of the hours they put into at the school?


K: It's a pretty simple process for us at first. We go into middle school lunches or home rooms and give a quick speech about which sport we are doing that season (XC or TF). Most of the time kids sign up because their friends tell them too, or because they had a family member compete in the sport before. There are not many other options for after school athletics, so that contributes a lot to having a lot of new comers each year. Sometimes it's just blind luck, and they sign up having no idea what to expect. Either way, there is a fair learning curve in the first month of practices and meets. The first week is new and exciting, so kids tend to stick around and focus well. Once you get into week 3 though, and you haven't had a meet yet, there are some who start to question why they joined the team (why am I running? What's the point?). That's the tough thing at first with coaching - creating motivating, fun practices that teach hard work without driving away kids too early. Once they get the taste of competition, they usually get hooked. It's great to see kids who sign up having no idea what cross country is and then find out that they are actually pretty talented runners!


  1. If any, what are some other ways in which the mentor connects with the mentee such as helping with homework or giving other advice?

K: We try to make a point that the students can reach out and ask us for help any time they need it. We always have a pre-practice group chat to go over important topics - respect for each other/competitors, listening at practice, homework/grades, etc. And we try to end the day with a group stretch, maybe going over what they found challenging/fun about that days practice. We also try to connect with our athletes on 1-on-1 moments when we can, such as if they are waiting to be picked up by a parent, or they are early to practice. It's a lot easier in a smaller setting to get a feel for how they are liking the team, how school is going, or if there are any questions they have.


Q: Have there been any cases where a mentor and mentee have stayed in touch past their initial assignment? Such as once the middle schooler moves into High school and beyond.   


K: We have been very fortunate to spark the "running bug" in a number of our athletes, and have recently seen many of them continue on at the high school level. We find it helpful to use these older students as a resource, for instance when we hosted our community track series for kids ages 4-14, we had some of our former middle school athletes who were now in high school come help as volunteers and pass their love for running onto the younger students. We've even had a student give a motivational talk to our middle school team, as that particular athlete learned a lot from his time on our team in middle school, and wanted to share his experience with a younger generation.


Q: Studies show that middle schoolers who are involved in afterschool programs start to exhibit improved behavior and dedication in the classroom and at their homes. Has NE Distance seen these “off the track” effects on their communities in Woonsocket and Providence?


K: We are continuing to collect data that helps show that our students are more dedicated to their school work because they value the ability to be on a track or cross country team. The most important thing we try to reinforce is the "before-it's-too-late" moment where a student doesn't realize the consequences of their academics until it's passed a certain point. We certainly see that with the prospect of "losing" TF/XC, our students are much more willing to put in the extra effort at home or in the classroom to remain eligible. Most importantly, our students learn quickly that being a part of the team is a privilege, and it requires a little more from them, but is worth the effort in the end.

Q: In 2014, NE Distance successfully brought a group of Woonsocket middle school runners to the Rhode Island State Meet. How did you make this happen? What was the most challenging aspect of this project?


K: Bringing students to the state meet for the first time was really a season long process. There are the small, easy to handle details, such as payment for the meet and scheduling the bus. But there is a more constant process of reminding them that what we are building towards is having our best race at the end of the season. The most difficult aspect is keeping the athletes engaged and motivated for a whole season, especially if they are brand new to running. Once there are only a couple weeks left, students are usually pretty tired, and some are even a little burnt out with the monotony of running. We try to reinforce that running is an amazing sport because you can track your personal improvement for the entire season, and if you know you always put 100% effort into a race that is the most important thing. We remind them that the state meet is just another great opportunity to out and run hard and enjoy the process of competition. However, using words like "state meet" and "varsity/junior varsity" can cause more nerves as it tends to up the seriousness of the race. We try to keep the gameplay simple for everyone: run hard, compete until the end, run through the line.


Q: NE-Distance recently put on two free public track meets in your “Summer Series.” The focus of these events was clearly to promote the sport of track and field in general. If possible, can you talk about these? What were the goals? Did they meet expectations?


Katrina: I have recently taken on the role of Executive Director for the team and one of my main priorities for my first year is to gain exposure and create more community events. A lot of people still don’t know who we are or what we do in our community and I want to change that! There are already several free youth track meets throughout Rhode Island and I thought it would be great to add another one in Northern RI. Bob and Anne Rothenberg direct the free track meets in East Greenwich and served as great mentors for me in the overall organization and execution of hosting a well-run event. Our main goal was to spread the word about NE Distance but also create a fun, family friendly, free community event during the summer. It was a huge success! We had about 45 kids ages 3-14 participate during our first meet and it was a ton of fun. The kids had a blast and I think the parent’s appreciated a low key yet positive and encouraging environment that allows kids to try any and all events. We will be doing this again next year for sure.




Q: What advice would you give other clubs in attempting to start a similar project? What are the costs, both in money and in time, of such an endeavour?

K: The best advice I could give another club would be to start small. Focus all your resources and efforts on a single target school. The best thing a coach can bring to the team is a sense of positivity and energy, and that can be a little difficult sometimes if you are the only coach and you had a hard day of training in the morning. It is really important to match the energy of middle school athletes, and having other coaches there with you can make a big difference. A group that functions well is one that has a "head coach" who tends to be the point speaker/leader, but just as importantly there are other assistant coaches who can help with smaller details at practice such as facilitating workouts, breaking up arguments, talking with parents, dealing with bathroom breaks etc. The costs of time are really what add up, as there are so many small things that happen with middle school athletes everyday at practice, so having extra help is a huge bonus. Also, I would mention that coaching doesn't stop when you leave the practice field. Be prepared to work for an hour or so each night at home making sure students are keeping grades up, have passed in all their participation forms, and notifying parents/other coaches of any scheduling changes. There are pretty minimal monetary costs, especially in cross country, because running is a simple sport. In track, those costs can be a bit bigger because you have to factor in buying new implements, hurdles, batons, measuring tapes, or even fun items to use at practice that are not specific track and field items. We have been lucky to have the school districts provide transportation to and from meets. The other cost to consider is a coaching stipend, which New England Distance provides for the coaches.


N - I would add - make sure you have a good strong relationship with school administration.  In schools everything starts at the top and if you don’t have active help from administration, you are not going to get going.  Also - this is a good life lesson for everything - be nice to everyone you meet. In our first class I formed a good relationship with the parent of one of our kids.  That parent went on to become a City Councilmember and is now a go-to resource for us when we need it.



On Elite Runners

Q: As an elite athlete that competes regularly, how do you find the time to balance your full-time job, your volunteer work, and your training?


K: Being a student-athlete for the majority of my life has made me learn how to manage my time efficiently. In a way, post-collegiate running is similar to being a student-athlete, but instead of balancing training and school, it’s balancing training and work. It is not always easy and certainly isn’t glamorous but at the end of the day I know what I want and I am going to make sure I do all that I can to achieve my goals. With our NEDi work, we do tend to focus races around the times we are coaching. For example, the two months of coaching in the fall we tend to keep training steady but are open minded to altering days when we feel tired or need extra rest. When the coaching season ends, we can amp our training and focus more on upcoming races as we will have more time to rest.


Q: Many elite and professional runners have come from stable family backgrounds, have had the privilege to play sports in high school/college as opposed to having to work, and have always had access to proper nutrition and healthcare. If this applies to you, how does this shape your volunteer work in these less fortunate communities? How do you begin to connect with a kid who grew up in a very different situation?


K: I am incredibly fortunate to have been raised in a loving household with a family that supports everything that I do. I certainly would not be where I am without their continued support and love. That being said, moving to Woonsocket, RI was quite a change for me. I was fully submerged in an environment that I had never experienced and quickly picked up on the hardships that some of our middle schoolers have to handle. I may not have been raised in a similar environment so I can’t fully understand their challenges, but I can certainly empathize, support, and be there for these children if needed. I believe that sports are a universal language. No matter what your background, challenges, or athletic ability is, we can all appreciate what hard work, determination, perseverance, and treating others with respect will get you far in running and in life. Sports can help ignite a new found determination in them they may not have known was there, and can lead to overcoming so many life obstacles. We try to drive home the point that this hard work is applicable to school, work and part-time jobs, not just athletics. I also think the fact that we train full time and tell the kids about our daily training makes us relatable-we are practicing what we preach to them. The kids love when we run with them as our double!


Q: Some  members of NE Distance have represented Team USA at international competitions. Have you ever felt that the community involvement demands have held you back from developing more in any international (Both IAAF and independent) or possibly Olympic competition in your future.


K: Any type of work can be demanding and stressful, so it just depends on what you can handle mentally and physically. I personally have had to work another job in addition to coaching since joining the team, so my week is a bit more loaded. I think that if you love the work you do and it adds a positive balance to your life, then you are more than likely going to be energized by it and not view it as a negative to training. A lot of people would say having job they enjoy helps take away from thinking about running all day, which would be too draining. I personally have struggled every spring in Rhode Island to stay healthy and I think it has been a combination of things: training intensity is ramped up, coching spring track is much more challenging than coaching cross country, and I have to work another job on top of that. The community involvement is a fantastic aspect of our group as long as you can manage the workload. One of the major drawbacks of the spring season is that we as athletes are trying to travel more to races out west, while at the same time we will have days where we’re on our feet for 6-8 hours at middle school track meet. Some people can handle it better than others. For me, this is the first year that I didn’t coach in the spring and it is also the first spring that I was healthy and qualified for USA Nationals in the 10k.


Q: And now the complete opposite of #3: Many people believe that running is loving. That the more you love, the more(and better you run). Do you find this to be true? That the more you volunteer/give back, being for and with others in your community, the stronger you run?


K: I do believe there is something to be said for being happy in your life which can lead to running better. I am incredibly passionate about running and I absolutely want to share that joy with others, especially children. Being a middle school coach is fulfilling and gives my time here in RI a greater sense of purpose. To a degree, running can be a selfish sport so it is nice to be able to devote some time to helping others in a positive way. I found my love for running in 4th grade so it all comes full circle!


Ending Comments

Nich: Working in these communities has been an eye-opening experience for all of us.  Providence and Woonsocket have high levels of poverty. A lot of what we take for granted is not available for many of the youth we work with.  We feel like they are all our nieces and nephews and need to make sure they have the same opportunities as kids who grow up in affluent communities….Going in at the middle school level has been an important decision for us.  Kids at this age are at most at need for positive role models. It impacts their high school experience. Before we started our middle-school programs, kids did not have a chance to play sports until they got to high school. By then they were competing with affluent kids who had already been running for 3 years.  Since we’ve starting our programs, we’ve seen the high school programs become more successful because of our feeder program.


NE Distance is a 501 (c) 3 Non-Profit Corporation.  We are able to do what we do thanks to the generosity of our fans and friends in the community.  Anyone interested in making a contribution to support our mission can donate on our web site at www.nedistance.org or contact Nich Haber nich@nedistance.org


Interview conducted by Tommy Mazza, USATF New England Interim Marketing Coordinator