Mykesha Cardona was headed down a dangerous path.
An energetic 16-year-old from Oxnard, Cardona described her life as one marked more by “popping pills,” drinking and partying rather than by the worries any parent would hope for a typical teenager: grades, sports, friends, preparing for college.
“I was really just not caring about anything in life anymore,” she said. “And so it came to a point where I was really, really bad into a drug, and I just knew if I kept doing that drug, I wouldn’t have had a life.”
She left that behavior behind when she decided this winter to enroll at the Grizzly Youth Academy, the California National Guard-run program for at-risk youths located at Camp San Luis.
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Scars remained, however.
And although Cardona knew the military-like setting at the academy would offer an outlet to transform her life, another — more unexpected — path forward soon emerged: running.
Cardona was introduced to Grizzly Run Club, an extracurricular activity offered in partnership with Race SLO, one of the Central Coast’s primary endurance sports production companies.
Where Grizzly Youth Academy brings discipline and structure through the school’s 22-month program, Grizzly Run Club for the past five years has aimed to augment that by demonstrating the benefits of fitness in all aspects of life.
The club, launched by Race SLO founder and CEO Samantha Pruitt, takes cadets new to the academy and builds them up over the course of 16 weeks with the ultimate goal of competing in a half marathon. For the winter-spring class, that race has always been the Race SLO-produced SLO Marathon in May.
Pruitt said she came up with the idea for the club after she was struck by the enthusiasm academy cadets would show when they volunteered at Race SLO events.
Fitness is a ‘powerful tool’
“Learning from the kids and their experiences in life and why they were in this program, I just felt it would be really a powerful thing to get them to learn how to run and become athletes and understand their bodies and themselves emotionally better and have this really powerful tool,” Pruitt said.
In the club’s five years of existence, Pruitt said, more than 500 cadets have finished a half marathon. The club was honored this winter at the Running USA 2017 Conference with the Running USA Youth Program Award and a $10,000 grant.
“It would not only change their physical fitness — that’s an obvious benefit — but, really, the biggest, most powerful thing we’ve recognized is it creates such a level of self-esteem, self-confidence and leadership skills that really are the best benefits they’re getting out of this,” she said.
That’s been the case for Cardona.
In the past, just 30 seconds at a light jog would require her to stop to catch her breath.
“I was not a runner, I did not like running at all,” she said.
Now, if I’m ever angry, I just save it for the run — and just run.
Last week, just a few months later, she completed an 8-mile training run on Camp San Luis grounds in the shadow of Cerro Romualdo, only stopping once — “for just 30 seconds.”
“And I felt great afterward because I pushed myself,” she said.
When Cardona arrived at the academy, her parents had just separated, and she was “feeling a lot of hurt, a lot of anger, from that,” she said.
She soon discovered that running helped her deal with the challenges she left behind in Oxnard.
“Now, if I’m ever angry, I just save it for the run — and just run,” she said.
Sgt. Veronica Weathersby, a counselor at Grizzly who worked closely with Pruitt in getting the run club off the ground, said those benefits are commonly seen in cadets who participate in the club.
A majority of the cadets rarely come from backgrounds where accomplishments in fitness or athletics are encouraged, she said, adding that nearly all become the first member of their families to complete an organized race.
“Accomplishing something like this just has such a huge impact on their lives,” Weathersby said.
From ‘undo-able’ to ‘stick to it’
Xavier Rice, 16, of Bakersfield joined the program thinking running even 1 mile would be “undo-able.”
“Now I can do 4 miles with ease,” he said.
Rice’s story is much like Cardona’s. He arrived at Grizzly barely hanging on in school, “smoking a lot of marijuana, drinking a lot.”
“I would go to school, but I wouldn’t be at school mentally,” he said.
He saw the stress it was putting on his family, and, at their urging, he enrolled in the program in hopes of getting back on track. The run club, he said, has helped.
The Grizzly Run Club usually attracts 70 to 80 cadets each term and has had as many as 100 complete the program.
“I’m seeing it in more than just fitness,” he said. “While I run, I just kind of get things off my mind and focus on the finish. It’s taught me that no matter how hard things get, you always have to stick to it, just try to finish to the best of my ability.”
The club is a privilege, however, and cadets are required to uphold their end of the bargain by staying out of trouble, meeting benchmarks in the classroom and in other academy requirements. Misstep, and they can be removed from the club. Pruitt said once the club and its benefits take hold, they begin to look forward to the twice-weekly training sessions.
The club usually attracts 70 to 80 cadets each term and has had as many as 100 complete the program. It’s also Pruitt’s hope that the club’s effect doesn’t end when students leave the academy.
“So when they leave here they really see that as a tool to deal with their stress and deal with their anxiety and deal with their peer pressure,” Pruitt said. “So we encourage them when they leave here to join a run club ... If they’re going to college or going back to high school when they leave here, join the cross country team, join the track and field team.”
Eye on the future — and the race
Both Cardona and Rice have their eyes toward the future.
They both say they are on track to graduate high school when they leave Grizzly. Cardona plans to join the Army. Rice said he’s planning to return to Bakersfield to get a job and save money with the hope of soon enrolling at Moorpark College.
But first, they have a race to run.
“I think it will make me feel really great about myself, just being able to say I’ve done it and I didn’t quit, I kept going and I was motivated and nothing got in the way of pushing myself,” Cardona said of how she expects to feel when she meets her half marathon goal.
Rice added: “I think I’ll feel like, ‘Hey, I did this.’ I can accomplish something as long as I put forth the effort. As long as I actually apply myself 100 percent, I can actually do something all the way through.”
Find out more
For more information on SLO Marathon and Half events happening April 26 through April 29, visit slomarathon.com.