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Born to run

Prodded by newfound friendship and determination, fledgling marathoners answer call for personal challenge

Bill Rodgers addresses members of Dreamfar before joining them for a 6-mile outing along the Boston Marathon route in Newton. Bill Rodgers addresses members of Dreamfar before joining them for a 6-mile outing along the Boston Marathon route in Newton. (Jay Connor for The Boston Globe)
By Lenny Megliola
Globe Correspondent / January 6, 2011

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The encouraging words are voiced by someone who knows, someone who’s taken the ultimate road test. “I started running when I was 15. I ran my first marathon at 25. It’s a long haul. You have to ease into it.’’

He points out: “We are meant to run.’’

Coming from four-time Boston Marathon and four-time New York Marathon winner Bill Rodgers, that’s inspiration enough for the group of would-be marathoners gathered in the foyer of Newton North High School on a cold Saturday morning last month.

“Winter,’’ says Rodgers, 63, preparing to lead the pack on a training loop, “is a beautiful time to run.’’

Rodgers is here at the behest of Jamie Chaloff, 51, a special education aide at Newton South High School. Chaloff says she started the Dreamfar High School Marathon program in 2008 partly as a way to reach at-risk students, but the idea has caught on among teens across the academic and athletic spectrums.

“I believe all high school kids are at risk,’’ Chaloff declares.

Still, that first year at Newton South, Chaloff says, she wasn’t sure how many students would take up the challenge. “I would have done it if only one kid showed up,’’ she recalls. “One kid would be a team in my mind.’’

When nine turned out, Chaloff set the bar high. “I told them, ‘I want you to run a marathon this year.’ ’’

Whether the runners were troubled or top students, “they all became best friends,’’ says Chaloff. They ate and trained together, got to know and understand each other.

Teens tend to bond when they make a commitment to get up at 7 on Saturday mornings to train. “I just nagged them,’’ says Chaloff. “The more you do it, the more you get sucked in. You keep showing up.’’

Three days before the Providence Marathon, the mother of one runner died. Still, he ran. “It was very emotional,’’ says Chaloff.

Dreamfar now has about 50 students who are training to run in this year’s race in Providence, being held on May 1. Students from Newton North, Brookline, and Sharon high schools have come on board.

“My goal is to get the program in every high school in the state,’’ says Chaloff, who is seeking funding to expand. “We have a growth pattern. Add two high schools per year.’’

Chaloff is convinced that running a marathon is good for the soul. She was 45 when she ran her first 26.2-mile event, the Disney Marathon in Orlando, Fla. Two years later she finished Boston, and says, “Crossing the finish line was incredibly empowering.’’

Brookline High social worker Paul Epstein, 37, had heard about Dreamfar from one of his students who had previously attended Newton South. “He knew I was a runner,’’ says Epstein, who has run four marathons, including Boston.

Epstein, twin brother of Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, persuaded several students to join. Some of them had never run a mile, Epstein points out, “but for some weird reason, running a marathon appealed to them.’’

Senior Jonathan Mande was one. An accident a few years ago that totaled the family car ruined his knees for football. He liked all sports. When Epstein asked him about running, Mande says, “I thought it was a great idea. I didn’t know it was about running 26 miles!’’

He looked up Dreamfar on the Internet and was impressed by its philosophy and goals. “I went back to Paul and said, ‘Sign me up.’ It’s not just setting a goal to run a marathon, it’s about setting goals in life.’’

Mande emigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001. His ambition is to attend Berklee College of Music. “I feel I have a gift for music. I’d like to help people with my music. Jazz is my favorite, but I’ve been recording hip-hop and R&B.’’

Brookline senior Jacqueline Smothers has had knee problems that all but ended her athletic career. “But I wanted to do something,’’ she says. She just recently connected with Dreamfar. “The knee’s been fine. There are certain days it’ll bother me. After every run I see the trainer.’’

An early riser anyway, Smothers says, she looks forward to the Saturday morning runs. “I get excited about it. When we went 3 miles I thought that was a lot. But when we had to run 11 miles I said, ‘Oh no, I can’t.’ ’’ She made it, though. The strong bond Dreamfar fosters has also helped her make new friends.

To enhance Dreamfar, Chaloff got professional trainer Victor Acosta to work with the runners, pro bono. “They’re taught what to wear, how to eat,’’ says Chaloff. “You can’t go to school hungry. You’ve got to start drinking water in the morning.’’

But the real trick is to get the teens running. “Every time they run a mile, the more it gets them to come back,’’ says Chaloff. They start running half a mile, then 1 1/2 and 2 before it jumps to 6 miles.

Before joining the Dreamfar runners on the 6-mile outing last month, Rodgers told them “a marathon is all about exploring the distance, and it’s always a struggle. I dropped out of Boston three times. But it’s OK. Boston’s tricky. It’s hilly and dangerous. But it’s still my favorite.

“We’re born to run. We have huge hearts. You have the strength!’’ Pointing to his head he adds, “It’s up here. What your mind can conceive your body can achieve. What really matters is that you do your best.’’

After finishing the fun, Rodgers stayed until all the runners had returned. He later e-mailed Chaloff that “the best part was waiting with the other students to see the last runner come in.’’

“Dreamfar,’’ says Epstein, “is heaven-sent.’’

For more information about the Dreamfar program, visit www.dreamfarhsm.org. Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs@aol.com.