By: Alissa Boyhtari
Grandma’s Marathon represents so much more than people running 26.2 miles. Its roots go much deeper than those three days in June, extending all the way to the organization’s charity piece, the Young Athletes Foundation, which focuses on promoting and developing healthy and active lifestyles for thousands of children in the Northland.
I am one of those kids.
As the saying goes: “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.” I have seen that hold true in my own life. I got my first pair of track spikes as a sophomore in high school with a free shoe certificate from my coaches. With that certificate came a sense of belonging and importance, independent of my ability as an athlete. My spikes came from Austin Jarrow, the longest-standing local running shop here in Duluth; they were black with silver chrome on the bottom and a faint yellow outline around the white Nike Swoosh.
A year earlier, as a freshman, I had borrowed shoes from one of my older teammates, but having my own track spikes to cherish was a really special thing. I felt fast and cool. Oddly enough, I felt a sense of belonging that took away any and all limits. That confidence propelled me to try new events, to battle through the pain of practice, and do what I once thought was impossible – get recruited to a collegiate track and field program.
Toward the end of high school and into my collegiate career, I began to volunteer at a popular local kids’ event called Wednesday Night at the Races. I didn’t know this at the time, but it was the Young Athletes Foundation, in partnership with Grandma’s Marathon, that brought kids from all over our area to local tracks each week during the summer. Not only did I see the heart of these organizations, but I also came to realize the free shoe certificate I had received several years ago came from this very place.
It felt pretty cool to be giving back to the organization that had already given me so much, that had helped fuel my love for running. At first, I had volunteered to get a good workout in during the summer, but Wednesday Night at the Races became a building block for the love I now have for coaching.
My running journey is not one based on ease or founded on deeply rooted talent. I had to dig deep and fight with everything inside of me to take a step forward. As I watched some of the kids struggle to make it around the track, I was reminded of where I came from and how easy it is to want to give up when you’re looking at yourself through the scope of somebody else’s abilities or success.
Running and sports in general are not meant to be filled with comparisons and negativity. I know firsthand how heartbreaking that environment can be. Coaching through the Young Athletes Foundation provided my opportunity to help the next ones in line, to inspire kids to keep going forward no matter how hard it gets. Also, to help them see that their worth is not in their abilities or results, but in their determination, desire, and willingness to try their best.
Being able to get those kids pumped up before races, to help build their confidence in trying something new, and to share the sport I love proved deeply satisfying. And it all gave me a better feeling than I’ve ever experienced in my own running endeavors. With the help of many others, I was helping the Young Athletes Foundation forward in its pursuit to make sport positive, accessible, and inviting to all.
Not only had the Young Athletes Foundation given me a chance to “conquer the world,” but it had opened the door with endless opportunities. Without that first pair of spikes, I wouldn’t have had the bravery to try almost every event and go to practice every day. Without showing up to practice, I wouldn’t have learned lessons from my coaches that helped me become a college athlete. And I wouldn’t have tried running cross country or enter half marathons.
Most of all, I wouldn’t have earned a degree in Exercise Science and become the coach I am today.
I wouldn’t have met the same people or deepened the faith that’s become my foundation without the Young Athletes Foundation. Nor would I have entered the Austin Jarrow running shop, where I later worked and helped hundreds of other excited young runners into their first new pair of shoes. My internship with Grandma’s Marathon would not have happened, and I wouldn’t have become a Board member with the Young Athletes Foundation.
All from a single pair of shoes through an amazing organization, proving the truth that the journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step.
My journey continues as a middle and high school coach, where my athletes are on the receiving end of a free shoe certificate from the Young Athletes Foundation. Every time I see them smile as they’re lacing up, I flash to back the genesis of my love for running. Like me, they discovered excitement, joy, and newfound spunk fueled by their new pairs of shoes.
For them, as it was for me, this has inspired hard work, which has turned into passion. A simple act of giving has allowed a new generation of young athletes to feel part of something and has given them the bravery to try new things, whether that’s college, a new job, a new place, or even a spot in Grandma’s Marathon weekend.
NOTE: Alissa Boyhtari is currently the chairperson of the Young Athletes Foundation (YAF) Committee, which helps oversee the organization’s various program s and community involvement.
The YAF was created in 1990 to help promote and develop healthy lifestyles for children in its five-county region – Carlton, Cook, Douglas, Lake, and St. Louis. Since its inception, the YAF has contributed more than $1.1 million to the area’s nonprofit youth athletic and recreational athletic organizations. Money is raised primarily through community races held throughout the year, as well as donations.