Festival of Miles brings smiles, help for a worthy cause

Joseph Kenny | jkenny@archstl.org

Jennifer Weaver jogged on the track in front of the stands, carrying the finish-line banner around her neck and celebrating her victory.

Then came the question athletes face after a big win, this time by a track announcer: How do you feel?

"Tired" came the logical answer from someone who had just run a mile in 5:07, breaking the previous record for the Nike Festival of Miles in the junior high girls category.

Later, the Lindbergh School District student called the event "the coolest and most fun race I've ever done." She cited the crowd that overflowed the stands at St. Louis University High School at the prestigious event.

The Festival of Miles Foundation is a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote track and field and give back to athletes in need. It features two-and-a-half hours of nonstop action with youth and middle-school races, high-school races showcasing some of the nation's top talent and pro races featuring Olympic-level athletes. Each year all proceeds from ticket sales go to an athlete or athletes in need.

Hatched in 2008 in Ben Rosario's living room, the event was meant to be a one-year fundraiser for the family of Brigette Schutzman, a standout cross country and track runner for St. Louis University who had been badly injured in a car accident on New Year's Eve 2007. Schutzman spent several weeks in a coma and doctors gave her a slim chance of recovery, but that spring she slowly made progress. They held the event in April after a junior varsity track meet at SLUH.

Rosario, a SLUH graduate and co-founder of Big River Running, had reached out to Jim Linhares, his former track coach at SLUH, to help get the project off the ground.

"We ended up raising $8,000 for the family, everybody had a blast, and that was going to be it," Rosario said. "Then that summer, Mike Rathmann from St. Louis U. High had a bad accident, was paralyzed, and we thought, 'Oh man, we gotta do it for him.' He was a high-jumper, a track and field athlete as well."

In the three years the event benefited Rathmann, an all-state track star, $15,000 was contributed to his family for his rehab and community college tuition.

That race, moved to late May, was a big success, with Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano running a 3:55.29 mile, breaking the coveted 4-minute mile, which no one had done in Missouri since 1961. It was the third fastest time in the world then.

Linhares, assistant principal at SLUH, describes the mission as "celebrating track and field and young people and directing that energy at someone in need. Track is not a huge fan-based sport in the Midwest, but there's close to 3,000 people who attend this."

The event this year featured Jordan McNamara in the men's mile and a high school runner, Grant Fischer of Michigan, who ran 3:59.38 in the mile, becoming the third-fastest American high-schooler of all time. The Festival of Miles drew high school runners from 13 states.

The race "brings the community together to see great races for a great cause," said Neville Miller, who won the men's one-mile race in 2008. He ran track at St. John Vianney High School and the University of Missouri-Columbia and now lives in Kansas City. "I loved how much the crowd was into the race and how it has grown over the years. This race gives the running community a chance to see some of the best runners in the country, who may typically only compete in meets along the East and West Coasts, race against each other and the clock in St. Louis."

St. Louis University cross country and track and field coach Jon Bell was there when Rosario planned the first event. Bell is pleased that it has continued and has grown. "It's a great showcase meet for the high school kids," he said.

Coaching tips

"Tradition, Class, Pride: Building a Cross Country Dynasty," a book about coaching high school cross country, is a soon-to-be-published book by former St. Louis University High School coach Jim Linhares and former SLUH runner Ben Rosario.

The material includes information on "formational coaching," emphasizing the spiritual and character formation potential of high school sports, particularly running.

"All youth sports really ought to be fundamentally formational," Linhares said. "That should be something that is intentionally being done in a sports program even more strongly than trying to win. We ought to try to remember what youth sports is all about."

Some of the people who have taught him the most about how to be a good person were his high school runners, and he tells those stories in the book. He also refers to St. Ignatius. 

Meet Brian

The Festival of Miles this year benefited 16-year-old Brian Ott from Fort Zumwalt West High School in O'Fallon. Brian has been battling cancer of the brain and spinal cord since he was 3 years old. He plays hockey for the Gateway Locomotives, a special-needs team. He also helps out as a manager on the school's football and basketball teams.

At the event June 4 at St. Louis University High School, Brian's parents asked for prayers, saying that they believe in the power of prayer. A new record in donations, at least $9,000, has been raised.

For information on donations contact Jen Rosario at jenrosario13@gmail.com. Contributions to the fund for Brian can be made to www.stlouisreview.com/20k 

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