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Victoria teacher challenges authority in China – by training students for half-marathon
All eyes are on Kevin Mennie as he slowly moves his arm in a deliberate pendulum motion.
Standing on the spot, Mennie then bends one leg 90 degrees to hip height then repeats with the other. When he is done, he turns to his students and asks them to do the same.
In unison, the students repeat the drill.
Mennie nods in agreement. “This is proper running form,” he tells them. “This will help you in your half-marathon. But if you don’t do it correctly, you’ll have trouble running the long distance.”
For Mennie, the last year and a half working at a B.C. offshore school in Shanghai, China has been a learning experience too.
The Victoria resident arrived on the shores of China to teach B.C.’s high school curriculum at a domestic Chinese school.
It was a year of firsts.
Within months, Mennie was training and competing in what is considered one of the most difficult endurance races in the world: the Great Wall of China Marathon. It would be a life-changing experience for Mennie, not just the race but in what would transpire afterwards.
As he trained for the marathon, students and teachers were fixated daily on his antics on the track at speed drills, tempo training and fartlek runs. After all, physical education is almost frowned upon in China, where academic achievement comes before all else.
Mennie finished the grueling race in just under five hours and calls it “one of the biggest challenges of my life.” (Back home, he’s qualified for the Boston Marathon twice and has run a marathon best 3:08).
When Mennie returned to school the next day, he was quizzed by students about why he was having problems walking – and about the race. He used the opportunity to get the students enthused about running and invited them along on a run.
“They were really inspired by it,” Mennie recalls.
Within weeks, a few students were running with Mennie and co-worker Vanessa Fung, another B.C. resident teaching at the school.
And that’s when the idea started percolating.
Over the summer break, the two had a grand idea: introduce the students, who were most enthused about running, to a “real race.”
The first formal training session on return to school attracted 10 students for what was first dubbed Track Tuesday. The next week, 140 students showed up.
“It was so inspiring to see the kids get better and better, and they were right into it,” says Mennie.
The decision was made to race in the 30,000-runner strong Shanghai International Marathon in December.
Soon the school’s marketing class created a logo of Shanghai Footprints for the team and bracelets saying, “You Inspire Me.”
“(It all started with) this idea over the summer to see if any of these kids would want to run with us, and maybe we could put them in a race, not even thinking what could happen,” Mennie says.
Living in China, you soon learn that Chinese traditions play an integral role in everyday life. It is at the core of Chinese culture and revolves around values and how people interact with each other.
It’s this sense of tradition that put Fung and Mennie on a collision course with the school administration.
“The school (administrators) told us that students don’t run half-marathons and it’s never been done before and shouldn’t be done now,” Mennie recalls.
“Within a few weeks, (the school administration) didn’t want us using the track, and said it wouldn’t endorse the race.”
School administrators continued to up the ante. They said the students would die if they ran a half-marathon and called a parents’ meeting to discuss it.
Mennie and Fung were prepared to give a presentation, but they were not permitted to speak. “I’m sitting in the audience thinking it can be done. Give them a chance,” says Mennie.
The school issued a gag order which said they couldn’t mention Shanghai Footprints or the marathon at all.
The students weren’t about to be stopped. “I just said to the kids let’s just call it a run for fun and when we show up on the track, don’t say anything about the marathon,” Mennie says.
Mennie and Fung learned in China to expect the unexpected.
At the school-hosted sports day, one of the runners showed up wearing a yellow shirt with the words Run for Fun written on it.
“This was a statement against the authority. The kid (a Grade 12 student) ran a race and won and turned and looked at the authorities. This is when I thought, ‘Oh, oh, this could go sideways. I could be sent home. I started worrying about my job a little bit,” Mennie says.
Another school meeting was soon called. It was mandatory that parents attend if they wished their child take part in the half-marathon. The administration attempted to dissuade any participation in the race. Again Fung and Mennie were told they could not give a presentation.
As the meeting wrapped up, Mennie could no longer hold his tongue and gave his thoughts on the running group and the half-marathon. Slowly the administration started leaving the building one by one. By the end, it was Mennie and Fung answering parents questions.
“We reaffirmed with the parents what was going on and they started getting onboard and that’s when we realized this is a lot bigger now, because the parents were behind us.”
The subtle harassment, however, didn’t end: students were asked to steal runners’ lists from Mennie’s office; running signs were taken down; physical education teachers would set up soccer shooting drills on the track while the runners practised; the teachers would abruptly hold fabricated exercise days on the track, working out in business suits no less, to interrupt the running.
“I thought the biggest challenge would be making these kids who aren’t runners be able to believe and do a half-marathon. My biggest worry was someone getting injured. I didn’t want to hurt them. I didn’t even think about the other part, and once it started, it was relentless,” Mennie recalls.
It’s a cool day in late November and of the 140 students who trained for the Shanghai International Half-marathon from the school, 70 will take part in the race. (Ten were classified under age and couldn’t register.) For the under-age students, Mennie made up bibs and slipped the students into the race without notice, although they couldn’t qualify for medals.
Mennie and Fung began loading their runners, adorned in bright pink shirts, on buses – rented privately – at 5 a.m. off school property. The plan was to get the students to the start line early and ready to go. One teacher would be stationed at the finish line in case any student got into injury trouble or couldn’t finish the race.
Mennie ran with the lead group until the 12K mark. After that, he dashed back and forth on the race course running with students and encouraging them.
Only one of the 70 students was unable to complete the race due to injury. The first runner crossed the line at the 1:38 mark. The last runner, who stumbled with just 20 metres to go, finished with a 3:30 time.
“It was a moving experience, especially what we had to do to get here,” Mennie says.
A few weeks after the marathon, a gala was held to honour the students. The runners, family and friends attended. It was an exciting evening.
The 10 underage students received medals after Mennie told his friends about their plight. They put money together to buy each student a medal.
“People all over the world knew what was going on with these kids,” says Mennie. “My family and friends knew and a lot of other people too.”
While there was plenty of excitement centred around the event, Mennie was keeping a secret.
He wasn’t returning for another school year. “At that point, I knew I wasn’t coming back,” Mennie says. “I knew I rocked the boat.
“These were kids just dying for something. They wanted a chance to do something other than study. It’s been life-changing.”
The passion for China continued when Kevin Mennie returned to Canada in January.
Although Canada and China have two very distinct cultures, Mennie wondered why more Canadian teens weren’t running half-marathons. After all, plenty have run 10-kilometre races.
Enter Victoria Footprints.
Taking the success of Shanghai Footprints, Mennie approached his former school St. Andrew’s Regional High School, where he was athletic director, and asked if he could present his idea to a school assembly.
Eighty kids signed up right away, but that soon dwindled to 30, and by the time the TC10K half-marathon rolled around only four took part in the race.
“Although the numbers weren’t there, there was a lot interest,” Mennie says. “And it will grow.”
Kevin Mennie bio
Kevin Mennie is no stranger to sports.
The former St. Andrew's Regional High School director athletics has twice qualified for the Boston Marathon, the holy grail for runners.
He completed his first marathon in 2002. Since then he has completed three more marathons, including the Great Wall Marathon, thought by many to be the most difficult in the world.
Mennie played for the UVic Vikes soccer team, helping the team to a national championship in 1996.