Hailee Sandberg says running is something she never would have started on her own.
But 12 years ago, Sandberg, now 42, had just left a full-time job and was looking for an outlet when a runner friend suggested they train together for a 5K.
“We would meet three or four times a week in the morning to train and, at first, it just seemed like a good way to stay active,” Sandberg said. “But then I just became obsessed.”
Running made her feel good, she said. She felt stronger and faster and more confident, “and what woman doesn’t want to feel that way?” she said.
Sandberg, born and raised in Independence, now is regional director of the Eastern Iowa Corridor chapter of Let Me Run, a national nonprofit that trains elementary and middle school boys to run while fostering the development of healthy emotional expression and self-esteem.
Sandberg, who now lives in rural Rowley in Buchanan County, and Iowa Public Radio’s Charity Nebbe started the Let Me Run program in Iowa about two-and-a-half years ago.
Both women had been involved with Girls on the Run — a similar running program designed for girls — when it occurred to them that boys could benefit from running, too.
“So we did our research, and we found Let Me Run and reached out to them to figure out how to bring their program to Iowa,” Sandberg said.
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Soon after, the Eastern Iowa Corridor became the first Let Me Run region in Iowa. The program now is in its sixth season — there are two seasons each year, one in the spring and one in the fall.
Let Me Run is a seven-week program hosted by various schools in the region. Boys meet twice a week for practice and, at the end of the seven weeks, they run a 5K, Sandberg said.
During those seven weeks, the boys learn about healthy eating, how to socialize and communicate and how to express their feelings in a healthy way.
“Really, we’re using these lessons about health and wellness to mitigate some of the negative cultural messages boys receive about what it means to be masculine,” Sandberg said.
She said messages like “boys don’t cry” or “man up” teach boys to hide their emotions behind a veil of masculinity, pride and aggression, which can lead to unhealthy consequences.
Boys are twice as likely as girls to get expelled from school and 30 percent more likely to fail out of school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Additionally, boys are four times more likely than girls to be prescribed a stimulant medication for a behavior disorder, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
And boys and men are more likely to kill themselves, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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“Boys and men are taught that expressing emotion or asking for help is a weakness, while girls are encouraged to do so,” Sandberg said. “And what we know is that lack of expression, that not being able to ask for help, will affect their personal relationships and lead to a host of other negative consequences.
“That’s what makes this program so amazing,” she added. “We’re not only teaching the boys healthy physical habits, but we’re also teaching them about emotional health and healthy interactions and relationships.”
Since its founding season, the Eastern Iowa Corridor region — which includes schools in Linn, Johnson and Washington counties — has become the fastest growing region the Let Me Run program has seen, Sandberg said.
“This past spring season, we had 19 teams from 16 schools,” she said. “That’s the biggest season we’ve ever had. And this season, we have 200 boys participating.”
Over the past five seasons, more than 670 boys have participated, she said.
This year, Sandberg said the Eastern Iowa region was selected to pilot a program for third-graders.
“Let Me Run has been really successful here,” she said. “We receive amazing support from the community. We also have an incredibly supportive running community in the Corridor. And I think the schools and communities that get involved with Let Me Run really see the value of our program and how important it is for these boys.”
The Eastern Iowa Let Me Run program is supported through donations and fundraisers held throughout the year, including two 5K races — one in May and another in November.
Additionally, the program depends on volunteers — men and women — to step up as coaches and assistant coaches; extensive running experience is not required. Registration for the spring 2020 season starts in late February or early March.
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