Ask any runner: The routine of training gets boring. Mundane and time-consuming. Grinding and draining. It forces focus on the details when the big picture can distract or intimidate. Routine can pass unnoticed in the presence of a grand gesture. 

But routine can also restore the soul, which might be the most profound lesson from Alex Schenk, a computer science teacher who helped students at Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience work through tragedy and grief, simply by putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again.

The magnet school in south St. Louis shares a campus with Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, site of the shooting on October 24 that took the lives of Jean Kuczka, 61, a mother of five who coached cross country and taught physical education, and sophomore Alexzandria Bell, 15. Six other students were injured and hospitalized. 

But each of the 700 students, as well as faculty and staff from both schools, needed healing. 

Some found solace, support, and comfort in Students on the GO! Since 2009, the program has offered students in area public schools training to complete a half marathon or 10K as part of GO! St. Louis’ Marathon & Family Fitness Weekend in April. This year, 145 students from 11 schools participated. The biggest contingent, 38, was from Collegiate. Schenk has sponsored the group since 2016 and was honored recently by GO! as Educator of the Year.

“There’s so much of this story that any runner can relate to,” said Mona Vespa, president of GO! St. Louis, “especially in the way we use running as therapy.”

GO! St. Louis Educator of the Year, Alex Schenk

Educator of the Year, Alex Schenk, with Mona Vespa of GO! St. Louis. (Lexie Knight)

Among those who ran for therapy was senior Avery Vance, who had participated twice before, and juniors Sara Redmond and Jacob Hicks, newcomers to the program. Hicks runs track and cross country on the combined team that represents Central and Collegiate. Redmond had participated in Girls on the Run since third grade and ran cross country in the fall, but after the shooting felt burned out on running. 

“We were starting this year at a time when I wasn’t sure we’d move forward with [the program],” said Schenk, who started running recreationally as an undergrad at Saint Louis University. “If you would have asked me in October, I would have said we’d be lucky to have 10 or 15 students.”

But Principal Fred Steele said school leadership recognized the program’s importance. “We thought it was best to implement normalcy incrementally over time and reclaim what belongs to us,” Steele said. “And Students on the GO! belongs to us.”

The school shut down for two weeks, then went to virtual learning for a week and a half. Even before classes resumed in late November, the PTO organized a gathering at nearby Tower Grove Park, where Schenk made his pitch. He promoted Students on the GO! as a safe space for students of all abilities to walk or run and talk along the way.

“Students were yearning and eager to get back together,” Schenk said. “It was an opportunity to have the sense of community I try to foster in the classroom, but I could have it through something I love, which is running. It was a way to get the community piece back into focus.”

Some students, like Vance and Hicks, were quick to join. “I felt worn out, but listening to Mr. Schenk, I realized that I needed to do it to honor Coach Kuczka,” Hicks said.

Redmond was at first reluctant and signed up late. “In the aftermath, you realize that the shooting had seeped into everything, not just school but your social life and work life as well,” she said. “Friends from other schools walk on eggshells. Parents try but just don’t know what to say or do. I thought maybe running would give me back a sense of control.”

GO! provides formal weekend group runs for all schools. But with Tower Grove Park at their front door, Schenk and his students for the first time scheduled extra group trainings, starting in early December. Each finished with a team breakfast. “I had generous friends ask me how they could help,” he said. “So, they chipped in and footed the bill for our post-run community to hang out and maybe have some good memories.”

Redmond often trained with a classmate, Emily Matheny, running while sorting through the tangle of emotions together. “I’m not sure I would have worked out by myself. It really helped. Other people try to understand, but you can’t really understand unless you go through it,” she said. 

And when she needed extra incentive, “Mr. Schenk was there. He’s this positive ray of sunshine. He gave a positive pep talk before every practice. He never stops smiling.”

Vance agreed: “It was tough to talk about with people who weren’t there, but with Students on the GO!, we had all been through it and could talk about our experience.” 

While focused on the students, Schenk realized the restorative powers of the training as well. “I’d say I thrive off some component of routine,” he said. 

As fellow survivors, Hicks said, the students, “knew Mr. Schenk was going through his own hurt, but he still gave so much of himself. He helped us through.”

So, when the group gathered at school before dawn on race day, they felt like celebrating with the other 10,000 participants in the weekend’s events. Schenk finished the half in 1:23:27, bettering his goal of 1:25. “I didn’t want to make it about me,” he said, “but I wanted to be there to see the joy of them finishing.”

Vance finished the half in 1:54:32, 3 seconds faster than last year. “Perfect,” she said. “I was able to be intentional about being grateful. It’s been a hard year, but passing so many people cheering in these beautiful neighborhoods, I felt connected to the city.”

Redmond and Matheny finished the 10K in 1:09:31. “The vibes were so positive at the start,” Redmond said. “I absorbed that. I got a runner’s high that lasted the whole 6 miles. I’ve never had so much fun running.” 

Setting a goal of less than 2 hours, Hicks finished the half in 2:11:34. “But I’ll be back next year.”

Which is a reminder that the journey and the healing continue. Schenk entered the Lincoln Marathon in May and finished in 3:10:05. Vance has graduated and is off to the University of Kansas, though her teammates promised to “save a place” for her in next year’s event. Hicks and Redmond plan to return to both Students on the GO! and the cross country team, where Schenk will take Kuczka’s place as coach. 

“New endeavor,” he said. 

And, inspired by the group’s resilience, the HOKA Festival of Miles donated all proceeds of its annual series of races in June to the campus cross country team.  

“Students on the GO! was successful because Mr. Schenk wanted it for us,” Hicks said. “He gives everything to it.”

Author: Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: Students on the GO! participants prior to the 2023 GO! St. Louis Half Marathon and 10K. (David Carson)