It's a chilly Friday evening as the sun sets over Mission Bay. A cluster of high school students are gathered near the starting line of a running race. They laugh, roughhouse and flirt—clearly nervous and excited before they start their run.
While every runner follows some sort of training plan to lead them to a race, these kids' paths have been longer and mostly uphill.
They go to Reflections Central, a school in the San Diego County Juvenile Court and Community Schoolssystem for students with mental health needs who've committed juvenile offenses including gang violence and drug offenses. The school has found an unusual way of helping students with their behavior: a running club where students train for races, even half marathons.
Michael Rolan, a probation officer who helped start the running club, said running helps students by teaching them discipline, letting them set goals and giving them an outlet for their pain.
"They've experienced a lot of pain," he said. "And in running, you're voluntarily accepting pain. It's one chance that they get to overcome pain, and when they do that, they become empowered."
Rolan leads the running club with Cindy Stallo, a teacher at the school.
"It's kind of like this is their last stop and the kids I see, they're 16, 17 years old, some of them have a hard time with their academics, some of them feel so beat down, so I feel like when there's something positive we can do for them, it's worth it," Stallo said.
Teacher Cindy, as the students call her, said she can see the impact of the running club in her classroom.
"A lot of the kids take medication for their depression and for their anger and I feel like running is a huge outlet for them," she said. "I've noticed it's stabilized them, helped them be more motivated in school because they know they have to come in and get good grades and keep that up."
The running group goes out twice a week to do training runs, like running up and down the Convention Center stairs. You wouldn't expect many teenagers to willingly exercise unless they're on a sports team, but 17-year-old Krista Ramirez loves the discipline that comes from running.
"Usually I was sitting on a couch eating potato chips, frosting, cake, cookies, and now I'm running instead of doing all those things," Ramirez said. "I've been more positive, I've been doing more schoolwork, cuz it clears your mind, you become very calm and on top of that, it helps your mood."
Fifteen-year-old Dylan Snider is one of the best runners in the group. He said gang activity brought him to Reflections Central, and running club is helping him cope.
"You don't have to think about where you're at, you just get to think that you're basically free," Snider said. "Whenever you run, whenever we go out as a group, it makes you feel like you're free, it doesn't seem like you're on probation."
While San Diego County’s juvenile hall system has been criticized for its use of pepper spray, Ramirez and Snider said staff at their school are strict but treat them well. Reflections Central is not a 24-hour juvenile detention facility—students are at the school until 4 p.m., then return to their homes each evening.
Many students often only stay at Reflections Central for a few months, but the running group continues through each new enrollment wave. Students can only run if they have good behavior at school, and just a few students have been asked to leave the group, Stallo said. Runners who stick with the group train for races, including some 13-mile half marathons.
Stallo and Rolan ask races to discount entry fees for the students and raise money to buy their sneakers, but also end up spending some of their own money.
"It doesn't matter if they're the fastest one there," Rolan said. "Every kid that we've ever taken to a race gained something from it that they'll have forever. I'm pretty sure none of them would ever do something like that on their own, but they'll always remember that."
Back at Mission Bay, Snider, Ramirez and some of the other students pile out of a county probation van. They're eager for that good race feeling. Their race, the 3.1-mile Fearless 5K, cut race fees and still gave them official race t-shirts. Some of their parents have even come to watch them accomplish their goal.
The group clusters at the starting line and then an announcer shouts, "Take your mark, go!" The students take off, some fast, some slower, as they cover the path around Mission Bay. Just 25 minutes later, Snider crosses the finish line, the first of the group. His other running teammates trickle in behind him. They're sweaty, out of breath and tired, but you can also see the feeling of accomplishment that their teacher described.
"They're so used to making mistakes and making poor choices that they think running club just sounds cool because they get out of school and then they realize, oh, this feels good, and it doesn't take drugs, it doesn't take all the negative influences to do something that feels good," Stallo said.