The ways in which running can be thought of as a privilege are endless. Seemingly simple factors like time and basic physical capability are not guaranteed to all.
The world over, running and those who pursue it also increasingly have the privilege of being embraced by the surrounding community. Despite the complaints we may overhear or see on social media lamenting road closures on race day, running has become part of the character of so many cities, particularly in the case of the World Marathon Majors.
Today, on Bell Let’s Talk Day, beautiful stories will be told about the power of running. Many of those stories are of individuals and their individual journeys – not always straightforward and not always unfailingly upward, but always in hope of something better they know they deserve.
Running, so much as it requires privilege, creates it too and runners have embraced and used that privilege to build and strengthen in return the community that embraced them. When it comes to mental health, running is not just something from which we take, but something that has grown to give as well.
JP Hernandez is perhaps one of the most instantly recognizable faces in Toronto running, though the famous face is not his own, but the “bat cowl” he’s now worn in more than a dozen races, whether solo or as a member of the Justice League Runners (JLR). Petja Taivassolo is often right alongside the Dark Knight Runner wielding Thor’s hammer as his blonde locks fly in accordance with his pace.
JLR have run in support of several causes affecting children and youth, most recently supporting Ooolagen Youth Mental Health, a Toronto based mental health agency which provides counselling programs to over 4,000 young people and their families every year.
JP’s motivations were simple. “When I chose to help Oolagen, I did so because our kids face a much tougher world now than when I was a teen.” He adds, “No child or teen, or even adult for that matter, should ever feel they can’t turn to someone for help.”
Oolagen was an obvious choice for Petja as well. As a physical education and health teacher, he says, “I see first hand the battles teens are facing today and helping bring much needed awareness and support to a place that provides a safe and comforting outlet just felt so right.”
As a parent, JP’s greatest goal is to, “…leave a legacy for own my kids to teach them that we can do our part to help our fellow man and woman.” Batman provides the perfect vehicle for that goal. The costume has allowed him to catch the attention of several news outlets each time he races. When a 6-foot plus Latino man built like a linebacker is running a marathon dressed in a superhero costume, people are going to notice.
When the notice falls on him and JLR, JP turns the attention to causes like Oolagen and the young people he hopes to serve. Like Batman, JP himself has no superpowers, but simply, “works harder to be able to do what is right.”
For both runners, who may have started their journey, in Petja’s words, “all about setting times and PB’s,” the sport has come to represent a responsibility, one that they’re both glad to have.
Petja recalls, “Not until I first picked up Thor’s Hammer (Mjölnir) and ran with JLR in the Toronto Yonge St. 10K back in 2014 did I become aware of the incredible privilege and responsibility that we have in bringing awareness and support to our causes.”
Neither JP or Petja runs for himself anymore. In fact, their own struggles seem small as they take on their roles as advocates. According to JP, when he finds himself struggling in the midst of training or a race, “I don’t allow myself the right to complain because I will heal. A baby of 6 months old might be fighting stage 3 cancer, or a teenager is grappling with suicidal thoughts – those demand more attention. That’s how I put all this into perspective.”
The story of JLR illustrates all that running can become. An educator like Petja sees the running community, “…playing a strong role in getting get kids active and helping them better cope with the challenges they face on a daily basis.” As runners with a theatric style that can resonate with young people like the child who posed with Thor’s hammer at the 2014 Yonge Street 10K, they hopefully light torches of inspiration at every race they run.
Beyond this, however, their efforts are an example of running’s potential to turn attention to causes beyond itself and inspire action on behalf of those affected. Running is not just its own community, but something of a gentler version of Thor’s hammer that gracefully bludgeons surrounding communities into something greater.
Visit Oolagen.org to learn more about the organization’s work with youth in Toronto and how you can support it.
- Ravi Singh (@ravimatsingh)