When Bill Herling attended Kopachuck Middle School in the late 2000s, he didn’t have many friends. That changed at Gig Harbor High School, when he joined the cross country team, where his teammates became his closest friends.
“I wish they had cross country when I was in middle school,” Herling said.
Fortunately, now they do.
It’s the inaugural season of middle-school cross country, offered at all the schools across the Peninsula School District. By all accounts, it’s been a resounding success, with 230 kids participating across the district.
The biggest success story is at Kopachuck, Herling’s alma mater, where he’s now coaching. The middle school has about 80 kids in the program in its first year.
“We’re overwhelmed — in a good way,” Herling said. “It’s been tremendous to have so many people.”
The program’s architect is Gig Harbor High track coach Kevin Eager, who started the program to get kids started with running earlier and feed into Gig Harbor and Peninsula high schools.
“We just kind of piggy-backed off his leadership,” Herling said.
The races at Sehmel Homestead Park are only 1.2 miles and kids of all skill levels are welcome. For Herling, it’s all about keeping it fun.
“We keep the mileage low and the fun high,” he said.
The community response has been tremendous, according to Herling. Parents have been thrilled to see positive change in their kids’ lives.
“I get a lot of nice emails from parents that say things like, ‘I’ve never seen my kid so confident before and so happy with their body,’” Herling said. “Stuff like that. Running is so special. It’s not a team sport. I can be the best I can be. It doesn’t matter what everyone else does. We have really fast kids and kids that are just finding their way. But it doesn’t matter, as long as they do their best.”
Giving kids confidence is the most rewarding part of it all for Herling.
“For me, this is such a tough age,” he said. “They’re so impressionable, they don’t have a lot of confidence. Running is just such a special thing that they can find themselves in.”
And just maybe, some of those kids will make lifelong friends through running, just like Herling did.
“To give them the opportunity to find a good group of people — these are going to be their friends for a very long time,” Herling said. “Running isn’t easy. When you can share that experience with somebody, that’s special.”