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Left to right: Ayanna Priestley, Emma Cumbers, Greg Batten, Nik Sandona, Shawn “Mikey” Lee and Kelsey Lien.

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A little inspiration can go a long way.

Sometimes as far as 55 miles.

That’s the distance covered by a team of runners from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh last month during the Run Away to the Bay relay race in northeastern Wisconsin. The six-person team—consisting of two Student Recreation and Wellness Center (SRWC) employees and four students—took on the challenge after forming a bond through a weekly morning running club.

The Thursday morning crew, led by UW Oshkosh employees Greg Batten, interim Student Recreation and Wellness director, and Nik Sandona, competitive sports coordinator, began meeting around the start of the fall semester. The club is among dozens of SRWC group fitness offerings and is open to avid runners and aspiring runners alike.

Starting a routine

Four of the most regular participants this year are Emma Cumbers, a senior marketing major from Suamico; Ayanna Priestley, a senior rehabilitation science major from Neenah; Shawn “Mikey” Lee, a first-year kinesiology major from Milwaukee, and Kelsey Lien, a senior elementary education and special education major from Edgerton. All came in with minimal running experience, yet they formed enough of a connection through their hours of pounding pavement together they teamed with Batten and Sandona to take on the 55-mile relay challenge on April 13.

“I never ran before this year really,” said Lien, who also works at the SRWC’s Outdoor Adventure Center. “I saw their little blurb mentioned it was all-inclusive and I thought, ‘This should be fun and if it’s not fun it’ll be a good story to tell people.’”

Clockwise from bottom left: Ayanna Priestley, Emma Cumbers, Shawn “Mikey” Lee and Kelsey Lien.

Week after week, sometimes with just a few people and sometimes with upwards of 20 participants, the group would explore the Oshkosh campus and nearby neighborhoods on foot. They ran all through the winter, despite the challenges of a Wisconsin winter, and saw progress as the months went by.

Sandona said the running club is a perfect example of what Student Rec and Wellness is all about. When students get together, feel a sense of belonging, have positive experiences, they’re more likely to be successful in school.

“Our big mission with Student Rec and Wellness is we believe every student matters and we want to promote a happy, healthy lifestyle,” Sandona said. “That’s exactly what this running club has proven for a lot of these students. They’ve made new friendships, we’ve increased overall participation in the club, and we’ve had more applications at the Rec because some of these students who run with us now want to work with the people they run with every week.”

A team of Titans

All four of the students who ran the relay now work at the SRWC. That wasn’t the case at the start of the school year. Having become better friends, they teamed up with their colleagues in Sandona and Batten to take on a much bigger challenge than a couple miles on a snowy Thursday morning.

The Run Away to the Bay course begins in Menominee Park in Oshkosh and finishes in downtown Green Bay. The route was divided up between the six runners, with some taking on more than 10 miles at a time and others knocking out three or four at a time.

“It was so fun,” Priestley said. “We were preparing that whole week before, saying we have to run this amount of miles this day, we have to carb load on Friday, we have to go to bed early the night before.”

When one person was running, the five others were in a vehicle getting to the next checkpoint, rolling out their muscles, eating snacks and figuring out how to best hype each other up. (Among their tactics: driving past their running teammate and loudly playing Pitbull’s Fireball.)

“The last part toward the end—the students, me Emma, Kelsey and Mikey, we ran the last mile and a half together. That was such a fun experience, it felt so good to pass the finish line. It was great.”

Kelsey Lien and her teammates supported each other with signs and “Fireball” on race day.

Some of the runners have chosen to up the ante even further. Lien—who, again, said she had never run before fall—will run the Wisconsin Marathon this weekend in Kenosha.

“We’ve seen students who never wanted to run or never had run before and all of a sudden they completed a 55-mile relay race,” Sandona said. “At the end they were all smiling laughing and through this experience they’ve made friendships that I believe will last the rest of their lives, and they’ve improved their overall mental and physical wellbeing.

“It was so cool to see the excitement on their faces at the end when they’d done something, they ran 55 miles when the most they ever ran before was two or three.”

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