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Run for Your Life

CEHHS Graduate Students Propose a Different Way to Keep Score

Article by David Jackson, University Communications and Marketing
Photos by Samantha Lewis, U of I Athletic Department and West Coast XC

One of Samantha Lewis’s longest and most important relationships is complicated.

Most of the time, she feels content and free. Sometimes she gets discouraged with all the ups and downs, and measuring progress becomes hard. And when she has a really bad day, she’s likely to just take off and hit the road.

This love affair probably would have ended a long time ago if not for the fact her relationship is with running.

Lewis and Nathan Stark, doctoral students in the Healthy Active Lifestyles program within the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences (CEHHS), created “The Secret to Falling in Love…with Running,” a research project mentored by Sharon Stoll, CEHHS professor of Movement Sciences and director of U of I’s Center for ETHICS* (Ethical Theory and Honor in Competition and Sport). 

They have been presenting it to teachers and coaches across the county over the last year in hopes their message will resonate with those who participate in sports or physical activities.

“I think we see a crisis in sport – it’s all about winning and not about joy,” said Lewis, who is also a professional mountain and trail runner sponsored by On, a Swiss-based athletic apparel company. “What we want to show is how to increase the overall experience you get when you develop a lifelong passion with running or movement.” 

A big part of what we try to teach is that the process is more important than the results. Winning is great but success means a lot of different things. We’re striving for a more holistic definition of success. Nathan Stark, Doctoral Student

Man in blue and green jersey in front of group of runners
Nathan Stark leading a race at the Portland Track Festival.

Redefining Winning

Stark, a former steeplechase runner for the Vandals, knows plenty about the primary definition of winning – being the first one to cross the finish line. But these days, both as a student and a coach for the Vandal Track & Field/Cross Country team, he’s just as interested in teaching people about the broader sense of the term.

“A big part of what we try to teach is that the process is more important than the results,” he said. “Winning is great but success means a lot of different things. We’re striving for a more holistic definition of success.”

Woman in black running on green hills
Samantha Lewis.

How Lewis and Stark coach their student-athletes comes not only from their interactions with Stoll, but also from those with Travis Floeck, head distance coach of the Vandal Cross Country team. By focusing on the individual journey of each student-athlete and talking about how movement aids not only physical health but mental health as well, they show that athletics is much more than just finishing first.

Lewis and Stark also use many of Stoll’s teachings about values — both moral and social. While winning a race is wonderful, Stoll maintains that competing fairly and ethically is likely the more important long-term lesson.

“The old idealism behind sports is that it makes you a better person because you learn about loyalty, dedication and sacrifice,” she said. “We’ve moved away from that and now the objective is winning and how you make money from winning.”

Getting Into SHAPE

Since creating their presentation in April 2023, Lewis and Stark have been speaking to individuals and groups about how they fell in love with running. Their discussion points include five keys to the process, including the aesthetic experience and personal reflection. Not once is finishing in first place mentioned.

Photo of athletic team posing with barn and trees in background
Lewis, Weber and Vandal Cross Country team.

Aesthetic experience is all about appreciating and/or finding the beauty within the activity. Embracing the pure pleasure of doing the activity is a win, according to Lewis. Why would somebody “have” to run when they should “want” to run? One might even become so centered within the activity that they wouldn’t need earbuds to help make the workout go faster. 

“Running makes me feel free – like a hawk soaring over the Palouse,” said Lewis, who also coaches on the Vandal track/cross country team. “People ask me what I think about since I don’t wear headphones and I usually can’t tell them. I think if you’re really present in your activity, you aren’t thinking about anything – you’re enjoying it.”

Among the groups Lewis and Stark have presented to is SHAPE Idaho, a group that provides professional growth and development to teachers and coaches through guidance for health, physical education, recreation, dance, fitness and sport. 

The pair are hoping to develop their program into a curriculum so they can help people find more meaning from their chosen form of exercise — and maybe figure out why falling in love with movement clicks for some but not others.

“We believe we have a responsibility to help those who teach movement how to address the value of activity,” Stoll said. “If we can show that it’s not just about objective measures, like a score, but more about the joy and love of the activity itself, then we’re helping them become healthy for life.”

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