ELMHURST – Charlie Kern remembers cringing on the first day of cross country practice every year when one of his students arrived wearing high-top basketball shoes or skate sneakers. Now, children registered for his summer running camp in Elmhurst receive a pair of Nike running shoes.
“If they’re going to go through a camp where they’re learning to run properly with good form, we don’t want to just slap a pair of shoes that’s their size on their feet,” said Ashley Wells, who operates Fleet Feet Sports in Elmhurst with her husband, Jason.
The store staff spent a week fitting each child, not only by size, but also determining whether a neutral or stability shoe would be more beneficial.
“It was awesome to see these kids get so excited about running,” Wells said.
That feeling is what Kern strives to instill in each of his students.
In its fifth year, the Charlie Kern Championship Running Academy Co-ed Running Camp has grown from 90 students the first summer to 350 this year. Students entering grades five through 12 meet for six weeks to work on group distance and speed training as well as proper form.
“Running is a form of play, and I try to get these kids to remember that, because once upon a time they loved running,” said Kern, who credits childhood games of tag for his love of running.
When Ricky Mendoza, 16, moved last year to Elmhurst from Chicago, he knew he had to join the camp after hearing about it from his new cross-country teammates at York High School.
“Coach Kern – he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” he said.
Even Kern’s 11-year-old daughter, Emma, is impressed with how popular the camp has become.
“I think it’s just amazing that almost 400 kids are coming just to run in the morning and sacrificing extra sleep,” she said.
Her father said running is attractive for so many reasons, such as the people runners meet and challenges they face – plus the confidence from overcoming challenges.
Kern has run all over the world. He attended the University of Kentucky on a running scholarship, and in 2009, at 40 years old, he won the World Masters 1500-meter finals for his age group.
Kern said running must be approached internally, not for outside recognition.
“Sometimes you succeed, and sometimes you don’t, but you find out how good you could really be,” he said.
The self-improvement approach to running is something that makes it a lifestyle, not just exercise. The camp works with runners of all levels, from beginners to high school state championship runners.
Eli Jewett, 15, runs cross country at York and takes the camp every year to improve his athletic abilities.
“The training things we do [help] me get faster and have better form,” he said.
Lily Kraus, 12, recently started running and likes the convenience.
“It’s not as planned as other sports,” she said. “There’s not a certain place you have to run. You can kind of run anywhere.”
Emma Kern’s twin brother, Ethan, likes to improve his running so he can be better at soccer, basketball and football.
His father began coaching because he wanted to share the experience running gave him with other people. Charlie Kern said anyone can be a runner and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment – regardless of the size of their goals.
“That’s what I want all of these kids to do as well,” Kern said. “To enjoy the camaraderie of running with other people, the opportunity to push themselves in ways that they never dreamed that they could and find out that if you just be consistent, keep working, good things happen.”