On a dusty bridle trail along the bone-dry San Gabriel River, Leona Leung is falling farther and farther behind her classmates.
They're out on a four-mile run after school, training for the Los Angeles Marathon, still months away.
"I'm scared," said Leona, 13, red-faced and wondering whether she could ever make it to the finish line after 26 miles, 385 yards. "If I can't do this.... "
In her trepidation, she's hardly alone.
All around Los Angeles on this golden November afternoon, thousands of youngsters are grinding out the miles in preparation for the marathon in March as part of a highly successful after-school program called Students Run L.A.
Started by a continuation high school teacher who was desperate to reach seven wayward students in the late 1980s, it has grown to 3,400 middle and high school students in 170 school districts and community programs in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.
"They don't have a clue what they're getting into," said Marsha Charney, the program's executive director. "They've probably never run a mile. They sign up because they're going to get on a bus and go somewhere on Saturday or Sunday."
Although participation has been steadily increasing over the years, Charney can't explain why it has surged as much as it has this fall. Last year at this point, 2,900 were in the program; 2,247 ran the 2006 L.A. Marathon -- up from 250 in 1990.
Some after-school structure and camaraderie is clearly an attraction for many of the youths, who get two pair of Saucony running shoes, a training outfit and no-cost entries to a 5K, a 10K, a 15K race, two half-marathons and an 18-mile run, all in preparation for the marathon.
The theory is that, beyond the obvious improvement in physical fitness, training for a marathon teaches discipline and commitment and becomes a metaphor for life. "When you cross the finish line and complete a marathon, it's a life-changing experience," Charney said. "It just changes their focus -- and that's why it works. It's something they take with them forever."
Breathing hard out on the bridle trail, Leona, an eighth-grader at Madrid Middle School in El Monte, perseveres.
Perhaps the slower group, led by Rafael Lugo, 34, a language arts and history teacher who grew up in El Monte, would have been a better match for her.
Instead, Leona is struggling to keep up with the fast group running with Dianna Moreno, 26, a language arts teacher at Madrid. She brought Students Run L.A. to the school after running the L.A. Marathon three years ago among hundreds of student participants and wondering, what is this program all about?
Teachers need only agree to conduct three afternoon runs per week to establish the program at their schools. Most volunteer their time, though a few districts pay modest stipends. Students Run L.A. provides the gear, the race calendar and transportation to all the events.
The program's $1.6-million budget comes from individuals, corporations, foundations and government agencies, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, which donates space for the program's five-member staff at an administrative center in Reseda. The Times Holiday Campaign has contributed $25,000 to the program this year.
"We use running as a tool -- it's really about going to college," said Moreno, dressed in a yellow Students Run L.A. T-shirt and black shorts.
After 17 years and 26,000 participants, more than 95% have completed the marathon.
Moreno slows the group of 13 to a walk, giving Leona a chance to catch up. "Let's go, Leona, let's go," the youngsters chant in unison as she slowly gains on them, kicking up a cloud on the dusty trail. "Let's go, Leona, let's go."
Leona smiles as she rejoins the group and, as the students begin running again, assumes the lead position. But as they run under the Valley Boulevard Bridge, not far from where the 10 and 605 freeways merge, Leona falls back in the pack with Hue Tran, 13, and Daisy Alvarado, 12.
Madrid Middle School is more than 90% Latino; the rest is mostly Vietnamese. The school serves an immigrant community that is predominantly lowincome -- so much so that Madrid provides free lunches for all of its students.
When the modern, low-slung facility comes into view in the fading afternoon light, Hue and Daisy take off, leaving Leona bringing up the rear once more.
If she's still worrying about the marathon, Leona's not letting on. "Almost there," she says. "I feel good."
At the end, with four miles behind her, Leona collapses alongside several classmates and lies back on the grass. "I'm going to keep going," she says. "This is one of the first real big things I did in my life."
The annual fundraising campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match the first $500,000 in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar.
Donations are tax-deductible. For more information, call (213) 237-5771.
To give by credit card, go to latimes.com/holidaycampaign. To send checks, use the attached coupon. Please do not send cash.
Unless requested otherwise, gifts of $50 or more will be acknowledged in The Times.