Thirteen-year-old Robert Sa-wai knows where to look when he needs a little push to get him through the demanding Los An-geles Marathon.
As the Marina del Rey resi-dent wills himself to complete the 26.2-mile test, he will call on the memory of his late father. After all, it was his dad who told Sawai that such a feat could be achieved as long as he dedicated himself to that goal.
“He told me that when I grow up you can accomplish anything you want if you put your heart into it,” Sawai said of his father, Michael. “Those words he told me I still have in my mind and I will be thinking about that when I’m in the marathon.”
Sawai, an eighth-grader at Daniel Webster Middle School in West Los Angeles, was just 6 years old when his father passed away in his sleep of an unknown bacterial infection in his throat in 2005. But Sawai hasn’t forgotten his father’s message about reach-ing for goals, and that is why the teenager has chosen to run his first marathon Sunday, March 18 in honor of his dad.
For the third consecutive year, the Los Angeles Marathon will take runners from Dodger Stadium to California and Ocean avenues in Santa Monica, passing a number of area attractions on the way, including Hollywood Boulevard, the Sunset Strip and Rodeo Drive.
Sawai is joining the thousands of competitors as part of Students Run LA, a nonprofit organization that encourages youths to take on a marathon as a way to experience goal setting, character develop-ment, adult mentoring and im-proved health.
For Sawai, long-distance run-ning offers a challenge to see how far he can go and motivates him to aim for certain objectives.
“I love running; it’s like I’m free and it feels really good,” he said.
The middle schooler has also played soccer since he was 5, but running is a way to connect with his dad, who also enjoyed the activity. Sawai’s grandfather was a former professional soccer player on the Bolivian national team.
In setting out to finish the Los Angeles Marathon, Sawai hopes to claim one of the same con-quests as his father, who ran the marathon in 1998, the year Sawai was born. Sawai points to the remnants of that achievement – his father’s hat and finishing medal – saying, “I’m going to be the second one in my family to ever run a marathon.”
When he first got into long-distance running, Sawai was doubtful that he could ever even make it to a half marathon, but by learning to train and how to pace himself, he found that it was well within his grasp. He has since completed three half marathons, and with the help of his Students Run LA team leader, who pushes him to overcome obstacles, Sawai is confident he will cross the marathon finish line next.
Sawai had initially hoped to attempt the marathon last year but his doctor advised against it due to potential impacts on the growth of his muscles. This year, however, he was determined to follow through on entering the race.
“I’m nervous but I know I can do it,” Sawai said. “You just gotta keep your mind in it and you just gotta really concentrate.”
Marsha Charney, executive di-rector of Students Run LA, said that by working to attain a long-term goal like a marathon, the youths can also discover that they are capable of overcoming other obstacles in life such as graduat-ing from high school and attend-ing college.
“The goal (of the program) is for them to learn how to set a long-term goal and achieve it, and by doing that it changes their entire opinion of what they’re capable of doing,” Charney said.
Approximately 3,000 students and team leaders from Students Run LA are participating in this year’s marathon. According to the organization, more than 95 per-cent of the students who run the race finish the 26.2-mile course, and more than 95 percent of the seniors who run the marathon graduate from high school.
The team leaders teach the youngsters how to set small goals for themselves, raise their self expectations and then ultimately build up toward the long-term challenge of a marathon, Charney said. By running as a group, the students support each other in pushing their physical limits, she added.
Sawai said many of his Daniel Webster classmates are amazed to hear that he is entering the mara-thon, which requires running for hours. Even Sawai’s older brother, who is a track and field and cross-country athlete at Venice High School, is applauding his effort.
Sawai’s mother, Mary, is very proud of her son, saying he doesn’t back down from a chal-lenge and he is very confident, similar to his father.
“He’s not nervous about any-thing,” she said. “He’s very disci-plined because you have to train starting in September and he’s never missed one practice. He’s very dedicated.”
Mary Sawai also praised her son for being on the honor roll and for leading his band section as a saxophone player, noting that he hopes to join the marching band at USC.
“He has a lot on his plate and he seems to be able to balance it very well,” she said.
Robert’s commitment to com-pleting the marathon in memory of his father is “very touching,” said Mary Sawai, who explained that her son still remembers a lot about his dad.
The young Sawai believes his father would be very happy to learn of his 26-mile undertaking because he knew what it was like to run a marathon and what it requires of someone. As he covers the miles between the stadium and the sea, Sawai says he will think of his father being right beside him and giving him that encouragement he needs to break through the finish line.
“I’ll wish my dad was there, but things happen,” Sawai said. “I will look up and think he’s look-ing down at me and saying ‘that’s my boy,’ and I’m going to be really happy.”