Run Fast. FeelGood.

Nov. 16, 2009

Run Fast. FeelGood.

by Jeremy Hawkes

Arizona Media Relations


The women of the UA's cross country program will fight in the race of their lives at the NCAA Championships next Monday.  Even with that on their minds, the team continues to fight a battle that goes deeper than collegiate rivalry.


When the UA women's cross country team found out Sunday evening that it would be going to the NCAA National Championships for the first time since 2001, the Wildcats knew that the biggest meet of their young careers lay only a week-and-a-half away.  Monday, they went right back to work - but for a different cause than you may expect.


Less than 24 hours removed from receiving the biggest news in Arizona women's cross country in nearly a decade, you might expect the members of the team to spend the day practicing rigorously and getting themselves mentally prepared for the toughest task of the season. 


You might be surprised, then, to find the whole squad spending four hours in the sun serving free grilled cheese sandwiches to students and faculty in front of the UA's Student Union Memorial Center.  If you were looking for a story of dedication, you need look no further.


The UA cross country team is the catalyst behind the University of Arizona chapter of FeelGood - a non-profit organization that teams with The Hunger Project in an effort to 'end world hunger, one grilled cheese at a time'.


Sophomore runner Hanna Henson is the brains behind the project.  A little over a year ago at the NCAA West Regional Cross Country Championships in Palo Alto, Calif., Henson spoke with Talis-Apud Martinez - the co-founder of the organization.  The group had ties to the UA before that fateful conversation as Martinez was teammates at the University of Texas with now-UA assistant coach Erin Rodrigs.  It was with that cross country team that FeelGood was founded and has continued to grow ever since.


'I didn't know what I was getting into at first,' Henson said. 'I just wanted to make grilled cheese sandwiches and help people.'


Henson liked the premise of the organization in that it serves the free sandwiches while informing the general populous of the group's goal to raise awareness and money in support of helping with world hunger.  The group does not ask for the donations and insists that people leave them on their own free accord.


'We rely on people's generosity and sincerity in helping out,' Henson said of the organization. 'There are so many people out there who don't have the basics and we just want people to be aware of that.'


Henson kicked off activities with her fellow cross country teammates in the Spring and has seen the group spill over into the men's cross country team and even found the help of non-athletes to join the cause.


'There are about 6-8 (non-runners) consistently but the goal is not to have just a lot of people,' Henson said.  'We're just a group that wants to make a difference and its amazing the interest the campus has gained since we started.'


The program has seen a very successful following since its start, raising several hundred dollars for the organization.  For every dollar the group raises, The Hunger Project tacks on another 20 cents and all the proceeds for every group at over 20 campuses across the country go to combat world hunger.


The impact the organization has had on the team has been tremendous as well.


'It's just one more thing we can do as a team, as a unit, as a family.' Henson said. 'We like to emphasize that everyone is a `spoke on the wheel.''


'Every person on this roster has done something to get us where we are now.'


Henson says that the team is one of the things that have played a role with helping her to stick with the running of the organization, no matter how stressful it has become at times.  Henson had to go through the Athletic Department's Office of Compliance for all the athletes involved in the program, the Student Union services to reserve space on the mall and the associated Students of The University of Arizona to be admitted as an official club on campus.  That was all before the group was able to make one sandwich.


Couple that with providing the supplies necessary to run the event - grills, tables, tents and of course cheese and bread - and Henson found herself with an almost overwhelming amount of work.


'I couldn't help thinking that I didn't know what I was doing or getting myself into,' Henson said. 'But every time I thought `I can't do this.' my teammates stepped up and everyone picked up something here or something there.'


Like they have for much of the competitive season, the team has picked each other up when the others were in the most need and the coaches feel that is what makes this organization so important to the girls.


'You need to have something outside of running where you can come together,' Rodrigs said of the group. 'Running is a big part of (the girls) and it's important for not just them, but anyone to have those kinds of outlets.'


UA head cross country coach James Li echoed Rodrigs' sentiments, noting how impressive it was for a small group of young women to work together for a good cause and exhibit the kind of leadership to get so many others outside the team involved in the program.


'The kids are here to get an education and grow as young men and young women,' Li said. 'The things they do in class or with running should be only part of the college experience.'


With so much else on their plates over the next week or so, it may come as a surprise to many that the focus on Monday afternoon was not specifically on cross country.  Henson admits that the NCAA National Championships is - and should be - very important to the team right now but that should not keep the squad from other things they have devoted themselves to.


'Running is a small part of the entire life we live,' she said. 'We definitely want to do well at the National Championship but we also feel like we want to give back.'


It's that kind of dedication that has lifted this season's squad of women to their first National Championship appearance in eight years and will likely be a big part in pushing the youthful group forward over the many years to come.




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