'It's a challenge, but that's what I'm here for'

Darin "Wes" Weston gives a high five.
From left, resident member Darin "Wes" Weston gives a high five to one of his running mentors, Matt Schumacher, after Weston completed his first Mile in My Shoes Downtown Run Around 5K race Sunday in Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

It's a picture-perfect June morning in downtown Minneapolis, and Darin Weston is doing something he's never done before. He's running his first 5K.

"It's a challenge, but that's what I'm here for," he says as he runs, breathing heavily as his feet hit the pavement.

But Weston, who goes by Wes, isn't running his first race alone. He has two running mates by his side, cheering him on every step of the way.

"Arms, arms, arms — then you gotta kick," says Kristin Haskell.

"Arms, Wes," Matt Schumacher chimes in.

Mile in My Shoes resident member Amy Vorlicky cheers on kids race runners.
Amy Vorlicky, a Mile in My Shoes resident member, cheers on runners in the Downtown Run Around kids race Sunday in Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

For Weston and his fellow participants in the Mile in My Shoes, the finish line was a goal for Sunday's Downtown Run Around 5K. But just getting to the starting line represented a victory.

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Mile in My Shoes is a Twin Cities nonprofit that taps runners in the community — Haskell and Schumacher are both lawyers — to serve as mentors to people who are homeless or living in halfway houses. They do training runs together two to three times a week.

"When I was growing up I was in pretty good shape, but I've been grown up for a while now," Weston joked at the race.

When he was younger, Weston struggled with drug and alcohol addiction.

"I participated in a lot of gang violence and activity and just doing things I wasn't supposed to be doing," he recalled. "I didn't really care about myself, or anybody else for that matter."

But that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. After the race, as he and his coaches exchanged high fives and clink water bottles, he already was setting goals for his next run.

Kristin Haskell, Darin "Wes" Weston and Matt Schumacher run in a 5K race.
From left, running mentor Kristin Haskell, resident member Darin "Wes" Weston, and running mentor Matt Schumacher take part in the Mile in My Shoes Downtown Run Around 5K race Sunday in Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Amy Vorlicky is another runner with big goals. She's fast, ambitious and has been with Mile in My Shoes for a little over a year.

"I used to not be able to talk when I was running. (But) I just quit smoking cigarettes, totally quit for a whole month and a half now," she said at Sunday's race. "And actually we talk, and we have conversations the whole time we run now. It's awesome."

Those conversations have brought her and her mentor, Steve English, closer together. They enjoy their training runs and the occasional Saints game.

That bond is exactly what the founders of Mile in My Shoes intended.

Mishka Vertin co-founded the group with her partner Michael Jurasits in 2014, after moving to Minneapolis from New York.

They wanted to be a part of a community and form connections with people of different religious, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Running was the vehicle that helped them build that community.

"I think that's one of the best parts about running, is that really, you're all the same when you're just out there," Vertin said. "You all have running shoes on. You're all hitting the pavement. You're all huffing and puffing, you're supporting one another."

The group has grown a lot since their first run drew about a dozen people. They now have two full-time staffers, multiple teams and a strong volunteer network.

Amy Vorlicky and Steve English sprint to the finish line.
Amy Vorlicky, a resident member, and Steve English, a running mentor, sprint to the Downtown Run Around 5K race finish line on Sunday in Minneapolis. Vorlicky completed the race in 23 minutes and 47 seconds, beating her personal record by a minute.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

But, even with a steady support system, running is hard.

Weston was diligent through his training program, including a few bouts of spring snow, but he admitted that he considered skipping Sunday's race.

"Sometimes I have a fear of failure, so then that makes you not want to try," he said. "And sometimes I have a fear of success, because what do you do after that?" That sort of feedback loop can be crippling for people who are starting to run — or even just trying to start a conversation with a stranger.

Matt Schumacher, Weston's running mentor, understood.

"But you got up this morning — that was maybe one of your hardest things to do," he told Weston at the race. "The hardest part is starting."

Weston said there are lot of factors that pushed him to take part Sunday morning — the health benefits, the support of his team, and the importance of showing up.

For him, it paid off at the finish line: "I came. I saw. We kicked butt."

Correction (June 3, 2019): Mishka Vertin's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.