They were barely halfway through a four-mile training run through the hilly streets of Aliso Viejo, and already the marathon hopefuls from Don Juan Avila Middle School were dragging.
As he dodged dog droppings and wiped sweat from his forehead, sixth-grader Bijan Shiravi dreamed of the weekend and video games. Eighth-grader Jill Ephraim fantasized about a chocolate milkshake, and sixth-grader Kaela Asharin began calling for an ice-cold Gatorade.
If jogging two miles triggered these kind of cravings, what would these wannabe marathoners be thinking five months from now halfway through the 26.2-mile grind of the Los Angeles Marathon?
None of them knew. March 7 seemed so far away. And to most of them, 26 was merely a number, not a destination.
"Until they're presented with the challenge of running 26 miles, I don't think they'll really know what they're attempting to do," said Kristen Okura, a physical education teacher who organized the marathon program at Don Juan Avila this year.
Seven Aliso Viejo students participated last year in Students Run L.A., a program that encourages high school and middle school pupils to train for the marathon. Four students and two fathers finished.
School officials have taken a more aggressive approach this year, enlisting teachers to help recruit runners. More than 20 students have signed up.
"What a cross-section: There's one tall, one fat, one skinny, one athlete, a few non-athletes," Principal Don Mahoney said. "A few of these kids, I thought there's no way they would even participate. But here they are a month in, and nobody's dropped out yet."
David Gantz, a sandy-haired sixth-grader with a slight build, was one of several unlikely candidates. Until last month, he had never run more than a mile.
"My math teacher [Stacey] Syme made the announcement one day and she made it sound really fun, so I decided to try it," Gantz said.
Running 26 miles and "fun" usually don't make it into the same sentence, especially with 11- and 12-year-olds. But Gantz seems to have caught the running bug. Two weeks ago, he completed his first 5K (about three miles) in 32 minutes.
"I'm doing this because I want to get in shape and have the satisfaction of knowing I could accomplish this," he said. "I think I'm prepared for this mentally, maybe not physically yet. But I get six months to train and I have six hours to finish."
A few students have begun setting loftier goals. Eighth-grader Bijou Schmidt, who holds the school's mile record, is aiming to finish in less than four hours.
"My mom was a long-distance runner and she told me if I could just learn to run 10 miles, you can run forever," he said.
Some are running to stay or get in shape, others are trying to prove something to themselves and several aren't quite sure why they have decided to put their young bodies through such a grueling test.
"I just feel like I want to do something more than sit around," said Ephraim, a former basketball and softball player.
"I guess it's like an early New Year's resolution. I like the idea that I can go at my own pace and not be told how fast I have to run."
The afternoon run showed that everyone was comfortable going along at their own pace. Schmidt and eighth-grader Ross Hartman set the pace, finishing the four miles in less than 40 minutes.
The other students and teachers trailed in groups of two or three, spread out over a two-mile area. Some jogged slowly, some walked, ran and then walked again.
"This is not about winning. It's about finishing and the journey along the way," said Okura, who is also giving her pupils nutritional tips. "And whether they run the whole way or not, they'll still have gone 26 miles and no one will ever be able to take that away from them."
Last year, about 2,000 Southern California students competed in Students Run L.A. The program was started in the 1980s by a Boyle Heights continuation high school teacher who believed that the discipline of running would help his students mature.
Today, corporate sponsors pick up the tab for students' racing fees, uniforms and running shoes.
A team of students and teachers from Aliso Viejo and Marco Forster middle schools are also participating. On weekends, all three schools train together in the area's wilderness parks. The Don Juan Avila group includes three math and three physical education teachers.
"These kids are inspired because their teachers are inspired," Okura said.
Capistrano Unified district officials say it's no accident that the marathon program is thriving at their middle schools. They say their district was the first in the state to eliminate soda from vending machines, and Mission Viejo's Newhart Middle School was recently named the state's top middle school physical education program by a physical education teachers group.
Also, Don Juan Avila recently opened a fitness center for weight training, conditioning and aerobics, thanks to a $100,000 donation from a parent.
"All of this fits into trying to deal with the issue that our kids are getting more and more obese," district spokesman David Smollar said. "What we try to do is establish long-term lifelong habits. The marathon training is a great and fun way to get kids to buy into this.
"We're trying to get the kids to see that physical education isn't something to be endured. It's something to be enjoyed."