On a rainy morning in late February, technology teacher and coach John Sorocco and seven middle-schoolers jogged almost two miles from their school in Borough Park to Prospect Park. It would be a nice warm-up for the runners, Sorocco said, for the annual four-mile Al Gordon race, organized with the New York Road Runners. The group would be among the more than 3,000 adults and kids participating in the race.
Montauk Junior High School, or I.S 223, started its first running team in 2009 when the New York Road Runners approached the school’s principal Andrew Frank as a part of their outreach program to promote running. Frank immediately contacted Sorocco, who was widely known at the school as an avid runner. Kids at the school had also talked about forming a running team with their technology teacher and soon, the Montauk Red Tide, became a reality. Without Surocco though, Frank doubts the Montauk running team would have happened.
“He’s very enthusiastic, and very dedicated to the program,” said Frank. “He is here every day no matter what the weather.”
A skinny 59-year-old with piercing green eyes, Sorocco has been running since he was 13 as a freshman in Brooklyn Technical High School. After he didn’t make it on the baseball team, he decided to try out for the track team, where he met a coach who inspired him to become a lifelong runner. He has been running ever since.
“It makes you feel good,” said Sorocco about the sport. “You don’t need a lot of other people to participate in it. You can do it anytime, anyplace.”
The sedentary lifestyle of today’s students has become a big problem leading to growing health concerns like obesity, Sorocco said. He is happy to devote extra time outside his teaching duties to help his students stay fit physically and mentally as well.
“I see this not as a solution to the whole world’s problem by a very small solution here at I.S. 223,” he said.
With the running club, Sorocco said he has seen his trainees reaping some of the same benefits he got out of running when he took up the sport more than 40 years ago. Teachers tell him students are more punctual, confident, and participate more in the classroom. Some special education students who are runners were able to transfer to mainstream classes, he added.
“One measure of the team’s success is that their attendance is very good — better than average,” he said.
Sorroco gave up competitive running to teach 32 years ago, but he has not given up racing for his own pleasure. The middle-aged Sorocco runs eight miles from his home to school and back again every day. He said the exercise he gets from running has been instrumental in keeping him healthy.
“I think it’s a lifestyle that you live. I’ve never been sick,” said Sorocco adding that he’s only ever been absent from work five times in more than three decades. “It improves your concentration. It makes you feel better. It’s just something that you have to do every day.”
Still, Sorroco says he feels anxious before a team race, even though he has been coaching the running club at Montauk Junior High School for three years now.
“Will they show up in 6:30 in the morning when it’s 20 degrees out?,” he says he constantly asks himself, adding that he is always hoping no one will bail out on him at the last minute. “You could never tell till you actually see them and they have shown up. But the night before you always worry about these things.”
For the Al Gordon race, it turned out, he didn’t have too worry too much: only one of the eight Montauk Red Tide racers didn’t show up, despite the sharp drizzling rain and freezing weather.
Eleven-year-old Ermiyes Harper, the newest and one of the most devoted members of the team, arrived just before 8 a.m. when the race would begin. Sorocco quickly looped a D-tag through the laces of Harper’s right sneaker. The D-tag is an orange strip of paper with a microchip that electronically records the time from the starting point to when the racer crosses the finish line.
Both Harper and his coach then quickly ran towards their teammates, who were standing behind hundreds of other racers. With a quick word about pacing themselves and shout of “Good Luck!,” Sorocco and his team took off as the loud sound of the starting horn permeated through the cold air.
The race in Prospect Park wasn’t a one-time occurrence for the group. It participates in races throughout the city—in Central Park, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and up Washington Heights – many places these students had never been to before.
The running club at Montauk has also attracted all kinds of members. There are competitive kids like Harper who has been running since as long as he can remember. He came in first in his age group in the Gridiron race in Central Park at the start of the February.
Then there are kids like eighth-grader Chloe Bashy, who began running two years ago and enjoys the experience and the personal development she gets out of the sport more than winning.
“In the middle [of a race] you start to get really tired but then at the end you feel really well because you feel happy that you finish and you feel good about yourself,” she said.
At the end of this race, Harper came in twelfth place in his age group, but he finished a minute faster than he did in his previous race when he came in first. Bashy completed the four-mile run almost five minutes faster than her previous race.
It hardly seemed to matter though, as both of them gathered with their team members, smiles on their faces, as they chewed on bagels at the end of the race.
Sorocco said he tries not to burden his trainees by stressing that they need to win every race they run.
”I don’t put a lot of pressure on them,” he said. “They should enjoy running — enjoy being healthy and disciplined.”
For Harper, seeing his coach’s life-long passion for running is inspiration enough to strive to become a better runner.
“He’s not a young person so it shows that you can run and you don’t have to be young,” said Harper about Sorocco. “You can run for your whole life and still be active. That motivates me a lot because that shows I can do something my whole life and love it.”