Eagle Speed club goes virtual

Summer program offers fun, fitness and faster times

By Josh Bickford
Posted 9/3/20

Coaches Larson Gunness and Jon Barnes could have shut it down.

Faced with an ever-growing and ever-changing list of restrictions and regulations, the coaches of the Eagles Speed summer running …

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Eagle Speed club goes virtual

Summer program offers fun, fitness and faster times


Coaches Larson Gunness and Jon Barnes could have shut it down.

Faced with an ever-growing and ever-changing list of restrictions and regulations, the coaches of the Eagles Speed summer running program could have pulled the plug and taken the year off.

Instead, Coaches Gunness and Barnes took Eagle Speed virtual.

For the first time ever, the coaches moved the program online. Workouts were emailed out to the student-athletes; Zoom practices replaced in-person sessions; and participants logged their progress online. Only the end-of-the-season awards event was held at a real location: runners socially-distanced across a field at Haines Park.

Coach Gunness set up some of the virtual workouts in his backyard. He led the athletes (on screen) with Burpees, push-ups, stretching and more.

"Larson is doing a terrific job delivering a virtual program," Coach Barnes said.

The Eagle Speed coaches were hoping to find a way to offer the summer training program in-person, but with dozens of kids signed up, they worried it would not be feasible.

"The hurdles were too big for us," Coach Barnes said. "We backed off that idea."

The virtual workouts forced the coaches to get creative, and neither Barnes nor Gunness knew how the different approach would be received. But just a few weeks into the summer season, they had their answer. Between 20 and 25 kids were logging on for the workouts regularly.

Fun first

A not-for-profit "Fun and Fitness" organization, Eagle Speed serves middle school-age runners, and has grown from about 15 runners early on to more than 50 recently.

"Up until the pandemic, we were really rolling," Coach Gunness said. "There was a real sense of positive momentum."

The young runners would meet up three times a week during the summer months and complete a workout. There were Eagle Speed t-shirts, and the end of each season was celebrated with a pizza party. More recently, student runners from other schools, including Gordon and Kickemuit Middle School, joined the Barrington-based summer running club.

Coach Gunness said the Barrington Middle School runners would look forward to the season meets where they would see (and race against) their Eagle Speed teammates from other schools.

Coach Gunness said competing on the middle school track and cross-country teams is as much about camaraderie and socializing as it is about clocking fast times and qualifying for the state championship meet.

"My feeling is that these kids are really intense, on themselves," Coach Gunness said.

Middle school-age kids already battle self-doubt and self-criticism, he said. Part of that is their age and development, and part of it is the pressure provided by this town, he said.

When student-athletes go out for the track team, they don't need any additional pressure," Coach Gunness said. And that works well with the Eagle Speed summer running program, which is "all about fun."

"They goof off," he said. "But they work hard too."

Despite the laid-back approach, Eagle Speed naturally encourages the young athletes to improve their own times, the coach said.

"We teach them that it's about beating their own time," Coach Gunness said. "It's their own little journey."

The coach said there is always a core group of students who take running very seriously. He said the BMS track and cross country teams have competed for, and won state championships, but that success has not pulled the team's focus away from fun and individual improvement.

"There are much more intense programs out there," Coach Gunness said. "We're never going to be that.

"For a lot of these kids, this becomes their social scene."

The middle school teams, coupled with the Eagle Speed summer running program, has served as a consistent pipeline of talent benefitting the Barrington High School teams. Jon Barnes, who helps coach Barrington High School runners, has seen many student-athletes begin their running careers at the middle school, continue with the Eagle Speed summer fun program, and blossom at the next level and beyond.

"A number of kids on the high school teams are Eagle Speed graduates," Coach Barnes said.

Coach Barnes can remember when the Eagle Speed club first began. The late Bill Malinowski started the program with his daughter and some of her friends about 15 years ago. Coach Barnes was close friends with Mr. Malinowski, and was happy to help with the program's recent resurgence, partnering with Coach Gunness. The feeling was mutual, said Coach Gunness.

"Jon, he's awesome," Coach Gunness said. "He's terrific. His focus is high school. My focus is middle school."

Coach Barnes said Eagle Speed also offers high school runners an opportunity to serve as mentors for the younger athletes. Coach Barnes said the high school runners can get community service hours while leading the Eagle Speed workouts. Recent BHS graduate Stephanie Chun built her senior project around Eagle Speed, said Coach Barnes.

"It shows the middle school kids what they can become," Coach Barnes said.

"To be honest, the best programs have a running culture. We're creating a culture. We're not recruiting or grooming, but we're still creating a running culture."

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