The gym was sweltering on a humid Thursday last week as a gaggle of first-graders played line soccer. Their teacher, Robyn Pastuch, gave directions from the sidelines to reverse direction or change sides.
The kids were part of Pastuch’s all-school effort at Wantagh School District’s Mandalay Elementary School to run from Wantagh to Hollywood, Calif.
Pastuch, who turns 32 this week, has taken the 2,831-mile journey before. She coached and coaxed her students at a private high school in Jackson Heights to run across America several years ago. And while she has never visited Hollywood herself, she is familiar with the West Coast from sojourns to San Diego. She chose the Hollywood destination because of the iconic sign, she said.
After stints as an assistant lacrosse coach at Adelphi University and as a high school teacher in Hewlett, Pastuch was glad to find a berth at an elementary school. “Elementary school kids are the best,” she said. “They’re so much fun, and they’ll do almost anything you want.”
Pastuch, who was a stand-out lacrosse player at the University of Connecticut and a club director and women’s recruiter for FLG Lacrosse, wanted them to run. And run.
After signing on at Mandalay, Pastuch pitched the idea to school authorities, who were enthusiastic about the project, she said. Next, she created a Mandalay Milers bulletin board outside the gym to chart their progress. Then she sent a letter to parents and guardians asking their permission and explaining the program.
She also included a worksheet so families could chart their progress outside of school hours. Parents sign notes verifying their children’s extracurricular running. Pastuch said she has a full drawer of them at the gym.
All five grades at Mandalay are participating in the run, and they appear to be having a great time doing it. Thomas Nappi, 6, liked it because he could “get more exercise.” He also explained that “if you can’t touch the floor, you can get in shape.”
The students have run 430 miles since the middle of September, Pastuch said. Students receive so-called toe tokens for the first mile they run and for every five-mile increment after that. Five students received tokens last Thursday after completing the last mile in their increment.
Two students in the class have run marathons, and a number of them said they like to run while waiting for siblings to finish with after-school activities. Devlin Paccion, 10, said running is fun and good exercise. He likes to run while he’s waiting for his brothers or sister. “Sometimes I get bored, so I like to run,” he said. Many also run at home with siblings, parents or grandparents.
Fifth-grader Alexa Annunziata said running gives her “energy and a lot of stamina.”
The only note of protest came from Chris Lerro, 11, who said he’d rather run to Florida. But he allowed that he would be happy to run to California after that.
Sophia Zalotti was happy that students can walk instead of running. “Some kids can’t run,” she said. “They might have a medical condition where running is too hard.” Sophia is a walker herself.
Pastuch said she expects the school to reach Hollywood collectively next spring. To celebrate the feat, families will gather at the school, run a celebratory mile (two laps around the playground) and enjoy a barbecue. Participants in the day’s events will also receive gold T-shirts with the words Mandalay Milers emblazoned across the front. The event will raise money for pediatric cancer research in memory of a schoolmate who died of the disease last year.
Pastuch said that one mother, who is a runner, was overjoyed that her daughter had decided to join her. “She said it was the greatest gift she could have gotten.”