‘Run Like a Cheetah’ – Ridge Run team nearing 20 members ahead of Memorial Day race 

By Dara McGee 

For 45 years, people ranging from kindergartners to Vietnam veterans enjoy the Beverly Area Planning Association’s Memorial Day events, and the upcoming 46th annual celebration is no different. This festival consists of one of the oldest parades in the Chicagoland area, as well as countless activities for the whole family to partake in.  

One of the biggest attractions of the day is BAPA’s Ridge Run. Starting at Ridge Park, friends and family wake up early and gather together to dash, sprint, jog and stroll across the finish line in their 5K run, 5K untimed walk, 10K run, 5K + 10K Challenge, and Youth Mile. 

Everyone is welcome to participate in the races offered on Monday, May 27. At the end of the day, it’s not about winning, it’s genuinely about going out there and doing the best that you can.  

Mary McNerney surely thinks so, as she is no stranger to the Ridge Run. 

“I cannot tell you how many times I have run this race,” said McNerney, who grew up just blocks from the Ridge Run starting line.  

As a Beverly/Morgan Park native, McNerney knows the beauty that exudes throughout this neighborhood. She attended St. Barnabas for grammar school, went to high school not far away at St. Ignatius and later started her collegiate journey at University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana before transferring to Saint Xavier University to receive her bachelors in Elementary Education. She has poured into the Beverly/Morgan Park community as an educator with Chicago Public Schools, inspiring the youth and encouraging her former students to follow their dreams and strive towards their own personal goals.  

McNerney, like so many teachers, understands the education system through its strengths and weaknesses. Educators shape our children’s future and are essential to our society, and at times, the appreciation that they actually get falls short. After a while, McNerney knew it was time for a change.  

After 25 years, McNerney retired from teaching. She took about a year solely contemplating her next adventure. During this time, she realized that there were a few things in her previous career that she found joy in, and one of those things was the fulfillment she felt from the children she taught. 

“I loved it. I loved teaching; I loved working with the kids,” she said.   

McNerney continued to ponder what her next chapter was, until the idea finally presented itself, unironically, as she was running.  

“Running is such an important part of my life. It’s how I start my day; it helps me focus. It makes me feel good and clears my mind,” she said.   

McNerney starts almost every morning with a run, rising and shining as early as 5 a.m. to get her exercise. Some of her earliest memories of running come from her time as a student at St. Ignatius. In her junior year, a friend of hers convinced her to join their cross-country club, and ever since then, running was incorporated into her lifestyle. McNerney credits running and exercise as being one of her main self-care practices. As someone who experiences bouts of anxiety, running became a safe space for McNerney. During one of her normally scheduled runs, she thought about her past students and some of the struggles that they mentally, socially, and emotionally might have faced while trying to learn, especially after March 2020. 

“In schools, there is an issue with anxiety, with concentration, with depression, with sitting in their seats,” McNerney said. “We have these kids coming from Covid being on screens all the time, and then going back to a classroom struggling academically along with their mental health and well-being.”  

‘Run Like a Cheetah’ 

That’s when the idea struck her: why not intertwine her love of running into her passion for childhood education? This is where her nonprofit, ‘Run Like a Cheetah,’ was born. 

McNerney always liked the phrase “run like a cheetah,” as she wanted a unique name to go along with her unique program. The goal was simple: McNerney wanted to take exercise and add it to Chicago Public Schools’ curriculum. McNerney acknowledges that children may have outlets such as gym class and after school activities, but McNerney says it’s not nearly enough. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, consistent physical activity in kids improves cognitive functioning and can help with one’s mental health. Implementing more physical movement in children’s day to day lives can also reduce depression, strengthen concentration, and encourage better academic performance.  

“This is a game changer for schools right now. There’s so much research out there.” 

In its infancy stages, Run Like a Cheetah was first presented at the former elementary school McNerney taught at. She knew from the start that she didn’t want Run Like a Cheetah to be a competitive program, as children go through enough comparisons inside and outside of the classroom. McNerney instead utilized the Illinois State Standard for Emotional Learning as a reference guide. Run Like a Cheetah aims to help kids recognize their strengths as well as the strengths in their peers. By running together, they are fostering meaningful relationships and achieving skills in order to reach common milestones.  

“It helps bring peers closer together and helps friendships form and can cause anger issues to leave,” she said.  

McNerney’s program can benefit any student who decided to be a part of it, but when creating the program she specifically targeted children who have endured trauma in the Chicagoland area. “You never know what children go through, and if I’m able to give them a sense of peace and safety that’s all I need to do.” She knows first-hand the impact that a movement like this has had on students, saying that there’s a ripple effect throughout the classroom as well as at home. 

“What parent doesn’t want their child to feel good while getting their education? What parent doesn’t want to hear about how good of a day their child has had?”  

The program meets a couple times a week for about forty minutes each session. McNerney is actively attempting to expand her vision to more Chicago Public Schools, and eventually have Run Like a Cheetah be offered in every Chicago Public School.  

“We started in February so it’s been a few weeks since we’ve started. I’m collecting data and that data shows me whether the program is helping with attendance, helping with behaviors, and helping with attitudes toward school. The metrics show that it’s working.” McNerney says that teachers provide her feedback, letting her know her methods are helping increase confidence in students, so it’s safe to say her program is working. In the future, her goal is to see Run Like A Cheetah helping children throughout the state and maybe even the country, but for now, she is content with her current Cheetah’s now. 

This year is going to be a little different from McNerney’s previous races, as she won’t be running alone. The Run Like a Cheetah team are ready to lace up their sneakers and give it their all.  

“It’s so surreal to me that I’m going to have a team, and we’re going to do the Ridge Run,” she said. “Beverly is such a beautiful neighborhood to run through.”  

Nineteen members make up the team competing in the 5K race. Among the members are McNerney’s very own family and, of course, her cheetahs.  

McNerney reiterates to her team that they should never feel that they are not good enough to run a 5K, an experience that may be new to some of her team members.  

“This isn’t the end goal,” she said. The end goal isn’t just to run a 5K, or even a 10K. If they happen to decide to become professional runners or join a cross-country team in college, awesome, however, I want my kids to get the benefits from running.” 

According to McNerney, everyone wins within the sport of running. “Your good is as good as you make it. As fast as you go is perfect for what you are doing.” That can be attributed to many facets of life, not just for those in elementary school, but for adults hustling through life also. 

McNerney already has plans to get more people involved with the 2025 Ridge Run and beyond through Run Like a Cheetah, hoping to have after school Run Like a Cheetah programs at schools, like St. Barnabas, sign up for the race. As the summer approaches, McNerney will be putting forth all of her effort in her summer programs. If you would like to meet McNerney and her Cheetahs, make sure to stop by her tent that she’ll have set up at the Ridge Run this year.  

The Cheetah program is for children ages 5 to 14. McNerney advocates for inclusivity, so of course her program would reflect what she stands for. This program is for children of all races, religions, backgrounds, abilities.  

“We want everyone to love running. It doesn’t matter who you are, I just want everyone to experience the benefits of running and learn to love it like I do.” 

For more information on Mary McNerney and the program, please visit the Run Like a Cheetah website, www.runlikeacheetah.com. 

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