Resilience, focus, strength, preparation, vision, openness and trust. Renowned sports psychologist JoAnne Dahlkoetter laid out these seven traits typically found in mentally tough runners and DePaul student and competitive runner James Le is nothing short of mentally tough.
Le, 26, has been on a journey for the past 15 years where sooner or later, he displayed those qualities in order to overcome countless obstacles in his life. His next big challenge is to run the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on behalf of the organization that gave him promise, Mercy Home for Boys & Girls.
When Le was 11, his home proved not to be the best environment for him. His family had heard of Mercy Home through a friend, and decided that it was the best place for him to be.
“James was a really quiet, shy kid,” Jim Marrese, director of corporate sponsorship for Mercy Home, said. “When he first came, he had some difficulties opening up, expressing what was going on.”
Three core programs are offered by the organization – a mentoring program in which kids from the community are paired with a big brother or big sister, a presidential program where kids live at Mercy Home and an after care program for those who have left the home, but still need some help. Le, starting out in the presidential program, had a difficult time adjusting at first.
“It was definitely challenging at Mercy in the beginning especially when you go there and it’s kind of different not having your parents around, you have other people telling you what to do, and you’re adjusting to that,” Le said.
Despite some growing pains, Le embraced the programs that were offered and formed a special bond with Marrese in the process. Marrese, then a youth care worker, helped Le with basic things like getting him to school, helping him with homework, and working on the issues that brought him to Mercy Home in the first place.
“It was a huge benefit, it affected me a lot,” Le said. “Going to great schools, meeting my friends, it was just a blessing.”
Marrese definitely noticed a change in the once shy, reserved kid.
“I have seen James go from kind of a shy, quiet and reserved kid into a very outgoing, independent, resourceful young man who’s really accomplished quite a bit.”
After leaving Mercy Home, Le’s next test was the U.S. Navy where he enlisted for four years and visited countries ranging from Brazil and Chile, to Cuba and Mexico, and in the process, learned more about himself.
“It was a good experience,” Le said. “It was very challenging, but a good experience in terms of getting to know more about yourself and overcoming challenges.”
“It definitely changed my life,” he said. “I guess I learned how to handle stress more. I’m really relaxed and calm now.”
Once his time in the Navy was completed, Le enrolled at Oakton Community College and eventually transferred to DePaul, where he is majoring in computer science.
While never a runner in the past, Le took it up in the last year as he ran in two half-marathons, as well as a triathlon. This Sunday, however, will be his first time running a marathon. Once he knew that he could run on behalf of Mercy, Le said that it was a no-brainer, despite making the decision to run only a couple of months prior in August.
“On the website for the Chicago Marathon, I saw that Mercy was a sponsor, so I went there to ask for a shirt so I could represent Mercy for the little runs I do here and there,” he said. “And when I went to go pick up the shirt, they asked me if I would be interested in running the marathon, and I was like hey, why not?”
According to Mercy Home Director of Communications Mark Schmeltzer, Mercy Home has a history with the marathon and recently started participating in a charity partner program that the marathon runs.
“And about three, four years ago now, the marathon ran a charity partner program where runners chose a charity to run for to raise money on behalf of those charities and so we saw this as a great opportunity to number one, connect with the marathon, which is a great organization, then also to find a way for our donors and people that support us to initiate ways to get involved with us,” Schmeltzer said.
This year, more than 250 people will be running on behalf of Mercy Home, and while Le no longer needs the services that Mercy Home provided, seeing him at the West Loop campus is not an uncommon sight.
“The staff keeps me coming back,” he said. “I guess just knowing how genuine they are about caring for kids. It’s a good thing and I really like being around them.”
The staff at Mercy Home felt the same in wanting Le to hang around every so often, as his job as a role model to many solidified.
“I think what’s really cool about James is that he’s providing inspiration by running the marathon for the rest of our runners,” Marrese said. “As someone who lived here, who knows Mercy Home more intimately than most people, one of James’ gifts is being able to tell that story to the rest of our runners.”