TAMPA — In her skinny running pants, Lynn Gray looks like a regular person who was elongated in a fun-house mirror.
Yes, we know she is a member of the Hillsborough County School Board. We mean no disrespect.
But that has to be what everyone is thinking as Gray demonstrates how to lift, lift, lift your body in a long-distance run. Elbows bent. Knees up. Back arched ever so slightly.
"You want to go ahead and have good form with everything you do," she tells a group who, but for the very tall physical education teacher in the front row, do not look like elite runners.
But that's not why they are training for the Gasparilla 5K on Feb. 25.
More than 30 teachers and administrators, despite varying fitness levels, are unanimous in wanting to support the district's goal to help more students earn high school diplomas.
Some have brought their children, with hopes that a multi-generational team will carry the "90By20" message up and down Bayshore Boulevard.
The slogan stands for a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the year 2020. Hillsborough picked up three points this year toward that goal, with a rate of 79.1 percent. But, although tied with Pasco County, it still lags behind the state and some large districts, including Pinellas and Miami-Dade.
Conchita Canty-Jones, coordinator of the district's family service centers, came up with the idea of recruiting runners and enlisting Gray, a veteran marathoner and trainer, as coach.
"This is an opportunity to increase awareness," she tells the group as they gather in the district auditorium on a recent Thursday evening. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, "it takes a community to reach that 90 percent goal."
That community includes Barbara Hancock, an elementary education director and avid walker who lost 22 pounds on Weight Watchers; and community engagement director Marylou Whaley, who's preparing for her first 5K and has no idea how long it will take to finish.
It also includes Minerva Spanner-Morrow, Hillsborough's chief diversity officer, who recently had knee surgery.
"You have to start somewhere," she says.
Gray is not shy with the tips and truisms.
Watch your pacing, she says. It might take two miles to hit your stride. Surge at the end because "your brain does not have any recognition of discomfort when you get to a finish line."
And this, referring to the evening's workout: "You will feel better when you finish than when you start, I guarantee you."
Later she will get more philosophical, assuring her audience that every time they lace up their sneakers and step outside, they set a healthy example for 10 people, who will do the same for 10 more and so forth.
And who wouldn't want children to learn from that example?
Across the street at the Rampello K-8 School parking garage, the athletes practice strength training with elastic bands. Then, after a few basic stretches, they run intervals up and down the garage ramps.
McDonald Elementary principal Jessica Hessler is one of the evening's drill sergeants, shouting, "come on, pump up those arms" -- yet in a supportive, teachery way.
"Don't stop. We've got to beat our time by at least one second."
They do, although some return to the auditorium a sweaty mess and wondering how they will feel the following morning.
Four of these sessions have been scheduled before race day. By that time, Canty-Jones hopes to have 300 people signed up.
Some are still on the fence. William Padgett, 8, says he found the training "kind of hard," especially the uphill surges. "I might enter," is the closest he comes to committing.
The adults, for the most part, appreciate the chance to get a little healthier at the end of a workday with like-minded colleagues.
Listen to that P.E. teacher, whose name is Michael Beckwith. The 6-foot-3 University of Tampa graduate played lacrosse for the Spartans. Now he's a novice teacher at Boyette Springs Elementary School.
"Just having everyone there gets the environment going," he tells the group.
"The challenge is doing it. But when you have people with you, everybody is coming together and you're just pushing each other. You're getting the high fives in and it's just a good time."
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol