Fleet of foot, strong of character

The five kilometer footrace or “5K” is the country’s most popular running event. Last year, more than three million Americans finished a 5K, and participation numbers continue to rise. Many choose the 5K as a fitness goal, from novices lacing up their first pair of running shoes to seasoned veterans out to collect race T-shirts.

On Sunday, May 13, a 5K will be held at Carrier Park in Asheville, but the stream of runners crossing the finish line of this event will be noticeably different from that of most. The reason? The stars of this race are elementary and middle school-aged girls. Thanks to a program called Girls on the Run, these young ladies have worked with volunteer coaches for more than three months to train for this important race.

Molly Peeples, the council director for Girls on the Run’s Western North Carolina chapter, calls the Wondergirl 5K the “capstone event” for the local program. “The race is a real celebration of the girls and their accomplishments,” she says.

Girls on the Run takes place at 16 schools in Western North Carolina. During the 14-week program, girls focus on self-esteem and life lessons while playing running games and working their way toward the benchmark of a 5K (3.1 mile) run. But Girls on the Run amounts to much more than just a team sport or a training program—it’s a unique life experience.

“We run and celebrate movement and being strong, but Girls on the Run is more than that,” says Rachelle Sorenson, who brought Girls on the Run here six years ago. “Our curriculum gives us the tools to open the dialogue with girls about healthy eating habits, standing up for themselves and what it means to be a good friend.”

Sorenson was inspired to start a chapter in this part of the state after reading about the national program in Runner’s World magazine. “What I love about Girls on the Run is that it celebrates the whole girl,” she says.

Peeples seconds Sorensen’s opinion. “Our role in the community is to start a conversation about issues that girls are facing, like body image, bullying at school and sexual harassment,” she says. “We cover topics that aren’t necessarily covered in school or at home, and we give the girls the language to deal with situations.  We don’t just talk about bullying—we give them a tool kit to deal with it.”

Girls on the Run consists of two age-specific programs: one for elementary-school girls and another for middle-school girls known as “Girls on Track.” According to Peeples, the big difference between the two, beyond the ages involved, lies in the level of the discussions about these topics. “Middle-school girls are faced with more adult issues, so we can be more age-specific in our lessons,” she says. “For example, with the younger girls, we talk about tobacco and its dangers, and with the middle-school girls we teach a lesson about drugs and how they can hold people back.” Both groups train for the same “capstone” race.

The program has grown quickly since its local inception and now serves around 200 girls per session. Peeples became involved with the group after Sorensen approached her last year, looking for someone with both organizational skills and the time needed for the role. At the time, Peeples was preparing to have her first child, but she gladly took on the responsibility and now directs what she describes as “a very active board.”

Peeples attributes the program’s growth to the generosity of the volunteer coaches, which now number 40. “Our coaches are our ambassadors to the community,” she says. “Most of them are teachers, and they are willing to give extra time each week to the program, of around two-and-a-half hours.”

Talking with Girls on the Run participants both past and present, it becomes clear that the coaches’ efforts are paying off. Sophia Tager, 12, joined the program as a fifth-grader at Isaac Dickson Elementary School in Asheville. “It was so much fun!” she says. “We did activities that were fun while we were running. Instead of just run, run, run, we made goals for ourselves while we went around the track. And the coach we had was so cool.”

Parents, too, radiate enthusiasm for the program. “I think it’s one of the best programs in the area for building self-esteem and positive body image for girls—something that is lacking in society,” says Ilene Procida, whose daughter, Carmen, is a fourth-grader and Girls on the Run participant at Haw Creek Elementary School in Asheville. Moreover, says Procida, “It gives them a life-long appreciation for exercise.”

Parents will be part of the celebration at the Wondergirl 5K, and not only because the race takes place on Mother’s Day. Peeples emphasizes the importance of family relationships to the program, especially in the form of “Running Buddies.” Running Buddies are parents, siblings or family friends who run with the girls during the 5K to cheer them on and help them reach their goals.

The combined energy of the coaches and families creates an atmosphere of encouragement that doesn’t set intimidating standards for the girls. When asked if she aimed to run a certain time in the Wondergirl 5K, Carmen Procida thought for a moment, and in true, independent, Girls on the Run spirit, said, “I just want to do it at my own pace.”

[Molly Malone lives in Asheville.]

Run girls, run!
The Wondergirl 5K starts at 1 p.m. on Sunday, May 13, at Carrier Park off Amboy Road in West Asheville. If you’re interested in volunteering on race day, contact Molly Peeples at 713-4290. For more information about Girls on the Run, visit www.gotrwnc.org

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