Throughout each season of Girls on the Run, the girls are aware that they are preparing for the challenge of completing a 5K. They are developing emotionally and mentally while improving their fitness and stamina through fun games and physical activity.
The season is about 10 weeks long, with meetings twice a week. The lessons start with getting to know each other and team building, and progress through concepts such as having positive self-talk, living balanced lives, exploring emotions, taking care of their bodies, navigating social situations, developing meaningful friendships, communicating effectively, and contributing to the community.
Once they reach the end of the season, they have created new friendships and are looking forward to the 5K with confidence and excitement.
Some of the girls have run a 5K before, but for many this is their first time. It’s hard to know whether they have a clear understanding of how long or challenging a 5K can be until they are out on the course, seeing the mile markers, experiencing the excitement. They get a good sense of the length during the practice 5K, which the teams typically hold a week or two before the end of the season. Although they are just running laps around their regular school grounds, the girls can get a sense of how long it actually takes to cover 3.1 miles.
One thing they all start to understand is how exciting it is to challenge yourself and overcome self-doubt. There’s no way to teach the kind of self-esteem and confidence that comes with crossing the finish line, knowing you’ve just accomplished something incredible -- all by yourself.
The Girls on the Run 5K is truly the happiest race you’ll ever run. The girls are there to challenge themselves and celebrate their incredible accomplishments, and their families are there to support them. There’s cooperation and excitement rather than the stress of competition.
Amber told me repeatedly that she knew she could never run a 5K. During our practices at school, you could see the panic in her eyes as she asked all the coaches how far they’d run and how much longer it takes to run a 5K. Despite our assurances, she was unconvinced.
On the day of the 5K, her misgivings were at an all time high, and she wasn’t very excited for the signal to start. But when it started, she was swept up in the excitement--the cheerleaders on the course, the smiling parents, and the costumes and signs and throngs of other girls all experiencing the same challenge.
She ran a little, jogged a little, and walked a little. And she did it. She crossed that finish line and felt great about herself...and smiled the whole way!
Set up starts around 4:30a.m. when the trucks full of supplies start rolling into the parking lot. It’s all hands on deck as staff, board members, and more than 140 volunteers (thank you, volunteers!!) pitch in to get everything unloaded and in place before the girls and their families start to arrive.
For about two hours, it’s relatively quiet as each tent is assembled, cones are placed, the finish line is erected, and bananas cut in half. A slow stream of girls begins to flow in usually about an hour before the run starts. They are apprehensive, looking for their friends or any familiar faces.
As the start time gets closer, the stream turns into a flood and the quiet parking lot is transformed into a bustling party. Girls screech and run toward each other to embrace. Parents try to keep up as the girls find their school flags and come together to prepare. There’s picture taking and sign making and hair decorating, and smiles everywhere you look. The excitement is infectious!
As the start time nears, the teams line up and make their way to the start line. Each girl is flanked by her buddy runner--a mom, dad, aunt, uncle, sibling, or special friend who will share this experience with her. When the start horn blows, everyone takes off! You can see panic in the eyes of the buddy runners, uncertain they can maintain this pace for the entire course. But soon it settles down, and everyone relaxes into a groove.
Some girls run the entire way and finish fast, exhausted and proud. Some girls run and take walk breaks when they need it, and many girls walk most of the way. But it truly doesn’t matter, because they all know that it doesn’t matter how fast you go, as long as you keep moving forward. A lesson for this 5K, and a lesson for life.
No one wins the 5K, because EVERYONE does. Every girl who laces up her sneakers and pins on the #1 bib is a super star, regardless of how fast or slow she goes, or how long it takes her to complete the course. It’s the only 5K around where the sole goal is to see a smile on each face that comes across the finish line.
It’s the happiest 5K you’ll ever run.