May 7, 2014

‘Girls on the Run’ teaches more than just fitness

“Girls on the Run” will finish its spring season with a 5K Saturday in downtown Rock Hill.

On a Thursday afternoons at Richmond Drive Elementary School, a group of a dozen or so girls run a loop on the sidewalk outside the school gym.

Some sprint, then walk, exhausted. Others jog nearly the whole time, and still others “power walk,” arms tensed, knees bent and eyes focused.

As they walk, their two coaches shout out to them, “Keep running!” and each time they complete a lap, they cross out a letter on a creed written out on a large piece of paper. These girls – like hundreds of girls across the area and thousands across the country – are participating in “Girls on the Run.”

On Saturday, Girls on the Run will hold its spring 5K, and these girls and others from schools all over York, Chester and Lancaster counties together will run a 5K around downtown Rock Hill to celebrate another season of team-building, confidence-boosting, friend-making and exercise. Motorists should avoid the downtown area before 10 a.m. on Saturday because roads will be closed for the event.

“They cheer me up and help me have fun,” said third-grader Breanna Stallworth of the other girls in the program. “It’s a lot more fun than going home after school.”

But Girls on the Run is a lot more than just working out, said Anna Winstead, Richmond Drive’s physical education teacher and Girls on the Run coach.

“Half of what we do is a lesson,” she said.

Before the girls head outside to run, they sit in a circle inside the gym. They talk about concepts like community and self-esteem and how one person can make a positive difference in the world. Then, Coach Lisa Cox, who is also a parent, leads the girls in a series of stretching before they play team-building games to illustrate the points in the lesson.

“There’s so much marketing and so many messages aimed at girls,” Cox said. “These girls are beautiful, and they need to let their light shine.”

Girls on the Run groups at elementary schools – and their sister groups, “Girls on Track” at middle schools – rely on teachers’, parents’ and others’ volunteering their time to go to training, then run the practices, which lead up to 5K races at the end of the fall and spring seasons.

Jeanne Stroud, a senior track and cross country athlete at Winthrop University, volunteers at Richmond Drive. She runs alongside the girls during the practices and the race.

“It’s a really great program,” Stroud said. “I like the way Girls on the Run mixes running with values.”

By focusing on running, Winstead said, the goal is to teach the girls to love a form of exercise they can continue their entire lives, no matter where they are or what their financial situation might be. All a girl needs to run is a road and a pair of sneakers, she said.

The look on the girls’ faces when they finish that 5K – or even just have a good time at a practice – is the best reward a coach could ask for, she said.

“I get a lot out of it,” Winstead said. “I get to watch them learn to love themselves the way they are.”

And third-grader Breanna, who will run her second Girls on the Run 5K on Saturday, said she would encourage everyone to participate.

“People help you and try to get you to run,” she said. “You’ll have a hard time, but you can do it.”

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