If you were to tell thousands of local girls they “run like girls,” they would likely give you a high five.
Girls in York, Chester and Lancaster counties are crossing the finish line of 5k races armed with self-confidence and a healthy dose of teamwork. They are athletes, some wearing colorful tutus and bows in their hair.
Organizers of Girls on the Run Tri-County expect more than 1,500 third- through eighth-grade girls to sign up for the 10-week spring program that begins in late February and ends with a 5k race.
“Whether they run, walk, skip, ho, or jump, the goal is to come across the finish line,” said Lindy Morris, council director for Girls on the Run Tri-County.
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Interest has swelled so quickly, organizers are left with a coaching void, Morris said. If more than 14 girls sign up, the organization uses a lottery system to get in. Some girls are unable to join.
If more coaches apply, more teams can be added, Morris said, and all girls will be able to participate. Coaches do not have to be runners or teachers, and training is available. Coaches will be CPR certified.
Girls on the Run helps girls, ages 8 to 14, build self-esteem, learn about relationships and how to take care of themselves, Morris said. The nonprofit life-skills program started in Charlotte in 1996, and now is in all 50 states.
The Tri-County program has teams at 42 sites, Morris said, which are generally located at schools. The teams are divided into two groups — one for elementary school girls and one for middle schoolers.
There are two sessions - one in spring and one in the fall. Each session begins with the coaches and girls discussing relationships, emotions and the importance of exercise, Morris said. Then the girls take off running.
Each team also tackles a “community impact” project, where they learn to be part of the community and “that they can have an impact in the world,” Morris said.
The program has continued to grow since the first two teams — one in Fort Mill and one in Rock Hill — started in 2003. In its infancy, the team had 20 girls, Morris said. It now serves more than 10,000 girls.
Some of the girls have returned as coaches. Others have gone on to compete in track and cross-country in high school and college.
Aubrey Gunnels, 23, of Fort Mill, joined Girls on the Run in fourth grade and competed in the track at Nation Ford High School. She continued running at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“I discovered I really like running,” said Gunnels, a technology consultant who lives in D.C. “It definitely started my running career.”
Gunnels said the program “reiterates the courtesy and respect for other people, and it’s a good example of how hard work pays off.”
Boys run, too
Girls are not the only ones who benefit from a life-skills and running program. A similar program, Let Me Run, is exclusively for boys in fourth through eighth grade and has about 23 teams in York County, said Brittney Collins, a fourth-grade teacher at Northside Elementary School of the Arts in Rock Hill.
Collins said Northside has a Girls on the Run program. She saw the need to target the male population. The program runs seven to 10 weeks.
“A lot of the boys felt left out, and I believed they were missing out on a great opportunity,” Collins said. “This program creates a boy culture that celebrates lifting up others, encourages self-improvement as well as perseverance, and encourages them to be themselves.”
Another Let Me Run coach at Rosewood Elementary School, Laura Wallace, said the boys on her team learn to give each other praise and feedback.
“They all want to return and do it again,” Wallace said. “They all wore their medals for days.”
Both organizations are accepting applications for coaches.
“As people become more aware of learning these skills at a younger age, a lot of the moms and coaches say to me ‘I wish I had this program as a kid,’ because it does put all of the pieces together,” Morris said. “You have to be a complete person taking care of your mental, your physical, your spiritual - every piece of you has to come together.”
Want to run?
Registration for Girls on the Run runs through Feb. 3. Cost is $135. Scholarships are available, as well as shoes if needed. To learn more or to register, visit gotrtricountysc.org.
Registration for Let Me Run is Feb. 1-15. Cost is $110. Limited scholarships are available. Visit letmerun.org for details.