By Kay Howell – On a rainy morning in early June, I stood huddled beneath an umbrella, peering into a sea of green t-shirts. Although it was 8am on a Sunday, Bayshore Town Center was buzzing with the nervous and excited energy of hundreds of elementary and middle school girls. At last, the big day was here: the spring Girls on the Run 5 kilometer race.
First, a little background for those not familiar with Girls on the Run. Founded in North Carolina in 1996, GOTR is a non-profit organization that uses running as a platform to promote healthy self-esteem, body image, relationships, and exercise for girls in grades 3-8. Teams meet twice weekly throughout a 10-week season, working toward a 5K run at the end of each season.
I run because I love the solitude, and because I love the feeling of internally pushing myself to my limits. This past spring, I stretched myself in a new direction when I became an assistant coach for my school’s 3rd-5th grade Girls on the Run team. Between battling the cold Milwaukee spring and trying to motivate twenty 3rd-5th graders, coaching was definitely a challenge. But along the way, I learned a few valuable lesson from my girls that have made me a better runner, student, and professional:
- Distances are meaningless if you don’t have a frame of reference.
Five kilometers is 3.1 miles. Every practice, some of the girls would walk a few blocks from school to our practice area. The first few practices, they were convinced that they had gone at least one or two miles. Some girls resolutely contended that they could run 5 kilometers in 20 minutes, while others predicted their times would be 2 hours or longer. For most of them, though, they had no real idea of what that distance meant. Our first practice 5K was a shock to some of the girls—they hadn’t really imagined that it would be that far.
- Three miles isn’t that far if you’re prepared.
Our first practices were a hard lesson in burnout. One or two girls could probably have run a 5K on day one, but the majority had never run that far before in their lives. As coaches, we reminded our team again and again that they needed to start slow and think about how to maintain a manageable pace. Even as I preached pacing, I felt myself burning out in my graduate classes. As momentum built at the end of the semester, I found myself desperately writing papers and spending most of my waking hours in the library. Coaching reminded me that starting strong is important, but finishing strong is crucial—in a run and in real life.
- Swings are really awesome.
Even as a teenager, I loved swinging on a swing-set. There was something so daring about pumping my legs and flying up into the sky—but with the reassurance that solid ground was never far away. Our team practiced out by the playground, and the swing set was a constant distraction for the girls. Seeing the happiness on their faces as they snuck away to the swing-set made me remember that it’s important to take a break every now and have some unscheduled joy, even if it’s just as simple as swinging a few minutes in the sun.
- Pain, pause, and perseverance.
Professional soccer players could take some lessons on stunt falling from 9-year-old girls. Almost every practice, one of my girls would suffer a blister that was obviously going to go septic and become a life-threatening condition. There were tears. But nine times out of ten, a girl just needed an encouraging word and a band-aid. Every practice reminded me that it’s okay to be hurt and to take a few minutes to feel sorry for yourself—but then you take the band-aid that you’re offered, get up, and keep going, because sprawling in the grass and crying over a blister will only hold you back.
Every girl on my team finished the race. Some crossed the finish line with the leaders, and a few were among the last to cross the line. But each one finished with a huge smile on her face. And I couldn’t stop smiling either!