What began the other day in Firefighters Field, beneath a banner of blue sky and the Queensboro Bridge as a backdrop, was not a race.
It may have looked a lot like a race, what with the 600 or so girls, many accompanied by a parent, running together from the starting line, a pack of pink headed first toward Manhattan then turning right and continuing around the perimeter of Roosevelt Island for five kilometers until they reached the finish line at pretty much the same spot in Firefighters Field.
But this was no race. Racing is antithetical to the mission of Girls On The Run. To the founders of this unique program – and the innumerable volunteers of the 200+ GOTR councils that have launched over the past 21 years – it’s always been the running that’s important. Not the result.
Really, it’s not even the running that matters most.
“Girls On The Run is not about competition,” said Allison Hauser, the executive director of the New York City council. “The goal of this 5K is completion.”
It makes no difference whether a girl ran, walked, crawled or cartwheeled her way to the finish line. Everyone who finished the course earned a medal. There was no clock to measure performance, no posted order of finish to separate winners from also-rans. Those are the trappings of races. And this was no race.
Don’t let the name fool you – Girls On The Run is not a track club as much as it’s an on-the-right-track club. It’s a movement-centered movement, with a focus more on mettle than medals.
“It’s a physical activity-based program,” said Allison, “but it’s really a youth development program.”
Twice a week for 10 weeks, the New York City council’s 657 girls gathered to train and develop together, spending as much time on life lessons as laps. Girls On The Run International, the original governing body, provides a standardized curriculum that focuses the classroom discussions on a foundation of Five C’s + 1: Connection, Caring, Compassion, Confidence and Character. The plus-1 represents Community; all girls commit to a community impact project, whether it’s writing letters to children in the hospital, making decorations for an elder care facility or planting flowers around their own school grounds.
“We are getting our 3rd, 4th and 5th graders those important life skills early on,” said Diane Weinberger, a GOTR-NYC coach and board member. “We’re catching them at a young age when they’re still confident, when they still feel free to speak out and to be their amazing selves.”
Each training session begins with a conversation about a predetermined topic: bullying, maintaining a positive self-image, teamwork, gratitude. Then, the girls run together. Very few public schools in New York City have running tracks, so Girls On The Run girls run on whatever is available.
Sometimes it’s a school’s indoor gym. Sometimes it’s a rooftop. Diane’s group meets two weekday mornings at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side, so they typically run the laps around a nearby playground, less than a block away from the American Museum of Natural History.
After running, the girls typically will write some sort of reflection – the elementary school-aged children add to their one-page identity card, the middle school girls in their journals – and add their run to their training log.
Even for a non-racing running club, training logs are an important part of the program. They’re a quantifiable way for girls to track their individual progress. More than that, they provide an opportunity to reflect on the variables that influenced performance on a particular day: Did they have a good breakfast? Were they distracted by something happening at home or at school? Were they boosted by a teammate’s encouragement?
“If you ran 10 laps and you only ran eight laps last time, why were you able to do two more? It lets them think about what helped them, what are the factors that contributed,” said Allison. “As girls track their laps, it lets them focus on their own personal growth.”
Therein lies the true impact of Girls On The Run-NYC. They’re not building strong women runners; they’re building strong young women who run.
“They can see how far they’ve come over a couple of months,” said Diane. “It’s amazing to see that self-confidence become ingrained.”
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