For a lot of youngsters, running laps around a field can feel like a chore.
Not so for a group of girls at Sunnycrest Elementary School in Kent.
For 10 weeks, the students gathered two afternoons each week to stretch and put in the laps around the playfield at their school.
Sure it was hard, and they sweated. But there was something extra special that kept them going.
“Mostly I like I running here. I love just hanging out with other people,” said third-grader Marcia Martinez, as she made her way around the field on a warm May afternoon, with a gaggle of other girls.
“If I wasn’t here, I’d be home sleeping.”
Martinez is one of 12 Sunnycrest girls who are participants in Girls On the Run. It’s a national program that encourages elementary-aged girls to discover a love for running and exercise. Organizers are hopeful that once set at such a critical age, that love of physical activity and respect for their bodies will stay with them for a lifetime.
“Our mission is through the power of running, to educate and prepare girls for a lifetime of self respect and healthy living,” said Chelsea Hodgson, an Americorps volunteer who is helping bring the program to a number of elementary schools in King and Snohomish counties. Sunnycrest Elementary, which is part of the Federal Way School District is “our first one in Kent,” Hodgson said.
Hanging out with the Sunnycrest runners on that warm May afternoon, it was quick to get a sense of how the program worked.
For starters, it’s just for girls.
“They’re loving it because there are no boys allowed,” said Megan Kruse, a physical-education teacher at the school who helped to implement the program at Sunnycrest.
The reason for the kibosh on boys, she explained, is to stress the noncompetitive nature of the program. In the age group Girls On the Run covers – third- through fifth-graders – it’s just better to focus on the girls and stress the fun of the activity, as opposed to who’s coming in first.
“They’re all winners if they can complete a 5-k (a distance of 3.1 miles) or do their best,” Kruse said.
The 5K run Kruse was referring to was the Girls on the Run 5K, which took place May 22 at Seattle’s Seward Park. The event was organized as the culmination of the 10-week running program, and the Sunnycrest crew was scheduled to participate in it as well, with a healthy-sized cheering section of school staffers and their families.
But on that earlier day in May, the practice session began with a snack, then stretching and having a talk, before the laps began.
The topic of discussion was healthy choices.
“Making healthy choices. We’ve talked about that a lot, haven’t we?” Kruse asked her young charges, a number of whom had chimed in about treating people with respect, living up to promises, and describing the different kinds of “communities” in their lives. (A hint: they decided communities can be as small as the class you’re in, or as large as the state you live in.)
With snacks, talks and stretching out of the way, the group walked down to the playground, where their field awaited them. They ran or walked at different paces, always with a friend or two – nobody was alone. For each lap they covered, they were rewarded with their choice of a hair tie or a sticker.
The girls noted it was work, but it was fun.
“I’m excited and kinda nervous,” said Maxine Burt, 8, a third-grader, of the 5K run they were going to do. She also pointed out how hot it was on this day, and the fact she was wearing a couple of T-shirts.
“I’m kinda sweaty – see?”
But Burt said they all helped each other when the going was hard.
“If their legs are hurting, we help them,” she said. “We encourage them.”
Kaylee Walker, 11, is a fifth-grader in the program.
While she’s pretty athletic, playing basketball, baseball and soccer, the program is still a challenge.
“The hardest part is sharing my feelings with the other girls,” Walker said, of the discussion time they have before the workouts begin. “But you get used to it after a while.”
Walker’s friend McKensie Johnson, 10, a fifth-grader, said the best of the program was “meeting new friends and getting better endurance.”
The hardest part?
“Trying to keep going.”
Martinez, embarking on another lap with a new colorful sticker, said she really liked getting to know her teachers better.
“I want to spend more time with the teachers,” she said.
That’s an element of the program that Kruse finds herself enjoying, as well.
“I’ve been able to know these girls on a whole new level,” she said, taking a break from handing out hair ties.
Her fellow teacher, Beth Rankin, who also is helping out with the program, noticed how much the girls are opening up – to teachers and to each other.
“I’ve seen a huge change,”she said. “I’ve seen a lot of girls come out of their shell. It’s been a really freeing, really fun day.”