On Sunday morning, my 8-year-old daughter ran her first official 5k. She participated as a member of Girls on the Run. I was her official running buddy.
Girls on the Run was established in 1996 in North Carolina. It has since spread to all 50 states. There are several teams in Maine, each associated with a local school or YMCA branch.
The emphasis of the program is on girlhood as much as it is on running. Teams meet twice per week, and each session includes a lesson on topics such as decision-making, leadership, confidence, healthy living and community-building. The girls also participate in fundraising and outreach, and they train for a 5k.
The teams celebrate their work with an end-of-season running event. It is not timed. Runners are outfitted with tutus, headbands, and superhero capes. And those are just the supportive dads.
This season’s 5k took place at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. It was a chilly but sunny day, and the course wove through Pineland’s wooded trails. Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” echoed through the crowd.
I stood in the midst of these young girls and the people who love them feeling inspired, and ready to be overwhelmed by that feeling. I needed to see these girls feel strong, to watch them succeed, to encourage their pride. I was looking for transcendence.
Yes, I was hoping a non-race involving costumes would serve as some sort of beacon, or proof, or symbol of some greater meaning. It was that kind of week.
As the race start approached, my daughter grew more and more quiet. By the time we had lined up at the start, she was positively somber. I was too swept up in the moment to consider why she looked like she was about to swim with alligators.
A friendly man counted us down and then sounded the horn. We were off. We, as in everyone except my daughter.
She locked her knees, grabbed my hand, and spoke for the first time in what I now realize was a long time.
“I don’t want to do it,” she whispered. She doubled-down by hissing “I can’t do it.” She told me there were too many people watching and that her legs – which to that point had done nothing more than walk – already hurt.
Given that she had grabbed my hand, I grabbed hers back. If there’s a polite word for dragging, then whatever that word is, that’s what I did to her. The best thing I can say about this part of the race is that she stayed upright.
I urged her to move. I begged her to move. Finally, I scolded her to move.
She cried with increasing commitment over the course of the first mile.
I think we’d each agree those 10 minutes were not our finest.
As we neared the first mile marker, we passed our car. We stopped running and walked over for a highly ineffective pep talk near the trunk. We considered calling my husband to tell him to bring the rest of the family over so we could leave.
I asked my daughter if she really wanted to tell him that we were quitting.
I then found myself running. It was slow, but I was running. And it was because my daughter was next to me, also running. I was trying to keep up. She had steered us back.
We came to a hill. She ran up it with determination. She actually ran up that hill pretty darn well.
When we got to the top, she smiled at me. Yes, smiled.
We started a game. We picked a person ahead of us, and we tried to pass that person. When we did, we picked another person. Not because we wanted to beat them, but because they gave us a focus up ahead.
Eventually, the place we focused on was the finish line. She crossed it, kicking her feet up behind her. I was running sideways by that point, loudly cheering for her, not caring how foolish I looked.
She hadn’t thought she could do it. She decided she wanted to finish. So she did.
Run, girls. Run.