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November 8, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
A stampede of girls in colorful shirts and green-and-pink-dyed hair ran through Cosmo-Bethel Park on Saturday. The pack of pre-adolescent joggers circled a 3.1-mile path, and they’ve been training for it throughout the past 10 weeks.
The race is part of the Heart of Missouri Girls on the Run, an organization of coaches and “running buddies” that aims to inspire self-esteem by promoting exercise and healthy eating habits. During the program’s 10 weeks, participants train for a 5K race and receive lessons on topics such as bullying, body image and physical activity. In a time when the media and peers influence girls’ confidence, these lessons are important to sustaining confidence.
Council director Nancy Yaeger says the race acts as a fundraiser and is the pinnacle of the program. “To watch girls finish — to see girls hugging and cheering and crying — it’s empowering,” she says.
Yaeger, who started running in first grade, says the sport helped her carve out personal time and escape three brothers. “Running carried me through my childhood,” says Yaeger, who just completed her first Iron Man triathalon. Now she wants to inspire girls in Columbia the same way.
Girls on the Run has been in Boone County for more than a year. Its organizers currently work with six Boone County schools and have hosted three 5K races. The program works with elementary schools to prepare girls in third through fifth grade for social interactions in middle school and high school.
Although the participants train for the 5K throughout the program, some participants still need a boost of encouragement on race day. Aiming to run a certain distance before walking or trying to pass other racers are two techniques in Vesta Hotchkiss’ motivational arsenal. A half-marathon runner, Hotchkiss knows that completing a race can add to self-confidence.
“Once you start training and training and you finally have that race, you have a wonderful feeling of accomplishment,” she says.
As girls dashed along the race’s last 10th of a mile, music and applause congratulated them. Even though it was before 9 a.m. on a chilly November day, the weather and the early hours couldn’t dampen the spirit with which the racers received their pink finisher’s medals.
The program’s organizers hope to have girls carry the skills learned during Girls on the Run forward to the rest of their adolescence. “Younger and younger girls are being met with pressures that we didn’t see when we were younger,” Yaeger says. “Girls want to grow up too fast. We’re teaching them that it’s OK to be a girl.”