I first heard about Girls on the Run from an old coworker (Thanks, Cass). Girls on the Run is an international nonprofit that works with girls ages 8-13 to build confidence, cope with bullying and develop healthy living skills. One of their big events is a 5K. Running over 3 miles is tough for a lot of people, and it feels even longer on little legs.
To help motivate the runners, the coaches seek the help of additional volunteers, called Sparkle Runners. Each sparkle runner is paired with a girl to help encourage her through the race, so she stays positive and happy over the 3 miles.
When I got an email seeking Sparkle Runners for their NYC race, I signed up immediately and then forwarded the email to 6 of my girlfriends who run to see if any of them wanted to join me. They either couldn’t or didn’t want to. So I was going alone!
I honestly didn’t think much about it in the intervening months (Classic Haber, sign up and forget it.) When race weekend came, the forecast called for rain. The idea of waking up early, trekking to Roosevelt Island in the rain, and mingling with 10 year olds and their coaches by myself didn’t sound amazing.
I was committed to going but it kind of sucked not to have a partner in crime for something like this, tbh.
I cabbed to Roosevelt Island (whatever, I took the subway home) and when the driver crossed the bridge on to Roosevelt Island he asked me where to go, and I realized I had no idea where the race took place beyond “on Roosevelt Island,” so I said “here is fine.”
Have you been to Roosevelt Island? It’s kind of a weird place. The aesthetic is half “planned retirement community” and half flashy new buildings. I’ve been twice before (once for adult biking school and once to volunteer for Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign in 2005), so I am not helping to make it less strange.
When I showed up at Firefighters Field (I eventually figured out where the race started), and looked at the field full of loud 8-10 year olds I was hit with a brief wave of fear. My friends who are parents all have babies. I have very minimal recent practice talking to kids. What are they like? Are they going to be total jerks? Do they want to be here?
But I trudged ahead. Literally because the ground was wet and muddy.
I found my assigned elementary school and introduced myself. Sparkle Runners were instructed to come at 8am, and the race didn’t start until 9am. The coaches were fabulous. The school I was assigned to was coached by a bunch of super positive, super welcoming young women. I was totally impressed by them. If I have children, maybe one of those coaches can raise them. Too much?
Most people (students, adults etc) weren’t there yet so I went to get a coffee. Within the next 5 minutes, the rain came. It was pretty bad. We huddled under small tents set up for activities and shared umbrellas. During this time I met my running buddy. She is 10 years old, had her twin 8-year old sisters in tow, and did not mind the rain one bit. She’s a kid, and I didn’t get permission from her mom to talk about his experience (because her parents weren’t there for me to ask), so I am going to give her a fake name for the sake of this post. Let’s call her Sally.
Sally was great. All the girls I met were really nice to each other, very positive, and very proud of their healthy living knowledge. So, no, they weren’t jerks. (Does this make me the jerk?) Anyway, it was pretty cool. We talked about stretching, about warming up and about Roosevelt Island in general. When the time came to line up, we happily went to the starting line, marked by a balloon dais.
When the starting horn barked, we set off. I was super impressed with Sally. She kept a moderate pace and even appeared to have good form! (I know what good form is because I am constantly being told I don’t have it.) Sally told me her goal was to run the whole race without stopping. I offered to carry her water bottle because she was concerned that there wasn’t going to be hydration stops along the way (turns out there were). After 1.5 miles of non-stop running, save for a quick drink of water, Sally asked if we could walk.
Before the race started, I asked the coaches what to expect the girls to do during the race. Would the girls want to/be able to run the whole thing? Would it be more of a walk? I was informed that each girl would have a different goal, but I should just assess the situation and try to break up the 3 miles in to short, easier to manage pieces. This advice came in handy.
I told Sally of course we could walk! But we should pick a point in the future when we’d start running again.We agreed on a DO NOT ENTER sign about a 5 minute distance (in walkers’ pace) from where we were. Sally caught her breath, and at the sign we set off again. She said she felt re-energized which made me feel like a genius.
We continued this way for a while. Walking and running intermittently. To keep her entertained, I asked her about school. We talked about running. She asked what the farthest I’d ever run was. I told her not so long ago I ran a half marathon. She asked if it made me tired and I told her SO VERY TIRED. She asked me about my job, and I did a so/so job of explaining it before she got distracted. She asked me about lighthouses (because we saw one) and I told her everything I know about sea travel on the East River. (If you see Sally, please quiz her on the East River Ferry schedule!) She said math was her favorite subject, so I explained kilometers and their relationship to miles.
At some point around mile 2 (that’s 3.2 km), I noticed another girl (let’s call her Marsha) was quietly listening in and walking with us. I introduced Sally and myself to Marsha and asked if she’d like to join us for the rest of the way. She very much did! So our little pack of 3 made our way to the finish, walking and running, but mostly running. As we reached the last .5 we saw Sally’s twin sisters (who had finished already!) cheering for her with the rest of their schoolmates. “Look for the banana, Sally!!” they yelled.
Sally and Marsha asked me what that meant, and I had zero idea, so I said, “I guess we will have to keep going and see!” We ran ahead. Sally saw the finish line was in sight, but that we had to run a small out and back first and very much did not like it. I was like “Yea, people have mixed feelings on out and backs! You’re really a true runner at heart!”
When we got to mile 3, we saw a woman dressed in a banana costume, cheering like bonkers. The girls thought that was pretty crazy! I explained that we only had a little bit left in the race, so if they had any energy left, they didn’t need to save it anymore. Before I could finish my sentence, Marsha was off and running. I ran next to Sally yelling “You can do it! You’re doing it!! This is such an accomplishment! You worked for this and you did it! Hard work pays off! You are so great! I am so impressed by you!” Because I realized this was my last moment to impart wisdom, so I figured I should get it all out. My encouraging platitudes made us both laugh, probably more me.
I crossed the finish line with Sally, who was so freaking happy. I encouraged her to drink water and grab a bagel. Then we went to find her sisters and the rest of her schoolmates. We cheered until everyone from her school finished.
I said goodbye and was really happy with such a fun, positive morning. I’ll probably never see Sally or Marsha again. And they have definitely forgotten me by now, but I loved that experience and I won’t forget it. I’m so glad I showed up.
Programs like Girls on the Run teach the things you want people to know, but for which there isn’t currently a space for in school. From their website: “We envision a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams.”
So yea. I’m very down with that. This race was totally untimed, and the goal was just to be healthy and happy and support each other. The girls did a practice 5K a few weeks prior, so there was definitely some training involved, too.
I definitely want to volunteer with this organization again.
Have you ever been a running buddy? I highly recommend being a sparkle runner!