A few weeks ago, I ran a 5k race with a 6th-grade girl (“Erin”) as a volunteer with the Girls on the Run program. Like most of her classmates/teammates in the program, Erin was totally uninterested in the foolish concept of running for the sake of running. But if the running was connected to something fun like, say, a game of chasing and screaming or a cupcake at a finish line, she and her teammates were all about it. Once as we were all jogging laps around the dirt field that the girls had to use for their practice track, Erin asked how far a 5k was. When I explained that it was equal to about 15 times around the field, Erin stopped and looked at me.
“For real?” she asked suspiciously. “No way.”
“For real,” I said. “But it won’t seem that long.”
“Huh uh,” Erin said as an exclamation of disagreement. Then she added, “Better be something good at the end.”
“Well, the finish line is always good,” I explained.
“Whooo,” Erin said, shaking her head. “Better be something better than the finish line is all I’m gonna say.”
Two of the main objectives of the Girls on the Run program are to teach the girls to believe in themselves and, in turn, believe in their teammates and support them. Running is truly secondary. Maybe even thirdary. Though it was a few billion years ago, I clearly remember being in the 6th grade. It was the scary gateway year into the land of self-consciousness and sudden awareness of all the difficulties involved in being a girl. It was the eerie tug-of-war world of playing tag while worrying about whether you should be shaving your legs yet or not.
And so it was gratifying to see the girls, as the semester went by, become comfortable and secure in their circle of teammates and coaches. It was nice to see them run like maniacs around the field while shouting and flailing their arms for no apparent reason. It was good to see them play with running without worrying about speed, competition, being judged, or failing. Feeling good about themselves was enough. I suppose this was particularly important for some of the girls; not all of them came from homes where parents encouraged them. In fact, some girls lived with daily discouragement.
I found out on race morning that Erin was one of these girls.
“This is my dad,” Erin said, dragging her father by the arm over to meet me. Dad looked totally bored with everything. He looked almost too bored to be alive. The fact that there were a hundred screaming girls in matching shirts all wearing race bibs seemed to bring him neither joy nor amusement. He wouldn’t make eye contact, and he just shrugged when I mentioned how much Erin had been running during these past few months.
“She’s lazy. She’ll never be fast ’cause she don’t want to work,” was all he said as he gazed stonily past me.
Erin punched her father playfully to make it look like he was just kidding, but I could tell she was embarrassed. She fiddled with the number pinned to her shirt and coughed a few times.
“Well, it’s not really about being the fastest,” I began. “You know, it’s more…”
“It’s a race, ain’t it?” her dad said with a bark kind of laugh. Then he looked at Erin and said, “Don’t you be playing around out there. This isn’t for fun.”
I had approached this race with the idea that Erin could run it under a 15-minute-per-mile pace. In the practice 5k a few weeks earlier, she had taken about 50 minutes. It had involved a lot of skipping and flouncing, then stopping to look at clouds, then doing a dance routine with two friends, then running a bit, then screaming about imaginary snakes, followed by dramatic huffing and puffing, then a moment of running, several more dance numbers, flouncing, skipping, laughing too hard to walk a straight line, and a final manic burst across the finish line.
When we had finished, Erin had noted that 5ks weren’t that hard at all. She was actually looking forward to the real race. She thought she could “run” it even faster next time.
But now, as we gathered near the start, I was bound and determined not to give a flying rat’s ass about Erin running any faster. I hoped she would dance and shout and flounce and laugh her way right into an hour-long 5k. At first, Erin was clearly upset about what her father had said, and she stood with her arms folded glaring at the back of the girl in front of her as we waited for the start gun.
“Don’t you want to take your jacket off?” I asked her. Even though it looked like rain, it was already 70 degrees. Erin was wearing a jacket with a hood over her head.
“Not ‘sposed to let my hair get wet,” Erin replied gloomily.
“Well, if you get too hot and change your mind, I can carry it for you.”
Then, just as it does for all of us dorkwad competitive runners, everything changed when the starting gun cracked. With the bang! every single girl, including Erin, shrieked ear-splittingly and took off like serious bats out of hell. There was no earthly way I could keep up with Erin for that first quarter mile. As I ran behind her in a wacky goon-like fashion, she kept turning around with a huge grin and shouting, “COME ON! I thought you said you ran a lot!!” Good grief. Gone are the days of fast twitch stuff. (Oh. Wait. Those days never existed.)
Not ten minutes into the race, it began to pour. As expected, this created another paroxysm of glee among the girls. At this point, Erin had fallen in with a couple of her friends. They had all slowed down considerably (i.e. they were walking) and were singing a pleasant little tune called “Stanky Leg” and the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. As the rain came down harder, the girls tried to drink the raindrops, their heads cranked back as far as they would go. The hood of Erin’s jacket fell off without her even noticing, and ten minutes later she threw the jacket at me so that it covered my face. I ran along with a jacket over my head for a moment until I almost fell. This was a big hit.
Two miles into the course, we encountered tremendous puddles. Of course, every girl had to stomp through each one. At one point, Erin and a friend just stood in an ankle-deep puddle alternately kicking water at each other and bellowing “DO THE STANKY LEG!!” at passing runners.
Around 2.5 miles, a woman of seriously rotund proportions wearing a jogbra and no shirt passed us. Erin looked at me to see if I might laugh. When I didn’t, she watched the woman thoughtfully for a few seconds and then said, “Damn. She’s working it.” This is not really something you expect to hear from a 6th-grader, but I agreed that, yes, the overweight woman was indeed working it. This seemed to inspire Erin to pick it up a little, but then there was suddenly a lot of duck poop (we were running around a lake) right in the middle of the road. Naturally, this required a lot of springing around and screaming and pointing out that duck poop is green.
Then the finish line appeared about two tenths of a mile ahead. Erin and I figured out a point where she would begin running as fast as she could so that she could have a big finish. Some of the other girls who had already finished, spotted Erin and began cheering for her, so any boring adult-like finish line strategies were suddenly tossed out the window, and Erin took off like a shot. As with the beginning, there was no way I could sprint that fast, so I flailed behind Erin and said a lot of lame things like “Yay!” and “Woo Hoo!” and “All right!”
As Erin put her finisher’s medal around her neck, several of her friends ran over to congratulate her. She was soaked, muddy, sweating, and her hair was an absolute disaster. She looked the happiest I had seen her look all semester. And, for all her playing during the race, she had still bettered her practice 5k time by nearly five minutes.
Then she walked over to her dad who had just been standing near the finish kind of shaking his head and looking disgusted.
“You are slow,” was the first thing he said. “There’s old ladies out here that finished before you did. Hell, you were almost last.”
Erin looked at her father for a moment. In that moment, I thought about all the things the girls had been taught that semester about self-esteem, believing in themselves even when no one else did, and supporting and encouraging their friends. I wondered if that would make any real difference in a situation like this or if it was just a lot of blah blah blah that zipped right in one ear and out the other.
“Well,” Erin said, looking at her medal carefully and then back at her father. “I wasn’t last. Plus, I was faster than last time, and…” Erin seemed to be thinking of some kind of serious zinger to conclude with. “I had FUN.” With that, she bounced back over to her circle of friends who all continued to pat her on the back, dance around, and tell her how fast she was.
And that, I thought, as I watched 100 girls all supporting and encouraging one another, was exactly what Erin had hoped for even if she hadn’t known it. That was something better—way better—than the finish line.