Running gives Wichita-area girls internal strength too

Before practice started last Monday, 8-year-old Haley Smith squatted in front of a five-gallon orange cooler with her tongue out, ready for a drink. Glorey McNutt, also 8, pushed the button and laughed.

Later, both girls put on their serious faces for a discussion about choosing friends.

"How do you feel when I use a negative tone?" asked Wichitan Christy Thomas, head coach of the Girls of the Run site at Orchard Park, after reading criticisms listed in the a workbook.

"Bad," a few girls responded.

"Blah," Haley said, sticking her tongue out again.

"How do you feel when I use positive words?" Thomas asked.

Ten-year-old Jada Rollins summed up her feelings up in one word: "Happy."

The Wichita girls are at the age when problems such as bullying and nutrition set in, Thomas explained. Thanks to the Sedgwick County chapter of national group Girls on the Run, local girls in third through eighth grades are learning to cope with peer pressures using running.

"It teaches young girls that it's OK to be themselves, to be true and authentic," said Thomas, 37, who is also founder of Girls on the Run Sedgwick County.

"Girls are just thrown things all of the time about how they should be and how they should look.... They are very aware of what peer pressures are and what peer pressures they'll encounter in the future."

After two months of lessons, 43 girls will graduate from the program's first season at the New Balance Girls on the Run 5K walk/run, set for this Sunday in Wichita. The event is also a fundraiser for the group, which offers scholarships to help families cover the $75 program enrollment fee.

Community members are invited to walk or run with the girls along a 3.1-mile course in east Wichita. Race time is 2 p.m.

Girls on the Run Sedgwick County, which was approved for start-up in February 2011, is run by volunteers. The program meets two days a week after school at four sites in and around Wichita. Two-month sessions will be offered in both the fall and spring, each ending with a 5K race.

Currently, third through fifth graders meet at Orchard Park in Wichita and Apollo Elementary School in Goddard; sixth through eighth graders meet at the East Branch YMCA and Truesdell Elementary School, both in Wichita. The program offers age-appropriate curriculum for each group.

"I learn a lot of lessons about life, and it's just really fun," said Harli Lowmaster, a 10-year-old from Derby who runs with 10 other girls at Orchard Park. "You're training for a big race — well, kind of a big race — and then you're just gaining energy."

So, is 5K a long way?

"Not really because I just ran it," said Haley Smith, 8, who finished a race that length last weekend with her mom.

Do you need special shoes to run?

"No, pretty much any old shoes. Just tennis shoes," she said, "with ties."

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