“Amy do you want to play tag with us?”
“Sure,” I replied. “Only you have to remind me of the rules.”
As if the hot pink streaks in my pony tails weren’t enough of a clue that this was going to be a completely different kind of 5K, the pre-race game of tag solidified that for me. But how can you deny a 9-year old girl you just met who is totally excited for the race and called you cool? Tag for warmup it was.
This was my first time as a volunteer at the Girls on the Run 5K. The national organization is a non-profit which works with girls to develop confidence and healthy lifestyles through running. They participate in a 12-week program learning life skills and doing workouts all leading up to the grand finale — a 5K race. These are girls in third through fifth grade. I know adult women who are intimated by a 5K run. This ain’t no joke for a 9-year old to finish.
The 5K event pairs girls with adult running buddies. I volunteered as a running buddy, secretly hoping that I wouldn’t get some speedster of a kid who would trash me in nearly two laps around Delaware Park. I found my running buddy, Emily, at the registration table along with her parents. I chatted with Mr. and Mrs. Emily as we made our way to pre-race festivities which included hair highlights, temporary tattoos and samples of Vitamin Water and Luna Bars. Emily met up with the rest of her group from school, St. Gregory the Great, and alternated between standing next to me and playing with her friends. I introduced her to the ritual of the pre-race bathroom break, well before any lines started to form, and soon enough we were headed over to the start line.
Emily wanted to run with her friend, Gabby, and Gabby’s mom. While physical looks don’t always tell an accurate tale at athletic events, my sense was that the Gabby duo was going to be a bit fast for Emily. But I wasn’t going to rain on her parade. This was her first race. Emily, it turns out, is a pretty darn good swimmer and won some meets in the backstroke this year. (I’m thinking of contracting her for some private lessons.) But her parents said she was brand new to running. Gabby looked and acted as if she had some running in her background. I could see where this was headed.
And indeed, about a quarter mile into the run, just before we passed the Bison exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo, Emily started to grab her side — the international symbol for side stitch. Every runner as been there. But as Emily needed to walk, Gabby kept going. This threw Emily for a mental loop. Every runner has been there before, too. Emily would walk, then furiously sprint ahead to try and catch back up to Gabby. The plan was only making her side stitch worse.
“Don’t worry about Gabby,” I said. “We’ll find her later. In the meantime, we’ll have fun.” I don’t think she bought it right away, but we kept moving forward.
We crossed paths with my friend Belinda who also was a running buddy. I told her we were battling a side stitch and Belinda showed us a remedy — stretch your arms over your head and fold your hands together. Inhale, then cough. Emily tried it and we spent the next quarter mile alternating a run with walking with our arms stretched overhead and forcing ourselves to cough. The strategy worked out the kink. We passed her parents who gave her some sports drink, a kiss on the check and encouragement. With all that going on, Emily didn’t even notice we made it up the long, slow, death march of the Delaware Park incline.
“You just finished the hardest part!” I told Emily.
“Really?” she asked.
“Really. Now we get a downhill.”
We ran some more then took a long walk break. Emily had fantastic balance and liked to walk along the curb. We chatted up a storm. Turns out her birthday is the day after mine. We talked about her trampoline, her new bike and what kind of cake she had at her party. I asked her what she loved about swimming. “You don’t sweat,” she answered. Can’t argue with that logic. We talked about our families and when I told her I had a brother she asked if she could beat him up. Sorry bro. I told her yes. We had just finished Mile 2 and I needed to keep her on my side for another 1.1 miles.
As we approached the baseball and softball fields on our second loop, Emily sprinted to a porta-pottie and said she was going to the bathroom. Go for it girl. I stood guard out front. Two athletic-looking guys in their 20s approached the bathroom spot, fresh from their game of softball. They marveled at how many people they saw passing by their game. I explained that the race was two loops of the park just as a bunch of 8-year old girls jogged past us.
“They run two loops?” one of the guys said to me, pointing at the little girls.
“Yep,” I replied.
“Well that kinda makes me feel bad,” he said. “I run one loop and I’m feeling pretty good about myself.”
I smiled. This is what I was telling Emily at points throughout the race. She was doing something that not a lot of people do. This is hard stuff. Even to athletic guys in their 20s. She was doing awesome. We got the three-mile marker and I called Emily over into the road.
“See those orange cones? That’s the finish line. Want to run there?”
Yes. She did. But wait! Emily had to be even with me. Then we squatted. (This was her stretch throughout the course which was cute if a bit painful on my non 9-year old knees.) Then she went into a runner’s stance as if in starting blocks. Ready? Go! And she led the way in a sprint the final tenth of a mile to the finish line. She crossed the line to cheers. Her coach came over to present her finisher’s medal.
We found her parents, who thanked me for running with their daughter. Their gratitude was genuine as was my enjoyment. I seriously loved every minute running, walking, chatting with Emily. This is what running can be about — doing something hard with a supportive group of people, some of whom are your best friends and your family some of whom are complete strangers. But at the end of the day, we’ve all grown. It’s amazing what can happen over the course of 3.1 miles. Late in the run, Emily said to me, “My mom and dad are going to be proud of me when I finish.”
I’m pretty sure they were proud of her to begin with.
And for the record, I’m proud of her too. Emily, you are one amazing, talented, cool 9-year old. And I am grateful I got the chance to share in your first 5K.