By Kim Howord
Eighth grader Katie Macuga wasn’t very much of a runner when she got involved with Girls on Track last spring. Within eight weeks, she was running a 5K race with hundreds of other girls.
Katie attributes some of her newfound interest in running to her coaches: “It always seemed like they were really happy and that they had a lot of fun with it,” she said.
Girls on Track and Girls on the Run are programs that help girls ages eight to 13 build self-respect and healthy lifestyles through running. The objective is to reduce risky behavior like eating disorders, depression, teen pregnancy, and alcohol and other drug use. In Vermont, 600 girls participated last year.
In Williston, twice a week from April to June, volunteer coaches help girls prepare for a 3.1-mile non-competitive race. Each group of 14 to 18 girls also explores values, body image, friendship and community through a set curriculum.
“It’s sad to see girls falling into the traps of eating disorders,” said Mairead Harris, a Williston native who helped get Girls on the Run started here. “I’d like to hope that the program can prevent a lot of body image problems in the future.”
Harris, now a freshman at Middlebury College, made Girls on the Run the focus of her high school graduation challenge project, which she started her junior year at Champlain Valley Union High School.
“One thing that’s great with running, especially distance running, is you improve just by doing it,” said Harris. “You can build your own self esteem by running more.” Girls run between one and three miles at each practice, depending on age and how far they are into the training program.
Harris’ younger sister, Laura, 10, has benefited from her sister’s efforts. Laura has participated in Girls on the Run for two years.
“I like running with my friends and I liked how I felt really good about myself when I finished off my last lap,” Laura said.
About 36 Williston girls participated in Girls on the Run – serving grades three through five – last spring; fourteen Williston girls in grades six through eight participated in Girls on Track.
“There could be more girls if there were more coaches,” said coach Robin Harris. “We had to turn away girls last year.”
Executive director Nancy Heydinger said she hopes new coaches will come forth to fill demand in Chittenden County. Being an experienced runner is not a prerequisite. At least two coaches are required for each group.
“It’s an excellent program,” said Tracey Barth, whose daughter Lauren, 12, participated last year. “I think it helped her become more confident in herself.”
Lauren said the program is fun. Her coaches taught “the correct form to run so you don’t get shin splints or injure yourself,” she said.
Katie Macuga said she also learned more about running. “But, I also learned a lot about friendship and how to deal with certain situations in the best way,” she said.