November 5, 2014

Girls With Gusto: A Story About The Power Of Running

Yellow, orange and red leaves litter the ground. The weather is getting noticeably cooler but that doesn’t seem to faze a small group of girls running around their school field in the heart of Regent Park.

This vibrant and diverse community is known for its perseverance and riding the waves of change – the change in seasons is no different. A major revitalization and transformation has been taking place here for years and it will take many more before the construction is complete.

Since early October, I’ve spent two afternoons a week at this field tucked away among the various cranes and barricaded areas of construction coaching these girls how to run.

What started as a conversation with a colleague at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment became an introduction to the school principal and four incredible teachers who helped bring Girls With Gusto to life.

To get started, I needed the girls to be excited and interested in running. I met with the grade seven and eight classes with a purposeful message – I’m starting a running club for you, there will be an opportunity to race…and I believe that you can do it.

Girls at this age are tough to influence, they have a lot going on in their lives that deter them from committing to something they are unsure of and often they will only participate if their friends are. Add all of that on top of cultural, societal and social barriers. It’s exhausting but oh so important. I'd like to think that anything is possible with a little persistence.

Girls With Gusto is focused on adolescent girls because of the vulnerability of that age. Participation in sports that promote fitness — such as running — challenges and expands norms that have previously limited girls and women. Research suggests that female athletes are 41% more likely to graduate from post-secondary school compared to female students who did not participate in sports.

In our first meeting, I gave the girls the option to stay and learn more…or leave and carry on with their day. I was terrified they would all walk out at that very moment but most of them stayed to ask dozens of questions like “would there be a party after the season?” or “what will people think if they see me running?”…some questions were more complex than others.

Girls With Gusto after initial information session! The beginning.

There have been a number of road bumps along the way in launching this pilot program. The obstacles have included establishing the program, engaging the girls in a meaningful way and getting all of the necessary waivers returned.

In total, we had seven girls decide they would commit to running and racing with a few others dropping in for practice here and there.

At running practice in Regent Park.
Loving my pace rabbit duties at a local cross-country meet with the Girls With Gusto.

The highlight of the program so far has included a sunny October morning spent in Sunnybrook Park at the Toronto Women's 5K presented byGoodLife Fitness® for Women.

Our preparation for the race was condensed but the girls made up their mind to do it; nothing could get in their way. I created an Indiegogo campaign to offset the costs of the program (race entry fees, race transportation, apparel, etc.) that was supported by a generous network of local runners, friends and family. I am humbled by the outpour of support.

The day prior to the race, I visited the school to make sure that the girls knew what to expect on race day. Each of the girls received a new pair of socks and notebook that read DREAM BIG that I was able to purchase with program funding, I tucked these into each of their race kits. They all appeared to be excited, a tad nervous about the distance and curious about what the race would be like.

On race morning, seven participants accompanied by three mothers and three teachers travelled to the race together. It has been very important to garner support from parents of the participating girls to ensure that they are encouraged at school and at home to participate - having the mothers come to the race to cheer was amazing.

Our race experience was nothing short of spectacular. Race Director Cory Freedman, a friend and pioneer for women’s running, made a number of memorable shout outs to the girls recognizing their hard work. As we gathered in the start corral with nerves running high and small huddles of cheering happening all around us, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the moment. Here were seven girls about to do something they had never done before, in a setting completely foreign to them. They all completed the distance with strong finishes and huge smiles on their faces.

Girls With Gusto pre-race smiles.
Girls With Gusto starting their 5K race.
We did it. Post-race photo with teachers and participants.

The Girls With Gusto lace up their shoes and hit the pavement to challenge barriers, to create change and show other girls that it’s important be strong, smart and support each other.

We’ll continue to run together until the weather gets too cold – we’ll start back up in spring 2015.

I overheard a young girl wearing a beautiful teal hijab (who joined the group after the race) say “that was actually fun” after finishing her four laps in the rain at practice this week. These four laps are nothing to glaze over; they represent the longest distance she has ever run. 

This makes me burst with pride.

At moments I wonder if this has ever been about running but rather about giving girls the opportunity to set goals, practice positive self-talk and do something they never thought they could. I know one thing for sure, running is the vehicle and I hope this inspires many others to take the ride.