When Lauren Levine, 11, neared the finish line of the Seaford Hot Chocolate 5k, she wore a pink tutu and heard cheers that made her feel she could keep putting one sneaker in front of the other.
"It was nerve-racking, because I didn't know if I would finish it or not," says Lauren, who slowed to a walk a few times on the route of her first 5k. "But it was also exciting to run with my friends. I feel like I accomplished something very big, and I was very proud of myself."
Lauren was one of a dozen third- to fifth-grade girls from Girls on the Run of Nassau County, a new chapter of the international organization of the same name, which prepares girls to complete a 5k. The chapter was open to girls in the Herricks school district's Searingtown School in Albertson in the fall, culminating in the Dec. 1 Hot Chocolate run.
It will launch a new session next month at several Herricks elementary schools, and is expanding to Friends Academy in Locust Valley. This spring's program will end with the running of the Harry O'Neill Memorial 5k on June 8. The chapter is taking applications from other Nassau districts that want to introduce the program in September.
"But it's not really about the running," says Lisa Hiller, volunteer coach coordinator. "It's about self-esteem building." The girls meet twice weekly after school for 12 weeks. Yes, they jog and learn to pace themselves for a run more than three miles and half an hour long. But they also have lessons on health, peer pressure and body image.
"When you know who you are, you're a lot less concerned with what other people think you should be," says Elizabeth Murphy, a founding board member of the Nassau chapter.
The girls are taught about the perils of gossip and bullying, how to be grateful for what they have, and ways to navigate peer pressure. "I learned that people in magazines aren't always good for girls," says Lauren, of Roslyn Heights. She understands she won't look like the model because she buys the product.
"I liked the idea that they were talking about peer pressure, their bodies and how to be more confident," says Lauren's mom, Mindy. "Especially at this age, going into middle school. I could tell my daughter she's beautiful and she's wonderful, but until someone else says it, it's really not confirmed."
NOT ABOUT FASTEST
Girls on the Run began in 1996 in Charlotte, N.C. In 1999, the organization expanded to middle schools with Girls on Track, says Elizabeth Kunz, international president. Girls on the Run is now in 208 cities in the United States and Canada, serving 128,000 girls in 2012. The Nassau group has plans to add the middle school program in the coming seasons.
"It's not about who runs the fastest, but about setting a goal together and achieving it," Kunz says.
At the race, girls don pink tutus and wear Girls on the Run T-shirts. Each has an adult "running buddy" by her side.
"It was exhausting. I drank a lot of water, though," says Mary Catherine Aivaliotis, 10, of North Hills, whose running buddy was her mom, Eileen.
"I was really excited when everyone was cheering for me," says Isabella DeSilva, 10, of Albertson, who finished the 5k in 34 minutes.
"I don't think there's a better feeling in the world than crossing the finish line and having the little girl next to you look up and say, 'I did it,' " says volunteer running buddy Afsheen Shah of Franklin Square. "I actually helped empower a little girl who will grow up to be a woman. I've helped her one step further on her journey."
OFF THE COUCH
Tiffany Gutama says this of herself before she joined i-tri at the Springs Public School in East Hampton: "I was one of those girls who didn't like to do sports, and just liked to be home and not do anything." But then she saw a presentation at her school about the i-tri empowerment program for girls in sixth through eighth grades with low self-esteem, a sedentary lifestyle or weight issues.
The girls meet for 20 weeks to train for the annual youth triathlon at Maidstone Park in Springs, which involves a 300-yard swim, a 7-mile bike ride and a 1.5-mile run. This year, it's July 14.
I-tri was founded in 2010 by executive director Theresa Roden. This year's group of 50 girls is from Springs School and Montauk Public School; she says she hopes to expand to more schools.
Tiffany has completed the triathlon twice; this will be the third year for the 13-year-old eighth-grader. "Whenever I was with all the girls, I just knew it was a good group for me," she says. "It was so much fun."