Many people wouldn’t consider 28 degrees Fahrenheit ideal running temperature, but Alyssa and Jaden, students from Church Hill Elementary School, were prepared for the cold with some ready-made running techniques.
“My mom, she looked up on the Internet how to breathe when it’s cold,” Alyssa said, thinking methodically about her strategy. “It just said to take long, deep breaths.”
Jaden had a simpler approach.
“I’m just going to pace myself,” she said.
About 1,000 runners, including more than 550 girls from schools across the northeast Tennessee region, appeared at East Tennessee State University’s Thomas Stadium early Saturday morning for the Girls on the Run 5K. The race began at 9.
Teams of girls gathered inside the stadium’s baseball diamond, while up in the stands a long, meandering line of parents registered their children for the race.
Music blared on the speakers, and a camera hooked up to the stadium’s jumbotron projected the faces of curious participants on the large screen in the back of the field.
“Girls on the Run is a character-development program for girls third through eighth grade,” said Ani Boyd, one of the organization’s council directors for the northeast Tennessee region. “(The event) uses running to teach the principles of healthy living and self-confidence.”
After a quick warmup, the participants lined up behind the starting gate and waited for the cue to start the race. U.S. Rep. Phil Roe took the microphone and, on his mark, the runners charged forward in a long, unending line — steadfast in their mission to run the full three miles of the course.
Girls on the Run has organized local races in the region since 2007, and since then, participation in the event has increased precipitously, growing from just one local school to 10 counties across Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
Roe said the event encourages young people to be physically active during an age when video games and television have commanded control of people’s free time.
“Obesity is a huge problem in this country,” Roe said. “About 70 percent of the adult population in the U.S. are overweight or obese.”
Roe said Johnson City has consistently been considered a running-enthused region of the country, a spirit that is reinforced through events like Girls on the Run.
“I think this is terrific that they’re doing this,” Roe said. “(Running) is a very natural thing to do. ... People sit in front of video games and TV, and I think this (event) is absolutely fantastic.”
Aside from staying physically active, girls in the program are also enrolled in a 12-week curriculum that teaches them how to assert themselves and navigate common problems they’ll experience in everyday life.
“I think what we really strive to do is not only to get girls healthy physically but also socially, psychologically, emotionally,” Boyd said, “so they can go into middle school so they know who they are and can handle some of those peer pressure situations that often arise.”
Third-grader Rhiley Morelock participated in the race with her father, Seth, and learned several important things during the organization’s afterschool program.
“They taught you how to believe in yourself and to speak up for others,” Rhiley said.
In addition to offering individual encouragement to the girls enrolled in the program, organizers are also attempting to help schools obtain necessary resources. Organizers offered two checks worth $1,000 to schools that brought the highest percentage of participants to the race Saturday in proportion to their school population.
North Side Elementary School in Johnson City and Tusculum View Elementary School in Greeneville won the awards this year.
Boyd said one of the fundamental principals of the program is to ensure that girls have a strong sense of self and can make decisions based on the values that they believe in.
“We want to make sure girls are going into the world knowing who they are and confident to be who they are because they’re perfect the way they are,” Boyd said.