When coach Jeane Kadmiri says "Girls on the run!" an emphatic cheer rises from the group of girls gathered in Newport City Elementary's gym. They whoop and clap their hands. It's 3 p.m., the end of another school day, but their energy is palpable. After stretching and working through interval stations, they're ready to run.
"Let's remind ourselves what we should pay attention to when we run," says Kadmiri, holding up five fingers. The girls talk through pacing, foot movement, breathing and posture — "not slouching, not too firm; you should feel comfortable," one girl offers.
"And what's the most important thing?" Kadmiri asks.
The girls don't hesitate.
"Encouragement!" they shout.
They give examples, too. "You can do it!" says one. "It's always in your heart!" says another.
Music starts, and the girls begin running laps. Usually they're outdoors, working on their personal and group distance goals — Kadmiri says they aim to run 1,000 miles together this season — but today's relentless rain and cold keep them inside. They're still in high spirits, though, chatting and laughing as they circle the gym.
The noncompetitive atmosphere is intentional. Girls on the Run, a national youth development program for girls ages 8 to 13, emphasizes the importance of finishing workouts and races over speed. In setting their individual short- and long-term running goals, the young athletes are encouraged to listen to their bodies and avoid injury. "For our girls," says Kadmiri, "the goal is to complete the race. Some will walk, some will walk/run, some will jog and some are working toward personal best times to increase endurance and speed."
It's an approach that's winning converts. Kadmiri, who helped start Newport's branch of the nationwide Girls on the Run program, has watched her group's membership nearly quadruple in just four years, growing from 12 initial members to 43 this season in grades 3 through 6. More than 3,000 girls participate throughout Vermont; nationwide, the number climbs to 130,000.
"The word just spread," says Kadmiri. "And I see girls now in sixth grade who have gone through three years of Girls on the Run acting as mentors to the younger ones." Kadmiri applauds the program's physical benefits and its promotion of an activity that's both inexpensive and easy to do anywhere.
The Newport team practices twice a week. They run two races: the one-mile Northeast Kingdom Dandelion Run and a family-friendly 5K for Girls on the Run groups throughout the state. Kadmiri loves the "beautiful ribbon" made by girls running together in their matching T-shirts, each assigned race number "1."
Girls on the Run isn't just about running. The program blends physical fitness with personal identity and emotional wellness. The 24-lesson curriculum encourages girls to develop healthy self-perspectives and relationships.
"It's all about how each girl is special, unique, full of positive energy," says Kadmiri. "We talk about peer pressure and body image, how they see themselves." Built-in mentorship from adult coaches — more than half a dozen work with the Newport group — helps reinforce positive development.
At Girls on the Run, "winning" doesn't necessarily mean crossing the finish line first. "Being a strong young woman is winning," says Kadmiri. "Encouraging teammates is winning."
After the workout, I ask a few of the fourth-grade girls why they like running.
"It makes me feel like I can do anything," says Danielle Mandigo. Kaitlyn Grenier agrees: "Running makes me feel like I'm special, like I finally conquered something I couldn't do before." Both girls say they're "running buddies"; they're proud that they can now complete an entire workout, varying from 1 to 3 miles, without stopping.
Aleena Graveline recalls her achievements at last year's Girls on the Run 5K in Essex Junction. "I was really tired, but I did it anyway, and that made me feel good," she says.
Kaitlyn asks if I'm going to print their words in a newspaper. When I tell her I am, she says she has something else she wants to tell everyone about running.
"Don't ever think you can't make it," she says, "because if you put your mind to it, you always can do it."
"It doesn't matter if people don't stand by you," Danielle adds. "You can do anything." K