You can watch or take part in a 5K almost any Saturday morning in Columbia. Many exist to support good causes, but the one which happens twice each year in Cayce may be the only one in which few runners know or care about their finishing time. It is certainly the only one in which all runners wear the same number on their bibs.
Girls on the Run is a 10-week program for girls in grades 3-8, offered in Kershaw, Lexington, Sumter and Richland Counties. Volunteer coaches, many of them teachers, lead the girls in training for the 5K, but more importantly in lessons about character, confidence, empowerment and kindness.
“It’s such a positive and amazing program for young girls,” said Lexie Player. Player, a teacher at Sandlapper Elementary, participated in the program when she was in middle school and now coaches. She ran alongside her team Saturday. “In the society we live in today, girls absolutely need to be empowered and to learn how to be good people as well as how to handle the pressures that come with growing up.”
Every participant in a Girls on the Run 5K has a running buddy. The buddies are parents, siblings, classmates, coaches and friends, and help make sure that every single participant knows she can go at her own pace, and that a helping hand or hug will be there any time she needs it. Saturday, one runner sprinted across the finish line, claimed the medal given to every participant, and as she struggled for breath, said “I’ve never run that fast in my whole life.”
The young lady might have been the subject of an interview request from this reporter, but before I could speak, she had turned away, not to celebrate for herself but to return to the finish line and cheer on a teammate, greeting her with a hug as she finished. The two then moved to the side of the course at Cayce’s Historic Columbia Speedway to cheer for others. Some they knew. More would have been strangers, but at a Girls on the Run event there are no strangers. Everyone, for this morning, is on the same team.
Mary Lohman, council director for Girls on the Run Columbia, was up at 3:30 a.m. Saturday to get ready for the race. She and her fellow staff members, supplemented by countless volunteers, work year round to keep the program going, and this is a particularly busy time, as the fall season concludes with the 5K, but Lohman and her team must pivot immediately to prepare for a spring season which begins with training new coaches in January. You will never hear them complain.
“Days like this make it all worth it,” Lohman said Saturday, as she looked around the scene at a rare thing: a sporting event which has no losers. Some ran faster than others. Some walked. A few were carried. A clock was posted near the finish line for those who wanted to know their times, but few even noticed it. The first to finish received the same medal as the last. And that number on their bibs? It was the only one that fit the occasion: 1.
Those interested in joining Girls on the Run as a participant or volunteer can find more information at the nonprofit’s website. More photos and video from Saturday’s race are available at the Midlands Anchor Facebook page.