Teaching Girls to Run... and a Whole Lot More
Grand Junction native Miranda Weihl was diagnosed with hearing loss when she was two years old. During her elementary school years, she worked hard to improve her speech with therapy. Weihl also joined a program called Girls on the Run (GOTR), which inspires empowerment and fitness for girls in third through eighth grades, an age when many girls struggle with social pressure.
“They talk about accepting yourself and accepting others for their differences,” says Weihl, adding that she could shine within this group of elementary girls.
A nationwide program, GOTR has a particularly long and robust history on the Western Slope. GOTR of Western Colorado’s Executive Director Jill Henwood started the program 19 years ago in Grand Junction. The program now has roughly 115 school sites in western Colorado, and more than 2,500 girls participated in the region last year.
On May 4, the towns of Fruita and Montrose will be filled with rainbow tights and tutus as girls and their coaches take to the starting lines in two separate 5K races, the culminating events for the programs on the Western Slope.
At the Fruita 5K, you’ll find coach Katie Himes and her team from Plateau Valley School, a small school in the mountains outside Grand Junction. Roughly 20 girls enroll in the spring season. From February to May, they train twice a week for 90 minutes after school.
In the first half of practice, Himes teaches a lesson to strengthen the girls’ hearts and minds, focusing on topics like staying positive in the face of peer pressure or navigating friends or family members with different values.
“I really like the program, because it helps teach girls at this very malleable age that they do have a choice to find a positive spin on the situation,” says Himes, who has been coaching for eight years. She sees the girls use skills they learn in practice to improve communication in their own homes with their families.
Girls’ friendships are another cornerstone. “My favorite part of Girls on the Run is getting to know my friends better,” says Himes’ daughter Kyanna, a fifth grader in her third year of GOTR. Kyanna says the girls have the opportunity to talk about themselves and others more than during the school day. “It helps with drama that you and your friends have.”
In the second half of practice, Himes helps the girls train for a 5K race at the end of the season, a feat that can seem unimaginable for some at first. Himes says consistent practice shows girls how their own drive, movement, and power can accomplish their goals — in running and in life.
Making the program affordable and accessible to as many girls as possible has always been Henwood’s goal. “The thing that makes our [GOTR] council unique and that I’m most proud of is we have a low registration fee of $55,” she says, noting that they also offer scholarships. Henwood says GOTR of Western Colorado tries to reach all girls, regardless of their economic situation. It also serves rural areas, where activities may be limited or far away for girls and their families.
The community support in western Colorado is incredible, says Henwood. This includes financial support from local businesses, dedicated volunteer coaches, race-day volunteers, and enthusiastic school districts willing to host the program. “In rural areas, things run differently; there’s a community-mindedness.”
Roughly 2,000 runners — including girls, coaches, family, and community members — participate in the Fruita 5K annually. Between 400 and 600 runners are expected for the Montrose run. Teams wear costumes such as tie-dyed shirts, crazy-colored hair, or cowboy hats that they’ve decorated in practice beforehand. “It makes you feel really excited and pumped up and ready to go,” says Kyanna.
Speaking of race day, Henwood encourages community runners and volunteers to sign up for the upcoming races in Fruita and Montrose. The program is also always looking for dedicated coaches. Those interested can find more information at gotrwesterncolorado.org.
Miranda Weihl is now 20 years old and a senior at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. She gives back to GOTR as a volunteer coach and camp counselor. “I really just liked the impact that it had on me, and I wanted to share it with other girls,” she says. When curious girls ask Weihl about her hearing loss, she talks about it openly, showing them it’s OK to be different.
“A lot of people hear Girls on the Run and they think it’s just a running camp, but it’s a lot more than that,” says Weihl, adding that she learned about healthy living and healthy ways to deal with emotions and stress. “It’s just really empowering for me.”