Having graced precious few starting lines in her young life, Kaitlin Csoka was a tad nervous Saturday morning waiting for the start of her first official 5k run.

But there was no mistaking the look of determination on the 9-year-old’s face as she joined other King George County elementary school students for this culmination of a female empowerment and strength-building program called Run Like A Girl.

The participants who turned out for the final session of the student-run program were thrilled that their race started on the field at the King George High School stadium, a place many had been to see brothers or sisters compete.

On this Saturday morning, however, it was their turn. The 35 girls who’d come to run the race, among more than 50 who showed up Saturday mornings this summer for confidence-building exercises and run training, were itching to go.

And after some encouraging words from race starter and King George High School cross country and track coach Dave Koepfinger, that’s just what they did, running with members of the high school’s boys and girls cross country teams.

On a course laid out by Koepfinger, the young participants—some accompanied by one or both parents—headed toward the middle school, looped back to and around the stadium, and then did most of that lap over again, covering 3.1 miles.

Kaitlin, accompanied the whole way by her father, Jim, was all smiles crossing the finish line, minus the bright blue ball cap she had on at the start. Dead weight, it was tossed early on.

The fourth-grader didn’t waste much time taking a seat on the bench after crossing the finish line. On this hot and muggy summer morning, she smiled and exhorted after her father dumped a cup of ice-cold water on her neck.

“I had fun, but I can’t really feel my legs right now,” she said. “But I pretty much ran the whole way, only stopping once for a drink and one time for just a minute because of a pain in my stomach.”

Jim Csoka and wife, Tray, were very happy with the program. They are glad it involved healthy exercise, and liked the confidence-building and female-empowerment activities. For some of those, female business leaders came in to talk to the girls.

“And it’s gotten us all exercising more,” said Jim Csoka, who noted that he wanted to run with Kaitlin so he could urge her to keep going as far as she could. “I’m very proud she made it the whole way. I think she is, too.”

Making the program distinct is that it was entirely conceived, organized and run by high school students Fallon Ross and Jenna Andrews, as a DECA project.

Andrews noted that she had relatives who’d taken part in a similar program in Pennsylvania, and thought it would be great to offer it in King George.

Though there are national, established programs that get young girls together and running, Andrews and Ross decided they wanted to create their own, to cut costs and because it would allow them to offer more programming to build self-confidence.

DECA adviser Dee Strauss, who ran with the group Saturday morning, noted that the two high school program organizers held meetings seeking participants at elementary schools in the spring.

Ross noted that because the young participants were of differing ages and experience, they set their own goals as to how far they’d like to go by the end of the program. They started out running shorter distances, which gradually got longer.

“Some wanted to go half of the 5k by the end of the program, some the whole thing,” said Ross, who like Andrews ran with the pack Saturday. “For some, it was their first time to get out with a group and maybe even run at all.”

Run Like A Girl participant Karmen Siebert, 7, said she’d run a good bit before taking part in the program, but felt like she got quicker and enjoyed running with other girls this summer.

Her mother, Robyn Siebert, said she liked the chance it gave her daughter to stay active “and for the opportunity it provided for her to be involved and finish something.”

Stefania Williams, whose 7-year-old daughter, Sami, enjoyed the program, said she liked the confidence-building activities and that it was just for girls.

Ross and Andrews, seniors this year, hope other students come forward to continue it after they’re gone.

Koepfinger hopes so as well, noting that it is filling a void that used to be covered by running clubs in the earlier grades that are no longer active.

“Whether it provides runners for high school teams or just teaches these girls the value of exercise and a healthy lifestyle, it’s a win all around,” he said. “I also think it’s amazing that these two high school students gave up every Saturday of their summer vacation to offer this. I really salute them.”

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

rhedelt@freelancestar.com

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