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Grayslake 5K celebrates, empowers girl

Family members and friends cheer on the students from the Stuart R. Paddock School in Palatine as they run in the Squeez’d Girls on the Run North 5K on June 2 at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.
Family members and friends cheer on the students from the Stuart R. Paddock School in Palatine as they run in the Squeez’d Girls on the Run North 5K on June 2 at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.

GRAYSLAKE – It’s not yet eight o’clock in the morning on June 2, but the College of Lake County Grayslake campus is buzzing with activity and bursting with tutus, fairy wings and tiaras. 

It is the morning of the Squeez’d Girls on the Run (GOTR) 5K marathon, and the participants have turned out in style. 

Two young girls sprint across the quad, away from the white canopies housing the tiara-decorating, face-painting and hair-coloring stations, chatting excitedly with one another. One wears a blue tiara, the other a pink one. Each tiara is decorated to the girls’ liking, but both bear a bright green sticker of the GOTR logo, and it is clear these girls are ready to run. 

Cathy Kruse, director of communications for GOTR, stands amid all the excitement and smiles. 

Seeing all the families come out to support their girls or participate in the run with them is so inspiring, she says. 

“This is a day 10 weeks in the making,” she says. “These girls have been meeting twice a week for 10 weeks, and this is kind of the culminating event of all that work.”

Founded in 1996 by Molly Barker in Charlotte, N.C., GOTR is a national nonprofit organization with more than 200 chapters nationwide. The Chicago chapter began nearly 20 years ago and works with schools in eight counties throughout the state, including Lake County. The organization is “dedicated to creating a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams.” 

Focusing specifically on girls in third to fifth grades, GOTR holds 10-week after-school workshops where girls learn to empower themselves, celebrate each other’s differences and give back to the community in addition to building their physical endurance as they work toward the 5K event. 

Kruse adds, “We focus on every girl [running] at her own pace, so it’s never about the winning or being the fastest or being the best. It’s really about making progress week after week and challenging yourself and setting a goal and working toward that goal.”

Today, GOTR holds more than 350 end-of-season marathons across the nation and is considered the largest 5K series in the country. 

At the Squeez’d marathon in Grayslake, roughly 3,400 participants have gathered from 60 schools. 

Among them are the purple tutu-clad coaches from Prairie Elementary in Buffalo Grove. This is their seventh year participating in the GOTR program. 

“GOTR is more than a running program, but it’s also great to combine the athletic and the cardiovascular components with the meaningful way GOTR helps women and girls be strong,” physical education teacher Robin Lehtman said. “It’s just amazing to have the 10-week program and then it all comes together with the 5K. It brings you to tears every year.”

“I love seeing our repeats truly grow leaps and bounds as an individual and as a girl and learning to empower herself and be her true self and embracing that,” literacy coach Jessica Draffkorn added. “We’ve seen that with a few of the girls who have done it all three years. I mean, you see it after one year, but we have a few success stories of girls who are just incredible.”

The tiara-decorating station is still packed with girls putting finishing touches on their crowns as the clock ticks closer to the eight o’clock start time. 

Vernon Hills resident Sonja Kaufman watches her two daughters, Isabella and Olivia, work on theirs. Her oldest daughter, Abigail, is participating in GOTR for the first time this year, and the whole family is running together to support her.

“Hopefully it’s something we can continue to do in the future,” she said. 

Kaufman says the 10-week program has had a noticeable impact on Abigail, adding, “She has had to learn the commitment of being part of a team and seeing something through to the end and so it’s been a really wonderful experience.”

Finally, it’s just 10 minutes before lineup and groups gather together to finish their warm-ups. The parking lot in front of CLC’s Physical Education Center erupts in a flurry of activity. Runners form circles to complete some quick, pre-run stretches. One girl stands before her father, who has knelt down to let her carefully apply hair chalk to his head until the front part of his hair is a bright pink. 

Later, Kruse says, she’ll browse through all the photos posted to social media under the hashtag #gotrc5k – one of her favorite parts of the event. 

“It’s really great to see the perspectives from other people,” she said. “It’s wonderful seeing those moments unfold.”

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