The Girls on the Run (GOTR) New Jersey North 5K always draws a large crowd.
The 20th version of the event, on Saturday, May 13 in Sparta, topped the charts with almost 1,000 runners in attendance.
Judy Ritter of Allendale finished first with a time of 23:12:31. Not far behind was the race’s first-place GOTR finisher, Katherine Keating, 14, of Ridgewood with a time of 23:54.23.
About 475 girls participated in the GOTR program this spring in Bergen, Hudson, Passaic and Sussex counties. That is up from 379 last year.
During the 10-week session, girls work with their coaches twice a week. While training for the 5K at the end of the program, they also do activities related to emotional, spiritual and social health.
Buses were rolling in to Sparta before 7 a.m. Saturday, from as far as Jersey City, with girls getting ready to run. The camaraderie among the crowd was palpable.
Some runners, such as Abby Coppola, 14, of the West Milford Heart and Sole chapter, were coming to run their last race as a GOTR participant. Abby ran her first race as a third-grader and has been back for every race since.
For other runners and chapters, the race was a new experience.
Jill Steffens, Corinne McLaughlin and Kerry Mulligan, teachers at Sussex County Charter School for Technology, started a new GOTR chapter at their school this year. Eleven students participated.
Steffens had been the GOTR running buddy for her daughter, Gabrielle, the year before and was “so impressed and inspired by the event and the people involved.”
She did not need much convincing when she was asked to help start a chapter at Sussex Charter. “I was in immediately and so excited about becoming a coach.”
Maureen Dykstra, executive director of the GOTR New Jersey North council, remembers welcoming a total of 58 girls from Sparta in 2012. She credits the program’s massive expansion to its underlying goals.
The staff and volunteers want the girls to have “a meaningful experience with GOTR,” and they strive for that positive experience with everyone involved. “I attribute some of our growth to word of mouth from parents and coaches,” she said.
Dykstra also believes that growing awareness of mental health has resulted in more and more people seeing the value of a GOTR experience. “I regularly get calls from caregivers who are looking for a program to help their child cope with the stress that comes with growing up.”
Steffens said she saw personal growth in addition to physical endurance in the girls who were part of GOTR at Sussex Charter. “We had some very quiet girls join our team, and it was amazing to watch them grow and open up throughout the season.
“The best part was medaling the girls at the finish line and getting to see their proud, smiling faces after they accomplished their goal,” she added.
We had some very quiet girls join our team, and it was amazing to watch them grow and open up throughout the season.” - Jill Steffens, teacher and GOTR coach, Sussex County Charter School for Technology