“Neighbors and friends” bring Girls on the Run to Allegany County

* Girls on the Run of Mid-Maryland website
* Turkey Day 5K story and photo album – more than 800 images!
* Allegany Playground Facebook page

By Kevin Spradlin

FROSTBURG — Zoe Litton had one clear memory of the Turkey Day 5K.

“I felt like I was gonna puke,” said the fourth-grader, age 9 going on 10, during a recent sit-down interview around a conference table at Beall Elementary School in Frostburg.

An Allegany Playground photo
Naomi Brandon runs with her dad and running buddy, Bradley Brandon, at the start of the Turkey Day 5K.

The session included one of her best friends, Madi Harman, an 8-year-old third-grader, and their moms, Tiffany Litton and Holly Harman. The four ladies discussed participating in the 24th annual Turkey Day 5K on Thanksgiving Day morning at Mountain Ridge High School. They had had plenty of time to catch their collective breath after the 5K, the first for both Zoe and Madi.

Madi remembered having a different feeling after she crossed the finish line in the school bus parking lot at Mountain Ridge High School.

“I felt sore,” Madi said, “and a little bit proud of myself.”

“Just a little bit?” her mother Holly probed. “You should have felt a lot proud of yourself.”

“Well,” Madi recalled, “I walked most of it though.”

An Allegany Playground photo
Audrey Hawkins, 9, won the 1-9 age group division for girls with a time of 26:58.

Madi said that she might start out a little slower next time.

On Thanksgiving, though, “I just felt like it would be better to just start out fast,” she said. “It’s exciting (to) do something new. I thought that you would never … get tired.”

Zoe, too, felt she would have plenty of stamina for the event, something they trained with with teammates for over a 10-week season of twice-a-week practices.

At first, things were fine for Zoe. Then came the hill up into the cemetery at about the midway point.

“I had plenty of energy left” heading into the cemetery, Zoe said. “Then I felt, ‘oh, this is bad.’ That drains the energy out of you when you’re trying to run up a hill.”

Madi didn’t like the hill, either.

“Even when you see the hill, it makes you run out of energy,” Madi said.

An Allegany Playground photo
Hillary Ruddell finished in 33:43.

Despite being based in Frostburg at Beall, the girls trained on a flat surface for two and a half months. It was 32 laps for a 5K. They know this because the team completed a warm-up 5K leading up to race day. But there were no hills.

“I was so nervous,” Zoe said. “It was my first 5K. My first race. I just started when everybody started running. I wasn’t prepared for such a steep hill (in the cemetery). I didn’t really know the course. But then on the cemetery (hill), I was like. ‘oh.'”

Eventually, all the runners and walkers worked their way through the cemetery and back towards Mountain Ridge, around the track, between the ballfields and to the school bus parking lot. The finish line was, finally, in sight.

“I sprinted as fast as I could,” Zoe said. “My dad said he was going to try to run ahead and try to get a picture of me.”

But Zoe’s final effort was a bit too fast for her father.

An Allegany Playground photo
Zoey Melder, 8, finished the Turkey Day 5K in 33:58.

“He ran up, and I was about three feet behind him.”

Too close for dad to whip out the camera and get a photo. But there was a photo of her just before entering the finish chute.

“My ace is red!,” she exclaimed.

Madi’s effort placed her towards the bottom of a list of more than 300 participants in the Turkey Day 5K — but well ahead of every single person who stayed home that morning. In addition, Madi, Zoe and 13 others also offered proof of concept, as the race marked the end of the inaugural training season of the new chapter of Girls on the Run, a national running program for girls with a focus on empowerment, decision-making and physical education.

The effort wasn’t supposed to be easy, Litton said. As she and Harman coached the girls over the 10-week season, she knew race day would be a different experience for them.

“I wanted them to know that they could do hard things,” Litton said. “That was one of the things we said over and over. I think that that helps build their confidence.”

Starting a chapter

Tiffany Litton and her family previously lived in Tallahassee, Fla. Girls on the Run is for girls in grades 3 through 5, and while in Florida, Zoe was not quite old enough to participate. Still, Tiffany noticed that parents would set their alarms for when registration would open.

An Allegany Playground photo
Zoe Litton, 9 going on 10, placed third in the girls’ 1-9 age group in 33:32.

“Those girls enjoyed it so much,” Litton said. “I really waned Zoe to get the chance to do it.”

Life relocated them to Frostburg first, though, and then Zoe’s third-grade year was online due to COVID-19.

At the start of fourth grade in August, though, Litton approached neighbor Holly Harman about bringing Girls on the Run to Beall Elementary.

“I said, ‘absolutely,'” said Harman, figuring it’d be a perfect fit between working as a personal trainer and having daughter Madi, already Zoe’s friend, interested in the program as well.

The two moms worked with Principal Misty Dotson and Andrew Ferguson, guidance counselor, as well as with Girls on the Run of Mid-Maryland. The program normally allows 25 girls per season and requires a $150 registration fee per student-athlete. But the two women, sensitive to the area’s socioeconomic structure, worked with Girls on the Run to meet the needs of Allegany County. A decision was made to limit the first season to 15 girls. Girls on the Run found scholarships or sponsors for all 15 girls.

An Allegany Playground photo
From left to right: Andrew Ferguson as a running buddy with Brielle Barwick, 10 (36:41), running buddy Rebecca Alkire, Audrey Hawkins, and Brynlee Brode, 9 (44:04).

It wasn’t that Litton had the desire for her daughter to become a runner. No, it was much more than that.

“It’s not just a running program and not just a character education program,” Litton said. “It’s both. We combine lessons on empathy, friendship, building self-confidence, how to avoid negative self-talk, being a good member of our community … at the same time, we’re all training for a 5K.”

With a successful conclusion to the first season, Harman and Litton are eyeing the Spring season for the next step. They’d like to expand the program to 25 girls, and hope that they can keep the cost down for each student-athlete by finding program sponsors. The goal is to have a fundraising 5K race of their own, much like their counterparts in Frederick and Washington counties.

An Allegany Playground photo
From left to right: Riley Izat, 9 (42:26), Madi Harman, coach Holly Harman, and Alyssa Werner.

“We were lucky to bring it here for free,” Litton said. “We’re hoping to come up with more grant money or community sponsors to help keep the cost at or near zero. Maybe $10 or $15 (per person), but not making it something that they can’t afford. Girls on the Run  never turns a girl away for lack of money.”


Photo courtesy Allegany County Public Schools


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