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CHARLESTON -- It’s not all about running for Charleston fourth-grader Hannah Larson.

Hannah, her sister Greta Larson, 7, and their mother Yvonne Larson ran in Saturday’s Girls on the Run 5K -- the fever pitch of a weeks-long program that teaches girls life lessons through a curriculum based on running. However, running isn’t why 9-year-old Hannah, who is in her third season, says she loves the program; for her it’s about giving back and friendship.

“Every year we do a donation, and this year we’re donating toys to Kids with Cancer and also friends,” Hannah said about her favorite aspects of the program.

Her sister Greta finished her first 5K along the Panther Trail at Eastern Illinois University alongside Hannah and their mother after having to wait along the sidelines for several seasons until she was old enough to participate. The sisters train on the same team, and Greta says it’s “awesome” to be able to run with Hannah.

Greta said making new friends is her favorite part of the program, but Larson said Greta loves any excuse to let loose with some loud chants along with her teammates.

However, as a parent, Larson says she appreciates the program because of the change she’s seen in her daughters since they’ve been involved with Girls on the Run.

“When we go on our hikes Greta runs up the hills; they have so much more energy,” Larson said. “They bring up the lessons -- they’re like ‘I know what I need to do, I need to plug in the positive.’ They are taking it and applying it in their lives.”

The Girls on the Run 5K is not so much of a race as it is a run. Saturday’s runners were decked out in brightly colored outfits and uniforms including capes, tutus, headbands, and funny makeup. Every runner received a medal, a smile and a high five as they crossed the finish line. The team from Shelbyville received the spirit award for their costumes.

The girls’ coach is Rebecca Ayers, an EIU junior of Naperville, who was awarded the coach of the year award following the run.

Her team is made up of Charleston Jefferson Grade School third through sixth graders, and she says that after volunteering as a running buddy several years ago, she wanted to become more involved. She made contact with the program’s director and she’s served as a coach for three years.

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“There’s so much that makes me come back honestly,” she said. “Seeing the girls and watching their transformation, they become like your family basically. It’s encouraging.”

Ayers said she’s had a team member who barely spoke when the season kicked off and within days she was singing by herself in front of the other girls. The six-week, dual purpose curriculum teaches the girls about running while participating in activities that promote key principles such as anti-bullying and positive self image, Ayers said.

Ayers’ runner Emma Amaya, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, is in her fifth season with the program, and she said Saturday’s run through the Panther Trail at EIU was “amazing.”

She says “pretty much everyone” on her team has become her good friend, and the day was a success because she “accomplished my goal of finishing the 5K.”

An 11-year-old fifth-grader, Jessi Vanatta, also on Ayers’ team, sported the words “eat my dust” across her cheeks. She said her goal was to complete the first 1 1/2 miles without stopping, and that’s just what she did.

Stride, the boys’ counterpart to the Girls on the Run program, also participated in Saturday’s run.

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Contact Zyskowski at kzyskowski@jg-tc.com or 217-238-6869.

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