The course for the 56th JFK 50 Mile, an ultra-marathon held annually since the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, was muddy due to the rain and snow that had recently fallen in Washington County, Md. It wound through parts of the mountainous Appalachian Trail, so the elevation also gave Clearwater native Kayte Branch some trouble.
She was racing the clock, as participants had 13 hours to complete the course. Branch, though, had more than just minutes and seconds pushing her along.
For eight years, the University of Tampa professor has been involved with Girls on the Run, a national nonprofit that goes into local elementary and middle schools to teach girls life skills while integrating the sport of running. Through a program called SoleMates, which provides people in the community an opportunity to raise money for Girls on the Run, Branch, 42, vowed to get 50 sponsors — one for each mile she planned to run — and raise $2,000 for the program, which offers scholarships to girls who can't afford the fee.
Before traveling to Maryland for the Nov. 17 race, she had reached both of those goals. She completed one more that day when she finished the race in 12 hours, 52 minutes and 35 seconds.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," said Branch, who had run the distance many times before. "(The course) was like something I've never seen before. … It was an epic adventure."
The kind of perseverance and goal setting Branch displayed that day on behalf of Girls on the Run is just the kind of thing the program is attempting to instill in the 1,500-plus girls who participate in Girls on the Run Greater Tampa Bay, executive director Laura Moore said.
The program — which is currently in 45 elementary schools and recreation centers in Hillsborough, Sarasota, Pasco and Pinellas counties — consists of two seasons, each comprised of 10 weeks of instruction by volunteer coaches followed by a season-ending 5K. The fall season concludes Saturday at Poynter Park in St. Petersburg with the Girls on the Run 5K.
For many of the girls participating, completing a 5K seems like a daunting task at the beginning, Moore said, but Saturday's event is more about celebrating 10 weeks of growth and achievement.
"They look at us in the eye and say, 'We can't do that. I'm a girl, I'm not a runner. My mom can't do that. There's no way,' " Moore said. "But our big goal is 3.1 miles. They can walk, run, skip, dance, cartwheel, however you want to do it. The 5K is really giving the girls a framework for setting and achieving goals."
It's the kind of thing that wouldn't be possible without SoleMates like Branch.
Girls on the Run Tampa Bay can be found in private and Title I schools alike, and the organization, for which Moore is the only full-time employee, relies heavily on the contribution of more than 220 volunteer coaches, most of whom are teachers. Because of a lack of funding — 50 percent of girls who participate in the Tampa Bay area receive scholarships — there is a waiting list of schools that wish to one day incorporate the program into their curriculum.
Branch, who is the chair of the criminology department at UT, conducts research on intimate partner violence and the victimization of women. The students with whom she works on a daily basis are much older than the girls served by Girls on the Run. But in this particular program, Branch said she found a way to help promote two of her biggest passions: running and empowering women.
"They are treasures. They are what makes Girls on the Run possible. Without them putting one foot in front of the other, and giving one dollar after one dollar, there would be so many girls we couldn't serve," Moore said about SoleMates. "Every time we have a new SoleMate, we are able to pull one school off the waiting list."
Branch also is the volunteer coordinator on the 5K committee, helping ensure the biannual event goes off without a hitch. It's one of the few races she doesn't run, but she's more than willing to sit this one out.
After all, it frees her up to catch the best part of the day.
"My very favorite thing is seeing the girls' faces when they cross the finish line. … That sense of accomplishment and pride, that they did it. It's really powerful," Branch said. "There are so many things in life that are heavy. I love that this one is joyful."
Learn more about Girls on the Run and how to become a mentor at www.gotrtampa.org/.