On Saturday, more than 1,500 elementary-aged girls took to the streets of St. Petersburg for the Girls on the Run 5K, a biannual race that gives girls the opportunity to put 10 weeks of training to the test. Girls on the Run is a national nonprofit that goes into elementary schools and recreation centers to teach girls life skills while they train for a 3.1-mile race. It has operated in the Tampa Bay area for 10 years and is currently in 45 schools and rec centers throughout Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota and Pasco counties.
Meet some of the the mentors, runners and volunteers who celebrated female empowerment on Saturday.
The winner’s circle
Girls on the Run is more about having fun and goal setting than it is about racing, executive director Laura Moore said, so the event isn't chip timed, and there's no big clock at the finish line. But about 20 minutes after the race kicked off, the unofficial winner finished the course.
Shannon Parham, 45, started coming to the Girls on the Run 5Ks a few years ago when her friend became one of the sponsors. Her only daughter is too young to participate, but Parham, who is training for the Skyway 10K in March, said she looks forward to running in the race that celebrates females.
"I think it's good for the girls. It boosts their self esteem," said Parham, who lives in St. Petersburg. "It's cute. I like that the dads get involved, too."
Less than five minutes behind Parham was Lutheran Church of the Cross fifth grader Taylor Mularoni, the first elementary-aged girl to finish the race.
Her school was not one of the 45 schools or recreation centers represented Saturday, but she signed up on her own, breaking her previous personal record of 28 minutes, 45 seconds.
"I run cross country at my school on Mondays and Wednesdays, and I run after school, too," said Mularoni, 10. "The course had a couple turns, but it was basically flat. It was (easy)."
Not just for girls
Twenty minutes before the 5K kicked off, a sea of girls and women gathered around the stage at Poynter Park for the dance party warmup, led by a pair of Jazzercise instructors.
In the middle of it all, donning a paper crown and showing off his dance moves, was Woodlawn Elementary School coach Bennett Smith.
One of the few male coaches involved in Girls on the Run Greater Tampa Bay, Smith, 38, got involved last year after he and his wife watched the 5K and decided they wanted to be a part of the organization.
"It's definitely different, because I'm teaching the lessons that really empower girls to be strong women," said Smith, a physical education teacher at the St. Petersburg school. "I have to sometimes lean on some of the other (women) coaches."
Smith, though, was far from the only man participating.
Dads and brothers were spread throughout the course, some dressed in matching Girls on the Run gear, others holding their daughters' hands as they crossed the finish line.
One of the early finishers in the untimed event was Woodlawn fourth-grader Sophia Owa, 9, who ran the race flanked by her dad and Smith.
For weeks leading up to Saturday's race, Emmanuel Owa, 34, trained with his daughter, even outside of school practices. For him, those workouts were about more than just physical preparation.
"She looks up to me, so you want to be a role model, and you also want to push her to strive for better," Emmanuel Owa said. "It's good to see a lot of dads out here being good role models for their kids."
Superheroes in sequins
As the 9 o'clock hour approached, Suzanne Cox and Carolyn Meadows made their way to the front of the crowd at the starting line, pink, sequined capes floating behind them.
The Tampa friends were two of the race's 25 volunteers known as Sparkle Runners, individuals assigned to be a moving cheer squad throughout the course.
They started at the front of the pack, but they didn't intend on finishing there.
"We mingle throughout so that no one finishes last. We just do high fives and cheering. We're supposed to be the loudest people out here," said Cox, 42. "We're not parents, we're totally random, childless women."
Cox and Meadows, both avid runners, said they got involved when a friend posted about the need for volunteers on Facebook, and they thought it would be a fun way to participate in their favorite hobby.
Elizabeth Lavigne, who is training for the Walt Disney World Marathon next month, also became a Sparkle Runner when she saw the St. Pete Running Company post about the volunteer position on Facebook.
Lavigne, 27, couldn't grab her sparkly cape fast enough.
"I saw they needed runners, and I love running. I want to encourage other girls to love running," she said. "I wish there would have been something like this when I was younger."
From the courtroom to the course
As Assistant U.S. Attorney, Kathy Peluso spent 26 years prosecuting federal cases in Tampa, and before that, she spent seven years in the U.S. Army JAG Corps. Recently, she retired and began looking for a new way to fill her time after a career spent in the courtroom.
This year, Peluso became one of more than 220 volunteer coaches with Girls on the Run Greater Tampa Bay after she discovered that Hammond Elementary School in Odessa was in need of an extra hand.
"I thought, 'What fun.' I was looking for something to volunteer for that was meaningful to me," Peluso said. "To be able to help little girls and also be involved in running, it was the best possible volunteer job."
Peluso ran the Chicago Marathon in October, setting a personal record of 4 hours, 38 minutes in the process, and she has signed up to run her fifth marathon this April.
During the past 10 weeks, Peluso has helped impart that running knowledge to the girls at Hammond.
As a mother with two grown sons, Peluso is learning just as much.
"It's a whole different experience, especially with this age group," she said. "They're darling, and we have so much fun."
Girls on the Run Greater Tampa Bay celebrated its 10th year in 2018, and 45 schools and recreation centers were represented Saturday.
But longtime Girls on the Run coach Stacie Seal can remember a time not so long ago when the nonprofit's impact was a lot smaller.
Seal, a fifth grade teacher at Apollo Beach Elementary, just finished her 22nd season coaching Girls on the Run; she first got involved in North Carolina more than 10 years ago. In 2009 she left the program in her home state when she got married and relocated to Florida with her husband.
"When we moved to Florida, I took a year getting used to being here, but I really found that there was a part of me missing," Seal said. "So I jumped on board with Girls on the Run here."
At that time, there were only eight or 10 schools involved with Girls on the Run Greater Tampa Bay, Seal said. On Saturday, though, more than 1,500 girls turned out.
Apollo Beach fourth grader Gianna Mennuti is glad she does.
"She pushes us. She wants us to make our goals," Mennuti said. "She just teaches us good lessons."
A returning racer
At Connerton Elementary School in Land O'Lakes, Girls on the Run is so popular, coach Jean Howey said, that a lottery is put into place to fairly select the number of girls that can participate each season.
Before this season began, fifth grader Camila Vanegas was called to the office to receive her welcome letter, letting her know she'd been selected for her fifth straight Girls on the Run team.
But when Vanegas found out that other girls weren't picked, she had a change of heart.
"She handed the letter back and said, 'You can give my spot to one of those girls. I've already done this a lot of times, and I would like another girl to get to experience it,'" said Howey, a PE teacher at Connerton. "It was a pretty proud moment as her coach. It just really reinforces my belief in this program."
Eventually, extra volunteers stepped up, and the program was able to accept all the girls who applied. Saturday morning, Vanegas, 10, was one of 35 girls from the school who wore matching navy and yellow tutus. She spent the minutes before the race playing and posing for pictures with her friends.
"I like that you can be yourself and you can be whatever you want to be because nobody will judge you," Vanegas said about Girls on the Run. "(The 5K) is not hard, because I know there are people who will support me."