Monday, May 3, 2010

Girls on the Run helping woman rekindle old flame

Running is a remarkably positive part of so many runners' lives. The fitness benefits are many. It can help people lose a bunch of weight, or be a great stress-reliever.

But for Jessica Otto -- who captained the cross-country and indoor and outdoor track teams at Division I Western Michigan University earlier this decade -- running became a remarkably negative part of her life.

"As a Division I athlete, the focus was on results; run faster, set records, win races and do what you need to do to have your team win," recalls Otto, now 29 and a resident of Denver. "People I trusted told me to lose weight to run faster, push harder to win a race and do more for just that one extra point. It was never enough."

So after graduating in 2002, she took a bold stance on running: She gave it up. And in the past eight years, Otto has not pounded much pavement with much passion.

Which is why, then, that it's so interesting she wound up in a job that celebrates running.

Read on to learn more about Jessica Otto, who has been program director for Girls on the Run of Charlotte since December. (The New Balance Girls on the Run 5K is set for 9 a.m. this Saturday at Independence Park. Details are at the end of the interview.)

Q. What made you fall in love with running as a girl?

I loved running because it was easy for me, I was good at it, it made me special, and ultimately, I found that I was capable of more that I thought possible. I didn’t see myself as special, but when I ran, it was almost like anything was possible. When I ran it was just me and the pavement. No one or nothing else mattered.

Q. What made you fall out of love with running as a young woman?

The pressure ... . I was never fast enough, I never placed high enough, I wasn’t thin enough. This pressure made me feel that I wasn’t ever going to be [good] enough. My scholarship was on the line all the time. If you were on the full ride, you had to finish first in the conference; if you were on the lowest scholarship level, then you could finish 10th. If you didn’t [achieve] the goal your coach set for you, then you could have your scholarship lowered -- which affected if you could afford college. Everything was very performance-based, and the bar was always raised just higher than you could reach. If you didn’t perform today ... there wasn’t a tomorrow to try again. The coaching staff at WMU changed my senior year to some remarkable people, but for me, the pressure created prior to their arrival was always there.

Q. So after college, did you stop running completely?

It was [typical] in college that after a season, you would take two weeks off. These weeks were hard, because you knew you should take them off to heal, but even two weeks -- in my head -- would affect my performance. When I graduated college and concluded my collegiate career, I took two weeks off, got a job, and then walked away from running. I still dream about running in races at least twice a week, but even in those dreams, I am the person that can’t claw their way to the front.

Q. Are you running for pleasure or fitness at all right now?

I do run occasionally now, but it isn’t the same. Now, I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy. I struggle with my abilities now compared to what I could do in college. When I was an athlete, we would do our “easy runs” at 7:30 pace, and if you didn’t keep up, you were left behind. Now, I am lucky to do a 10-minute mile, and when I do run, I can’t help but think, “You should be able to at least do a 7:30 pace.”

Q. I'm curious: If running pains you so much, emotionally, what drew you to the GOTR opportunity?

I still love running. The thrill of going out by yourself -- just you, your shoes, and the pavement. The time to find myself inside all of my thoughts. Running has always inspired me to be more than ordinary, and [to] do something with my life. I learned that from running, and I haven’t lost that. Girls on the Run has coined the term “the Girl Box.” The Girl Box is that place where a girl goes from being her vivacious self [to trying] to be what others want her to be. That was running for me when I was in college. I was trying to be the perfect runner: thin, fast, No. 1. And ultimately, I couldn’t ever be that person or fit that box. Honestly, no one can. Girls on the Run, for me, is a place where I can use my knowledge of running, talents leading a nonprofit, passion for making a difference in the lives of children, and my love for running to encourage change. GOTR has provided me an opportunity to encourage girls to discover the power of running, and the amazing power and beauty that lies within them. I didn’t have Girls on the Run. I want to do what I can to keep girls from going into the Girl Box, and going through what I have.

Q. You've characterized the GOTR races as "magical experiences." Can you articulate for me what makes them so unique and special?

The 5K is magical because many of the girls haven’t participated in a large-scale 5K event. Completing the 5k is a goal for them, and the first time they are able to show themselves and their parents what they can accomplish. Pride and tears gleam off the faces of the parents, girls, coaches, volunteers and staff. If you have had a race where you broke your personal record, ran further than you thought you could, or had a run where everything fell into place, then you know what the 5K feels like for the girls. Many of the girls struggle through the 5K, walking, running, talking, cheering -- but ultimately, they sprint across the finish line with [a] big smile and pride. For many of the girls, their 5K is the moment when they are completing a goal they never dreamed they could do. It is truly a magical and inspiring event.

Q. And there's one that really stands out for you, right?

[Yes] -- the Jingle Jog 5K in December of 2008 ... . I had a ball because I wasn’t running for me, but for the girls. I stood at the start line and jumped like a seasoned competitor when we started, but instead of taking off like a seasoned competitor, I looked next to me to see Peyton, one of the girls I coached. Starting a 5K to run with a girl is a completely different experience than to run competitively -- from my perspective, it is so much better. She took off with her dad to complete the event while I ran backwards taking photos of all of the other girls I knew. Many of those photos hang in the GOTR office. The interesting thing about that event was while I was on cloud nine afterward, I called home, and the first thing I was asked was how long it took me. That isn’t the philosophy with Girls on the Run. It isn’t how long it takes you, just that you completed it. Something I still need to learn.

Q. Do you think you'll ever learn to enjoy running again on a personal level, away from your job? Do you want to?

I hope so, I look forward to the day when I am able to go out and run with friends and enjoy it like I used to. ... I love running. I just don’t love who I am when I am running. I still struggle with negative self talk and feelings of inadequacy when it comes to running. [But] when I have the opportunity to encourage a girl to discover the power of running, I get just as much joy as they do. It is a great feeling to talk with young girls about running, and the joy that can come from it. The most powerful thing that I can do to teach girls when approaching running is to do your best, believe in yourself and remember that tomorrow is another day. If you didn’t accomplish your goal today, you can always try again tomorrow.

Saturday's New Balance Girls on the Run 5K is a noncompetitive event for "all runners, joggers, and walkers." See the website for registration fees; proceeds from this event will benefit Girls on the Run of Charlotte "so that all girls that want to participate in our program can have the opportunity." Start time is 9 a.m. in Independence Park, situated between the Elizabeth and Piedmont Park neighborhoods.


run.charlotte.webmaster said...

I think this interview must make every thoughtful person both sad and angry; and I can't imagine how scary it would be for the parents of a young athlete to read. It's hard to think of Jessica's experience in college athletics as anything but abusive. But to read her say
"when I was an athlete"
... dammit, that's just WRONG! She's being a fabulous athlete right now, 10 minute miles or whatever, and she's a gift to the sport (even if at times it doesn't appear to deserve it).

I'm not writing this as a representative of the Charlotte Running Club, but how could they not agree with me! :-)
Eimear Goggin

Anonymous said...

I hope that the emotional baggage and love/hate relationship that Jessica has with running does not get passed on to the young impressionable girls who are being exposed to the sport for the first time.

Jessica, running on scholarship in college comes as an exchange. They pay for your college education and in exchange expect you to help the college team win championships. The more of your schooling they pay for the better they expect you to place. Its a fair exchange. If that is too much pressure than you were better of turning down the scholarship and keeping your running seperate from your schooling, a perectly reasonable option. But you signed and thus they expected results.

But because this situation didn't work out for you, please don't turn the kids off to competition as an option. As long as you understand and agree to the exchange it works out great for thousands of student athelets who get their college educations paid for.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the comment above. Jessica should feel blessed to have gotten her college paid for through a sport. I received a full scholarship playing basketball and know how tough college athletics are. In the long run, it teaches you many valuable lessons. I feel truly blessed that I am not receiving bills every month from my college as well. I have many friends who will be paying off student loans for the rest of their lives.

It is a tough four years to get through no doubt, but think of the things you have learned through your college experience, good and bad.

Megan said...

As a former college runner, as well, I can fully understand where you are coming from. I, too, decided after my last meet that I would 'never run again!'. It took a long time, but, now in my mid- 30s I LOVE to run again. What a wonderful thing it is to be working with young girls encouraging them to run. I have many fond memories of running in HS and College- now. It took a long time, but- running is an incredibly important part of my life. I hope it will be for you, too! Happy Running!!!

Audra said...

It is amazing to see how running can provide confidence and at the same time destroy confidence. It is amazing to me that at age 18 you were able to take on the challenge of not only running at a highly competive level but also having the responsibility of paying for college. Most students have trouble getting out of bed on time for class and you were not only going to class but making several daily workouts and competing weekly during season. I wonder how many people could honestly say they had this kind of stress during their college experience. The fact that you have taken this experience and turned into a positive by working with Girls on the Run is amazing!!!

Anyone who questions the intentions of Girls on the Run should come to a 5K race. These girls are never made to feel that running can be anything other than fun. The joy on their faces when they cross the finish line is unforgettable! It does not matter when they finish or what place they finish, the girls are made to feel like the superstars.

Thank you to everyone who works with Girls on the Run! Providing girls with self confidence to be happy with who they are is a lesson that will change their lives!
Audra McMullan

Ashley said...

I couldn’t agree more whole-heartedly with Audra’s comments about Jessica and Girls on the Run. I have known Jessica for several years through Girls on the Run and her passion for the girls and this program is contagious! Girls on the Run is about so much more than running; the program teaches girls how to be a good friend, how to stand up for themselves, how to deal with peer pressure, how to make healthy decisions, how to set a goal and achieve it. The girls learn about self-confidence and teamwork; I still get teary eyed thinking about a 5K where as the last girl came running in to cross the finish line, the other girls in her group ran back to cheer her along and help her get complete her goal. This is a completely different 5K; it’s not about having the best time, but about being active and having fun! Come check it out and I guarantee you will have a blast!
Ashley Curtis

Anonymous said...

Jessica is a very talented runner(almost as much as her brother) who loves her job very much. Anybody who spends time with her can't help but come away with a passion for GOTR and in turn running. Her original coaches were less interested in pushing talented women to do their best than they were in keeping their jobs. Being on a collegiate team, at least in track/cross, isn't just the running it's dinners before the meets and keeping the younger girls on track etc.. She did an amazing job and even ran the team during the summer between regimes. I completely understand her distaste for the "competition" of her past. Someday she will run again, when she is ready. And anybody that thinks that she is fat is insane, she gave 110% every time that gun went off and gave 100% all the rest of the time. I'm proud to know her and anybody who feels differently doesn't know her