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Friday, Jun. 14, 2013

For father-daughter duo, running is the tie that binds

Special to The Star

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Tom Mitchell won’t unwrap a tie from daughter Payton on Father’s Day this Sunday. Or a grilling accessory, a bottle of cologne or an iTunes gift card.

Rather than receiving material things from his Oak Hill Elementary School fifth-grader, Mitchell will get something he considers priceless: the gift of running.

“It’s something special Payton and I do to bond,” Tom said.

The father-daughter duo started lacing up their running shoes together a couple of years ago — Payton’s is a pair of bright purple and pink Nikes — when they decided it was time to find a way to connect one-on-one outside other family activities.

Tom coaches Payton’s brother, Oak Hill second-grader Thomas, in football, basketball and baseball.

“My wife Chanie and I wanted to figure out something for just me and Payton,” said Tom, a former Kansas State University track team member and regular morning jogger. “So when I asked Payton if she had any ideas there was no hesitation. ‘Let’s run,’ was her answer.”

Now Tom and Payton are a familiar sight in their Johnson County neighborhood, pounding the pavement as they train for a race or run just for fun.

They’ve participated in the Trolley Run in Kansas City twice and the July 4th Lenexa Freedom Run and plan to enter that race again this year.

Payton is a member of the Blue Valley Recreation team for Girls on the Run, a 501(c)(3) non-profit based in North Carolina with a strong chapter in Prairie Village.

“Girls on the Run is a cool after-school program that teaches young girls self-esteem among other core values,” Tom said. “We’ve run a couple of their 5k races together, and it’s been terrific for us both. Payton is on a team of girls that have become her friends.”

Tom and Payton, who were recently hanging out in the family’s sun-drenched kitchen with Chanie and Thomas, were winding down from the morning’s Girls on the Run Spring 5k at Sporting KC.

“There was a moment during the race when Payton realized she was getting faster in her time,” said Tom. “That was an integral part for her to understand goals and have a sense of accomplishment. It’s an invaluable 30-minute lesson.”

Tom said Payton’s experience in Girls on the Run in addition to running with him is about empowerment.

“There are lessons that can’t be taught in the classroom,” Tom said.

Payton’s blond hair is pulled back with a braided pink, purple and yellow headband she made for the recent race — a solemn ritual she and her fellow Girls on the Run pals call ‘happied hair.’ The gangly 11-year-old wears a cotton candy-pink t-shirt emblazoned with the Girls on the Run logo.

“I love running,” said Payton. “Especially with my dad.”

Chanie said Payton’s grandpa gave her the nickname of “Spider” when she was younger.

“She’s all limbs and runs like a gazelle,” said Chanie. “But at the end of the day, Payton is a girlie-girl. She loves her American Girl dolls and everything pink.”

Tom is certain the miles he and Payton log together represent something far more important than preparing for a race or exercise.

“It’s precious character building for her and relationship strengthening for us,” said Tom, catching a glance of Payton out of the corner of his eye as she pulls the headband from her hair.

Is that a great Father’s Day gift?

“You bet,” Tom said quietly, smiling at Payton. “It’s what every dad hopes for his daughter, that she will grow into a strong, self-assured woman.”

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