Photo courtesty Focal Flame
On the evening of Nov. 6, a throng of people gathered at Monona Terrace. They were there to attend an impressive anniversary shindig, but the real buzz of excitement centered on the event's guest of honor. Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run International and a legend in the running world, was there to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Girls on the Run of Dane County, alongside coaches, volunteers and parents. Since 2004, the chapter has served over 6,000 girls at 65 sites.
"I just thought I would do this with a group of little girls as a hobby," says Barker in an interview with Isthmus. She didn't foresee that the organization would grow to have chapters in 47 states and Canada, with nearly 800,000 girls participating since its founding in 1996.
The program itself is based on a fairly simple concept. For 10 weeks every fall and spring, girls in third through fifth grade meet at local elementary schools twice a week to learn from a curriculum that focuses on self-esteem, friendship, anti-bullying and more. Then at each practice they run together, building toward the Girls on the Run 5K race.
"Girls on the Run gives young girls the confidence and tools needed to navigate adolescence," says Sara Pickard, executive director of Girls on the Run of Dane County. "As they enter middle school, we equip them with skills to stand up for themselves and others, to be good teammates and friends, and to understand and express emotions in a healthy manner."
Pickard believes that the girls currently participating in the program will grow up to be stronger and more confident women. "Running helps girls focus on what their bodies can do, instead of how they look. Girls learn important goal-setting skills and the value of accomplishment through goal achievement."
The final race brings together everything learned over the previous 10 weeks. Erin Falligant, a coach since 2006 at Shorewood Elementary School, says, "I love the moment when a girl realizes that despite everything she has told herself, she is a runner and she can meet her goal. There's nothing more beautiful than a girl crossing the finish line with red cheeks and a huge smile."
Many ventures have their roots in tough times. The founding of Girls on the Run is no different.
Molly Barker started running as a teenager alongside her mother in the 1970s. She says that running made her feel strong, empowered, beautiful and messy. But then she was met with the pressure to fit in with gender stereotypes.
A term coined by Barker is "The Girl Box." "It's this imaginary place where many girls feel they have to go around middle school. They conform to a set of ideals or standards that aren't healthy for them," she explains.
"The Girl Box" is one of the first things girls learn about in the Girls on the Run curriculum.
It was in this place that Barker became an alcoholic. "At the same time I started running, I started drinking," she says. Both became "a coping mechanism for dealing with that 'Girl Box' angst."
Barker competed in a number of running events until she hit bottom in her 30s. "The alcohol had really won," she says.
But then one day, after an enlightening run, Barker made the decision to become sober and turn her life around. "I realized at that point that I could define who I wanted to be. It didn't need to be a gender. It didn't need to be anything. It could be what I wanted." Three years later, she founded Girls on the Run with the same intention -- to "give girls the tools to define themselves on their terms."
Adult women who didn't have such a thing as Girls on the Run when they were growing up benefit from the program as well. Jill Muller, a coach at Sunset Ridge Elementary School, says the program has "taught me alongside the girls to love myself again and how to act and respond to others in a respectful way."
Falligant echoes the sentiment. "I remember being 9, when I felt such pride in being able to run fast and climb trees, and I never worried about what I was wearing or what my hair looked like. Coaching is a way to stay in touch with that little girl -- the athletic, confident, unapologetic little girl that lives inside each of us."
Barker notices that girls today come to the program with "a strength and courage and fortitude that was much harder to find back when I started Girls on the Run. We're a piece of what's changing this."
Get ready for GOTR 2015!
- The spring season begins the week of March 23.
- Registration opens Feb. 16 at girlsontherundaneco.org.
- Look for information online after Jan. 1.