How Girls on the Run changed my life

Here’s me hugging my daughter, Anna, after we crossed the finish line at the Girls on the Run final 5K last fall. The program curriculum is meant for girls in grades 3 through 5, but it transformed my own life, too.

The summer before my daughter entered 3rd grade, I was excited that she was finally old enough to join the Girls on the Run program. I’d first heard about it from word of mouth, but really got excited about the program after profiling Kim Quimby, the director of the Hudson Valley chapter, for an issue of Hudson Valley Parent magazine.

While I was speaking on the phone with Quimby, I mentioned that I planned to register my daughter for the program they already had running in New Paltz.

“You know,” I told her, “I live in Rosendale and I bet I could find enough other interested girls in my area that you could start a Rondout Valley team this fall.”

“That’s a great idea,” she said. “You should definitely start one!”

That wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but given the fact that Girls on the Run is almost entirely volunteer-run, I wasn’t surprised.

So, last August, I started scrambling to put together a team of my own. And sure enough, once other parents learned more about this program for girls in grades 3 through 5, I rallied together 3 other coaches, two junior coaches and 18 girls who registered for our first fall season.

Our Girls on the Run team during a practice last spring.
Our Girls on the Run team during a practice last spring.

Girls on the Run began in 1996, when Molly Barker, MSW, and four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete, brought together 13 girls in Charlotte, NC, for an innovative new program. Using her counseling background and her own experience in what she called “the girl box,” Barker developed a program that combined training for a non-competitive 5K event with life-changing, confidence building lessons that enhance the physical and mental health of 8–12 year old girls.

The program caught the attention of Runners World magazine in 1996, and now has grown to more than 225 program sites throughout North America.

My fellow coach Carrie and her daughter, Maitreya, cross the finish line at the final 5K.
My fellow coach Carrie and her daughter, Maitreya, cross the finish line at the final 5K.

Themes of the 10-week program include positive self-talk, cultivating an attitude of gratitude, finding true friendships, healthy habits, gossip, peer pressure and other topics geared directly to that age group. Interwoven throughout, the girls train for a 5K, which is used to inspire and motivate the girls, encourage lifelong health and fitness, and build confidence through accomplishing a goal.

As we coached the program for the first time, I was amazed at how receptive the girls were to the research-based curriculum. They eagerly participated in the discussions and in the physically-demanding training sessions. I often thought about how I wished I had something like this when I was an 8-year-old.

We came together for the sake of these younger girls, but in the end we were all benefitting immensely from this program!

As the weeks progressed, I found I was applying a lot of the GOTR principles to my own life. As we discussed the power of visualization and using our inner star power when times got tough, I found the program was making a real difference in my own life, not just as a coach of girls but as a grown woman in need of positive self-talk and empowerment. I realized, too, that the junior coaches (high school students who volunteer their after-school time and are absolutely adored by the younger girls) were applying the same principles to their own lives. We came together for the sake of these younger girls, but in the end we were all benefitting immensely from this program!

As the day of the final 5K approached, we became a strong, nurturing team. The girls encouraged each other and found a strength in themselves they never knew they had. Not a single one of them had ever completed a 5K race before, and now each and every one of them was about to cross that finish line. Most of them run. Many of them walk. We don’t care how long it takes them — the emphasis is on completing that goal. I can’t possibly describe the feeling of seeing their eyes light up when they first spot that finish line.

After that first season, we went on to complete the Spring 2016 session and now we’ve started the Fall 2016 session. Our Rondout Valley team has grown to 5 coaches, 3 junior coaches and 22 girls.

In an effort to provide an empowering environment for my own daughter, I realized that many grown women like myself are still struggling with the same issues we were discussing with the girls.

Coaching for this program has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me, and not just in the way I expected. While coaching for the first time, I took a long look at my own healthy habits and my own self-image. In an effort to provide an empowering environment for my own daughter, I realized that many grown women like myself are still struggling with the same issues we were discussing with the girls.

Celebrating girl power with a participant last fall
Celebrating with one of the girls at a practice session last fall.

In January of this year, I started Worth It with Katy. In addition to blogging about my own struggles with yo-yo-dieting and binge eating, I encourage others to ditch the “diet” food forever, and instead to nourish their bodies and find their happy, healthy weight. I also enrolled in the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and have become a certified health coach. I currently offer monthly group support classes, and I coach clients one-on-one to reach their own health and weight loss goals.

Thanks to Girls on the Run, I’ve now dedicated my life not only to coaching young girls like my daughter as the enter the daunting maze of adolescence, but to coaching grown women who, like me, are still in constant need of body-positive messages and desire peace with food and their bodies once and for all.

This piece was originally published in October 2016 in Healthy Hudson Valley, a special publication by Ulster Publishing.