Girls on the Run provides confidence as well exercise

Running a 5K with a bunch of 8-, 9- and 10-year-old girls last spring, Toni Herkert had to remember that kids run differently from grownups.

"They start out fast, leaving some adults in the dust," recalls Herkert, board president of the new Dane County chapter of Girls on the Run. "Suddenly they get tired, and start walking. Then their energy comes back and, whoo! They're off again." Tired or not, each girl crossed the finish line with "a big, proud smile," says Herkert, who chaperoned the group through the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure last spring as part of Girls on the Run's pilot session in Madison.

Exuberant bursts, outsize determination, lots of pride -- sound like any girl you know? Parents who'd like to push the "save" button on their elementary school daughters' positive outlook will find fervent support through Girls on the Run Dane County. The after-school recreation program aims to preserve the healthy sense of self that bubbles over in so many younger girls, but often seems to ebb as puberty approaches. Backed by research that says exercise is a powerful antidote to the ills of adolescence, Girls on the Run starts third- through fifth-grade girls on a track to emotional and physical health by focusing on that most basic of human movements: putting one foot in front of the other.

"If you can catch girls before fifth grade and give them the proper tools, their chances of staying healthy and saying no to risky behaviors are much higher," says GOTR's national founder Molly Barker, in Madison last month to train volunteer coaches for the 12-week sessions now under way at Shorewood Hills Community Center, Hoyt School, and MAC Sports Center in Verona.

"There's lots of skipping, hopping, giggling, and examining of bugs on the side of the track," says Barker. Though having particpants complete a 5K run is one of the program's goals, the girls aren't hectored through their paces. The emphasis is on feeling happy and working as a team. Each of the twice-weekly "lessons" addresses a girl-relevant issue -- the down-side of gossip, for example -- and includes warm-up games, a chance to share thoughts, a group cheer, and running. Or walking or skipping. The idea is simply to move forward, though many girls surprise themselves by running at least part of the time.

By asking girls to focus on what their bodies can do, not what they look like, Girls on the Run addresses physical strength as well as overall well-being. One lesson requires the girls to run alone, without talking. For 15 minutes, they sample that meditative space craved by so many adult runners.

Coaches don't have to be runners, though many are, including Erin Falligant, who believes GOTR gives girls the tools to enjoy the sport and keep at it. But that's not the only reason she volunteered.

"During coaches' training, we were asked to remember who we were at age 9," she says. "Tapping into that happy, confident little girl is a way to reward myself, as well as help these girls stay younger, longer."

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