In a crowd of runners studded with pink and purple foam tiaras, hundreds of young athletes wear the same race number – 1 – as they jostle at the starting line in Seward Park. With the go-ahead from an announcer, everyone lurches forward, some with red capes flapping behind, others sprinting by in orange tights and polka-dotted underwear.
In this crowd, that old childhood taunt, "You run like a girl," would be welcomed with pride. The event is the culmination of Girls on the Run, a program geared toward improving the physical and mental health of young girls.
Cletus Weber stands on the sidelines as his 10-year-old daughter Vienna and hundreds of others prepare to start the 5K run. A friend encouraged him to get Vienna involved so she could interact with more girls. Weber liked the sound of the idea. Already, he's noticed small changes in his daughter, including her increased confidence in sports. "We know she likes to run but she's a little bit shy," he says. "I think this helps to bring her out of her shell."
Girls on the Run got its start in Charlotte, N.C., in 1996. Its founder, Molly Barker, is a four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete who at one time struggled with alcoholism. "She realized people needed more than just physical health; they needed mental and emotional health," says Chris Rylko, executive director for Girls on the Run of Puget Sound.
The program is offered in all but nine states. The Seattle-area chapter began in 2002, with nine girls. Today it draws almost 200 girls each year, from Tukwila to Shoreline and on both sides of Lake Washington.
Many of them have never been physically active before. Rylko notes there's a common misconception that everyone in the Seattle area is healthy and active because things like biking, swimming and kayaking are popular here. But the activity level of children here is actually below the national average, she says, with not quite one-third of kids in grades four through 10 reporting regular physical activity.
The after-school program, which is offered twice a year – once leading up to a summertime race and again in late fall – combines running games with discussion on issues of self-esteem, peer pressure, body image and more – all in a "girl-positive environment where girls can feel free to express themselves and build their confidence," the organization touts on its Web site.
Being healthy is an important message for all girls, regardless of demographics, Rylko says, pointing to the prevalence of chronic eating disorders in teenage girls, as well as increases in obesity and diabetes.
Though Girls on the Run is built around the ultimate goal of getting participants ready to run a 5K race, it's not all about the run. The program is divided into three, four-week sessions. During that time, girls ages 8 to 11 set personal goals, learn leadership and team-building skills, and examine their relationship to the community, including developing a community service project and putting it into action.
"They see that as they work on things, they can achieve their goals, whether that's running a 5K, or doing better in school or deciding that they're – for instance – going to run for president," says Nancy Jensen, who coached in the program and is now a board member.
The race is the culmination of the girls' hard work – a way for them to come together and share their successes. Warming up before the most recent race, held in December, 9-year-old Claire Boynton hops from one foot to the other – her pink tiara askew, her running jacket stitched with the phrase, "Run happy."
"I like to be fit and healthy," Boynton says.
She smiles up at her running buddy, Ava Segal, who's among a team of volunteers who mentor girls in the program, practicing running with them, giving them someone they can talk to and have fun with free of any peer pressure. It's Segal's first time volunteering for Girls on the Run. Boynton is an old pro, having participated in two other runs. She says the friends she makes here are one of the best things about the program.
By training for and completing the 5K run, Rylko says, girls build their self-confidence and are left with a sense of empowerment. "It's not about running, and it's not about weight control," she says. "It's about having the self-esteem to set a goal and reach it."
Melanthia M. Peterman is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of a toddler.