One for All and All for Run

Girls on the Run: Kira Sweetman (center) laughs during an exercise that involves Zoe Lunn (left), Lauren Rutzen, Clare Connally and Natalie Zur.
Girls on the Run: Kira Sweetman (center) laughs during an exercise that involves Zoe Lunn (left), Lauren Rutzen, Clare Connally and Natalie Zur. (Photos By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
Thursday, November 29, 2007

Running distances can be tiring, but for some Arlington third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, it's fun, too. They belong to Girls on the Run.

One recent morning, an hour before school started at Taylor Elementary, 20 girls stood outside in a circle. They wore sneakers and T-shirts.

"Okay, you guys want to play a game?" asked Jenn Brown, their coach. "Today's topic is change. . . . We're going to talk about some good changes today."

Molly Barker, a triathlete (that's someone who competes in events that require swimming, cycling and running), started Girls on the Run in 1996 in North Carolina. The program arrived in Northern Virginia in 2001.

Middle school can be difficult for tweens, who want to be cool and have lots of friends. Girls on the Run tries to help girls in grades 3 through 8 feel good about themselves, make good decisions and think less about being cool and more about being healthy and nice to one another.

About 1,700 Northern Virginia girls are in the program. About 25 schools in Washington and Maryland recently joined.

Brown and other volunteer coaches go to the different schools two times a week for about three months. There are no tryouts and not much competition. The girls just work hard and at the end of 12 weeks run a 5K event (3.1 miles).

On the day KidsPost visited, after a discussion about making good changes, each girl was given four cards and told to write four things about herself she would like to change. One wrote: "Waiting until the last minute to do something." Another wrote: "Chewing my nails." A third girl wrote: "Eating junk food."

When they were done, Brown had them run four laps around the field. After each lap, they were to throw a card with a bad habit on it into a hat. "Yes!" many of the girls shouted when told they could begin running.

Exercising is just one change the program has made for the girls.

A few months ago, fourth-grader Julia Salavantis was looking at a tiny-waisted Barbie doll and told her mom that "Barbie dolls should look more normal." Her mom thinks Girls on the Run got her daughter thinking of Barbie in a different way.

Barbies "are, like, abnormally skinny, and it's really weird to look at them," Julia said after running her four laps. "It makes kids feel bad because they're not like them."

Clare Connally, a third-grader, said Girls on the Run helps her be more responsible and do her best in school.

Courtney Harrison, who assists in coaching the girls, said the program fosters teamwork and friendship. "I notice how open they become with each other," she said. "They're all so accepting and supportive of each other."

Before the girls ran off to class, they gathered in a huddle.

"Gimme a G!" they screamed. "G!! Gimme an I! I!! Gimme an R! R!! Gimme an L! L!! What's that spell? Girl! What do we do? Run! Who are we? Girls on the Run!!"

-- Moira E. McLaughlin

© 2007 The Washington Post Company