Girls on the Run participants at a 5k race. (Marissa Rauch/Girls on the Run)

The national group is hosting a 5K race [pdf] here in D.C, that is the culmination of a unique training program that’s gaining a bigger and bigger fan base. Twelve hundred girls are involved in D.C. alone.

The after-school program is designed to give girls grades 3 through 8 more than strength and endurance for a single race. “Running is just the reason we use to come together,” said Molly Barker, Girls On The Run founder.

Between physical training and athletic games, volunteer coaches talk to the girls about issues such as negative body image, bullying, gossip and over-pleasing.

Barker said the age group is very specifically targeted.

First, they may still be susceptible to adult influence. “They think of our coaches as cool aunts,” Barker said.

Second, this is a turning point in the life of girls.“There’s aren’t many third and fourth graders who have self-doubt. It’s when they get to middle school that they start to define themselves by other things and forget how fabulous they are.”

Barker knows of what she speaks. The North Carolina mother of two began drinking alcohol when she was 15, she said, at a time when she was trying to fit in. It led to a years-long battle with alcoholism.

One day, in her early thirties, she set out for a run. It was there she said she had an epiphany. She said she suddenly understood that she controlled her own destiny. “I decided to change my life.”

A few years later, Barker decided to see if running could change other lives. In 1996, she formed the first team of 13 girls. The next year, the program doubled in size. It now has more than 100,000 girls involved across the country.

Girls On The Run has evolved into a 12-week series of coaching sessions, one in the spring and one in the fall, which follow a standard curriculum. For a fee that’s based on ability to pay, any girl can join. Barker said the group has trained girls of all athletic abilities and many with disabilities. The only restriction is gender.

Barker once tried to expand the program for boys, but it didn’t work. She said boys were not as agreeable about constantly switching between training and emoting. So Girls on the Run remains for girls only.