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  • 30 Oct 2014

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  • 31 Oct 2014

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'Tween girls run toward self-respect, healthy life

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Coach Flavia Deandrade leads some of the group of Girls on the Run at the Duniway Park track. The nonprofit group helps young girls learn to avoid stereotypes and find positive images for their lives.The Duniway Park track near Oregon Health and Science University can be an intimidating place. On a wet, April evening, tights-clad runners battle one another at 1,500-meter speeds. Dozens of members of the Red Lizard running club stretch their sinews and strut about. High school girls stand around, deadly serious, with javelins and vaulting poles.

Standing quietly trackside, a dozen girls ages 8 to 11 listen to three women, their volunteer coaches. It’s the end of a long school day, but they are rapt.

This is Girls on the Run, a national nonprofit whose official mission is “To educate and prepare girls for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living.” The Portland chapter adds that it uses “Running, games and discussing important issues to celebrate being a girl.”

The girls practice for 90 minutes, twice a week, for 12 weeks, leading up to the Starlight Run. That’s a 5-kilometer (3.1 mile) road race around Rose Festival time where crazy costumes are encouraged.


Running buddies needed

• Girls on the Run only happens in spring, and this season there are 115 coaches (two at each site) and 536 girls in the program. GOTR is looking for hundreds of adult running buddies before May 1.

• For more information, go to www.girlsontherunpdx.org/become-a-running-buddy-html.


It might at first seem Girls on the Run is solely designed to get girls off their nail-painting, Candy Crushing butts and start moving, or that it’s part of the obesity fight, like First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign. But it’s more than just women runners mentoring girls and acting as security guards in public. (The groups are single sex.)

McKenzie Miller is Girls On the Run Portland’s only full-time employee, although she has the help of 12 board members.

“One of the girls told me ‘Girls on the Run taught me that I am the boss of my own brain,’ ” Miller says. “It’s just about allowing them to understand their strengths and what makes them wacky and wonderful, and to embrace that before middle school where they are told how they should be. In middle school, because of pressure from peers and parents, they warp into how they think they should act. We talk a lot about the Girl Box (the organization’s overarching effort to educate and inspire girls in third through eighth grades to “stay true to themselves” and avoid societal stereotypes).”

Miller loves the tangible sense of accomplishment she sees when the girls complete their first 5k. “There are lots of hugs and big high-fives at the end. You have to think it’s pretty incredible for a third-, fourth- or fifth-grader to do that. When they cross the finish line and get their medal they know they can do whatever they set their minds to.”

Running with a plan

Each session has a well-structured lesson. Tonight it’s about healthy eating, and the girls are quizzed about what they eat.

The coaches have a ring binder full of lessons. For example, “Positive Self-Talk and Why I Choose it.”

The text: “Negative self-talk is when we think or say negative things about ourselves. You may not use negative self-talk, but I am sure you have heard it. For example, many women on TV talk about their weight or their appearance. Negative self-talk can also be saying things like ‘I am not smart’ or ‘I am not brave enough to try something new.’ ”

To warm up and explore the day’s lesson, the girls do an activity forming two lines where one set shouts “No one likes me because I’m stupid” and “I’ll never fit in because I’m not as pretty as the other girls.”

They discuss these negative statements and then replace things like “I am a terrible runner” with “Running is a challenge for me.” During the workout portion, after each lap the coaches say things like “You are beautiful” and the girls convert that into an I-statement, “I am beautiful!”

Other lessons include “Gossiping Hurts Everyone,” “It’s OK to Choose Our Friends” and “Honoring Our Greatest Gifts.”

It’s a refined message of girl power filtered through nonviolent communication with a dash of mentoring. It seems suited to this age group, whose girls are old enough to have wandered around YouTube, but still young enough to be respectful of authority.

Miller says one reason a girl might dread a workout or PE class is that it is competitive. “We encourage them not to be competitive. They work at their own pace. It’s about each girl and their mental, emotional and physical health, holistically.

“I think that preadolescent age is a sweet spot for girls,” she says. “Developmentally they can have pretty deep, self-aware conversations about what’s going on around them, but they are ready to work with their coaches and participate in a team. Their defenses are not up yet.”

For every lap they run or walk they receive a thumb-size loop of shiny ribbon. The goal is to tie them all together in June into one long chain that stretches round the Duniway track. Pink-cheeked and puffing, the girls pocket these lap counters carefully as they pass the mark.

Volunteer coach Debbie Lee owns a Dairy Queen in Sweet Home. She has done the Shamrock Run and a half-marathon, and is in her second year as a coach.

“The program teaches them to stand up for themselves,” Lee says. “We spend a lot of time talking through what they just learned.”

Miller adds, “The pressures they are under in middle school are what makes you popular, should you have a boyfriend, are you thin enough, do you wear the right clothes, are you smart enough, or too smart. ... Just that feeling that whatever you are it’s never enough. We are empowering them to feel they are just right the way they are.”

Erica Swanson works at Nike supporting product and merchandising teams and runs marathons for fun. She used to coach middle school cross country in California before being lured north by the sportswear giant in 2012. She volunteered here because it hits two targets close to her heart.

“It’s really inspiring to see girls learning self-esteem and self-confidence, and it’s a good way to give back, using running,” Swanson says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - After every practice, the Girls on the Run pick one athlete to celebrate by singing and dancing.

Times have changed

The coaches are learning what’s changed in the decade or two since they were little girls.

“The media pressure is much broader now,” Swanson says. “We had an 8-year-old talking about the things people post on Facebook. There are more images that are always visible to girls, and they have to digest that.”

Some things have improved, such as nutrition. They noticed the girls all eat well and pescetarians and vegetarians are common.

The 90-minute practice always ends with an Energy Award, where they recognize girls for something positive, like being a good friend. They surround the honoree and do a chant, such as the Mohawk (crazy dancing), the Roller Coaster (clicking noises, arm movements) and Bananas.

Hania, 9, did it last year. Her approval is sweet in its simplicity: “You learn to be a great sport, and you make a lot of friends,” she says. “The coaches are really nice, and they cheer you on when you’re trying to, like, run.”

Her parents, Chip and Dayle (who asked that their last names not be used), walked the track while Hania ran. They have a middle-schooler in the older girls’ program, Girls On Track.

“They’re teaching them some good life skills about how to be compassionate and helpful and humble, and it’s a great combination of the physical and social,” Dayle says. “Our other daughter fell in love with it last year and it’s become her passion, and now she’s been invited to run with the Red Lizards.”