Girl Power: Running Strong with Girls on The Run

Girls in the program are not only taught how to run a 5K, but they also learn life lessons, organizers say

By Kyra Mancine

Girls on the RunThe lack of a timing clock at a Girls on the Run 5K is no coincidence. It symbolizes that each girl is a winner, no matter how fast or slow she crosses that finish line. Girls on the Run (GOTR) of Greater Rochester is the local chapter of a unique, nonprofit positive youth development program for girls in grades three through eight.

“This is more than just a running program,” said Molly Bailey, GOTR’s executive director. “Through specialized games, activities and age-appropriate training, girls are not only taught how to run a 5K, but they also learn life lessons — with topics including confidence, healthy lifestyles, anti-bullying strategies and more.”

The local Girls on the Run chapter entered the Rochester scene in 2010. It has grown from just a few schools participating to more than 65 schools currently offering the program in Monroe, Livingston, Ontario and Wayne counties. The parent organization started in 1996 in Charlotte, N.C., with just 13 girls, and has expanded to serve over 200,000 girls annually with more than 225 councils in the U.S. and Canada.

The program has two different curriculums based on grade. Both programs take place after school, last 10 weeks and are open to all girls regardless of their fitness level or athletic ability. Girls in third through fifth grade complete lessons centered on running and fitness, but also explore and discuss experiences girls encounter at this age. Topics include teamwork, building healthy relationships and strategies and skills to instill confidence.

Girls in sixth through eighth grade participate in a program called Heart & Sole. This structured plan focuses on building the skills needed to run the 5K, but also the emotional aspects of navigating middle school. Topics range from building support systems to learning about setting boundaries. There are also discussions of issues such as Internet safety, cyber-bullying, and tobacco/alcohol use.

Both age group programs conclude on race day. Attending a Girls on the Run 5K is like no other. The celebratory atmosphere is felt from the moment you arrive. Parents, running coaches and girls congregate and do their pre-race preparations. Adding to the fun for all the girls, there are stations for temporary tattoos, colored hair spray and many other activities with positive messaging sponsored by local companies and groups.

Watching shy, timid and previously inactive girls make new friends, gain newfound confidence and come out of their shell during training and on race day is not only touching, but also inspirational. Seeing families and friends cheer these young runners on as they barrel toward the finish with looks of pride is unforgettable.

“My daughter had a great time all season,” said a Penfield parent of a student in the program. “The lessons were fun, and the entire 5K-day was amazing. She has been in it for two years, and already can’t wait until next season. She has learned life-long lessons that she will take along with her!”

All the coaches are volunteers, giving of their time and expertise at local schools in the weeks that lead up to race day. Coaches get just as much out of the program as the girls they train.

“It has changed my life,” said Kelsey Gendron, a first-season coach with the program. “I left practice every night with a huge smile. I absolutely love this organization, and I’m so happy these girls are able to do it! As our last girl crossed the finish, I literally had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t believe how happy I was, and how happy they have made me feel. It truly is something I will remember for a very long time.”

Volunteers are always sought, with opportunities going beyond coaching. Besides being a coach (head, assistant or junior), volunteers can also be a race day ‘Running Buddy” (age 16 and up, male or female), help with set up, security, staff a water station or be a supporter/cheerleader on race day. The program currently has two sessions and 5K events, one in the fall and one in the spring.

Unlike most 5Ks, the event itself is non-competitive, so there is no pressure to complete the race in a set amount of time.

If You Go

What: Girls on the Run 5K

Where: Monroe Community College

When:  Saturday, June 10

Cost: $125 but there are scholarships available to any girl in need. The fee includes all training/coaching, the 5K, a T-shirt and a celebration medal.

The race is open to the public and families are encouraged to run. Interested in the program or the upcoming 5K, visit to register and find out more.

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