Spirit-Girl by Molly BarkerI’ve been in the business of empowering girls since 1996 when I founded Girls on the Run. The goal of our program is to provide girls with the tools, strength and inspiration to, as one girl shared with me, “discover the center of who I am.”

Thanks to our partnership with Athleta, so many of you are discovering Girls on the Run for the first time and have in that new discovery asked the question I’ve heard literally hundreds of times over the last sixteen years:  “So Molly…why’d ya start it?”

Well…glad ya asked!

When I reminisce about adolescence, I remember it with a mixed sense of joy and angst…typical for most of us.

The angst-part began in 6th grade when my best friend got breasts and I didn’t.  Suddenly the attention I had received the summer before, for my vibrant personality and great sense of humor, disappeared.  I didn’t understand. My friend was getting lots of attention and, like every other girl, just trying to figure it out with nothing but 11 years of life to go on, I figured that something about me wasn’t right anymore…something about me was downright wrong…something about me just wasn’t good enough.  The spirit of who I was—-the “spirit-girl”—wanted to be heard, valued and loved, just as we all do. But like every little girl (and boy) the messages coming at me were so confusing. The rules to “playing human” were often times in conflict with what my spirit knew to be right, just and true. The human rules told me that the way I looked was more important than who I was inside; that being a woman meant keeping emotions like anger to myself; that having a boyfriend meant giving up part of my own identity. But I followed them anyway. Hours spent trying to mold my body, my spirit and my life into what the rules required were extremely painful.

Girls on the RunSo I ran. I’d strap on those running shoes and head for the woods, the streets, wherever my feet would take me. I felt beautiful. Strong. Powerful. I felt a part of something greater than myself.  I would, with each step, move closer to seeing, being, becoming the “in-here spirit-girl” who was strong, powerful and beautiful…just as she was.

This tug-o-war between the strong, vibrant “in-here spirit-girl” and the wanting-to-be-liked, chameleon “out-there human girl” continued.  The push-pull, ebb-flow, strong-weak, up-down, coming-going, is as I’ve learned…an experience most of us share.

On July 6th 1993, I hit a personal bottom.  This never-ending battle had reached an all out war.  “Let me out, let me out,” the in-here spirit-girl shouted from deep within.

On July 7th, 1993, I remember it well. I put on my running shoes and ran at sunset. The air was electric with a coming thunderstorm, the wind blowing the leaves of the trees upside down and causing the dirt on the street to swirl up. Rounding the last corner of a six-mile run onto East Boulevard, I was on the last stretch of road toward the apartment where I was staying. Everything was in sync, my breathing, the float of my steps on the pavement, my relaxed arms, my speed—and as I approached the intersection of Kenilworth and East Boulevard I moved to a space of total effortlessness and breathlessness, overcome with the moment.

Something was happening—something so real, so raw, so momentous, it forced me to stop dead in my tracks at that intersection. The sounds of the city floated to the background, the street disappeared, and like tunnel vision I became fixated on the way the sun filtered through the leaves on the trees, casting the most distinct shadows on the pavement at my feet. I could hear my breathing, my heartbeat in my ears; feel the sweat flowing across my temples and down my back and chest; a surge of strength, power, presence lit me up—and in that instant my life changed. I was warmed by a light of such power that for that moment I just was: silent, present, pure, worthwhile and nothingno-thing.

I wasn’t a woman, a runner, a troubled person.  I wasn’t old, young, fragile, strong.  I just was…nothing…no-thing.  No longer seeking, wondering, wandering, hoping, wishing or trying.  I was.  I was, in that moment, nothing and everything all at the same time.

What was different about this experience was my awareness of its occurrence.  Prior to this day, I had always known, on a very concrete level, that running was so much more than a cardiovascular function or a way to make me “look good.”  Running had always given me a sense of power, strength and being, but I had never been able to articulate why.  For the first time in my life, I was conscious of the why:  When I run, I am free of definitions, gender stereotypes, cultural and societal expectations and on July 7th…for reasons I’ve given up needing to understand…the meaning, purpose, answers to all my questions and the core of all my conversations become crystal clear.  I came to realize, the battle tucked into these conversations doesn’t really exist.  There is no battle, because in reality, I am that which I choose to be.

Three years later I started Girls on the Run. After countless hours of research, writing, tweaking and soul searching I delivered the first curriculum in September of 1996 with 13 girls. The lessons then, as they do now, provide girls with the tools to experience this amazing opportunity we call “being human” as the awesome, fabulous and magnificent spirited girls they are!   The curriculum continues to evolve just as we do.  However, I must admit that the older I get and the longer I have the privilege to be involved with Girls on the Run, I’m beginning to realize that it’s in this unexplained touch of grace, silence and love—between the words, the 5k’s and the programming—where real personal and cultural transformation occurs…where we take the time to really see each other…and speak with our hearts.

I won’t ever be able to fully explain what happened to me on July 7th and I’m okay with that.  I just know that I am grateful it did.  I also know that right now, here, as I write, I am grateful for you…and while I can’t know if anything I’ve written here has resonated or touched you, I do know that nothing happens through sheer coincidence…and that maybe, just maybe, you are reading this because the spirit-girl inside of you, has…for reasons yet to be discovered…joyfully brought you here.

Spirit-Girl by Molly Barker

Miss Hatcher

May 26, 2012 at 8:03 am

Wow! You are a wonderful writer. I know, it’s sometimes those indescribable moments with a depth that no one can fathom but us which change our lives the most. I wish you luck and happiness on your journey through life!

Anne Marie

May 26, 2012 at 8:32 am

I love your writing! You captured that essence of running that allows one to feel that pure simple connection to life. While I don’t have one moment that has defined my career path- I have a series of ‘coincidences’ that have carved my journey- both in running and life.

Thank you for sharing your voice 🙂


September 05, 2012 at 6:27 pm

This is really beautiful… I’m inspired! Thank you for sharing.

Michelle H.

November 11, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Molly! What a joy it is to find your voice! I remember you from way back when you started Girls on the Run! We were on the same bike racing team with Lisa D. I only raced that one year (1996 or 1997?) but Lisa also introduced me to running, and I’ve been doing it ever since. We didn’t see each other too often but I remember what fun it was to ride with you, and it appears you are still that wonderfully joyful person. So proud to see that which you started grow beyond Charlotte and into my now home state of Vermont. My 10 year old boy now runs with me and I am thrilled he has embraced the sport. I’m sure you see and know that thrill well. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your passion.

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