getting fit

Girl on the run.

I was not a sporty child. Somehow, I wound up on the fourth grade girls' soccer team when I was in third grade — it is a bafflement to me that I was playing in the first place, let alone with a bunch of older, stronger girls — but my involvement mostly consisted of doing cartwheels back near the goal while our offense powered toward the opponent's. And even that was short lived.

I wasn't fat by any means. I was kind of…mushy, I guess. Formless. But not fat. But my mom blamed my persistent case of the shivers on my "sedentary lifestyle."

I just wasn't into it. The getting up and moving around.

In high school, I took the P.E. classes required to graduate. One of them was weights. And I loved it. Because after a few weeks, there was a little bulge in my shoulder than I now know to be the deltoid. My first muscle.

The first sign of me getting in shape for the first time.

In college, I walked everywhere and worked out at the brand-spankin'-new student fitness center. I started to look better. I joined a gym after college and have lapsed for only a year or so during my time in Chicago.

But at that point, it didn't matter as much. Because I discovered running when I got to Chicago. And you don't need a membership for running. Just a pair of shoes, a sidewalk and a little determination.

I'm not a good runner. I'm slow; I tire easily; my form probably sucks. But I do it. And I love it.

And through running, I discovered Girls on the Run.

This organization's mission: To educate and prepare girls for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living. Girls on the Run is a life-changing, experiential learning programs for girls age eight to thirteen years old. The programs combine training for a 3.1 mile running event with self-esteem enhancing, uplifting workouts. The goals of the programs are to encourage positive emotional, social, mental, spiritual and physical development.

I did my first Girls on the Run 5K last spring and couldn't believe how many girls were there. Every shape and size. Every race. Every income level. There were hundreds of pink banners printed with the names of schools all over Chicago and the suburbs. A lot of them were nervous and scared to be finally reaching the culmination of their training, wondering if they'd be able to finish the run. But that wasn't really the point.

Two giant furry mascots led thousands of us in a group warm-up, then we were off. Speed wasn't a concern. I saw myself in some of those girls, bouncing and twirling along at the side of the road like my goal-box cartwheeling. What they all had in common: They were smiling. They knew what an amazing thing they were doing. And they were surrounded by grown-ups who adored them. Respected them. Supported them. High-fives all around, and a medal for everyone who crossed that finish line, whether it was a personal record or a stiff hobble an hour after the start.

For me, running and fitness in general are a means to an end. A skinnier, prettier end, if I'm lucky.

But for those girls, it's so much more.

And I wonder how I might be different today if I'd had a program like Girls on the Run when I was a kid. I hope to find out firsthand just how good sports are for girls. When I have my own daughter.