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Let’s get strong.

Not exactly the message you’d expect to find on a blog post about a girls’ running group, right? Allow me to tell you why strength is exactly the message behind Girls on the Run, an international nonprofit organization for third- to eighth-grade girls.

Strength comes in many forms — physically, yes, and also psychologically, emotionally, socially, spiritually — and these forms love to play with each other. Like total BFFs, each type of strength pumps the others up. Build up your physical strength — whether through running, lifting weights, or some other activity you love — and I dare you to try to keep it from spreading into the rest of your life.

I fell in love with Girls on the Run because of its mission to empower elementary and middle school girls to live joyful, courageous lives. Through physical activity that isn’t tied to competition or aesthetic goals (imagine!), the girls I coach are introduced to juicy life lessons around self-confidence, teamwork, goal setting, and handling challenges with grace.

In my three-plus years of coaching, first in Washington, D.C., and now in the Twin Cities, I’ve watched dozens of girls achieve goals beyond their imaginations, giving them a glimpse at their own potential as strong women.

The vehicles for these transformations are the girls’ own bodies: We spend 10 weeks each fall and spring training for a 5K. They are encouraged to run (hence the name Girls on the Run), but we meet each girl where she is; she can run, walk, skip, jump, side-shuffle, even burpee her way across the finish line. (No one ever takes the burpee option.)

The only rules are to show up, be nice, and keep moving forward — goals that sound easy, but actually require a fair bit of strength, inside and out. Sounds a lot like life, right?

This week, I embark on my sixth season as a coach (and my second year as a board member). My commitment is one afternoon each week — each Tuesday, I join my girls to run laps and talk life. They say things like, “I’m unique because I’m strange,” and ask questions like, “Are witches real?” They confess that “songs about getting naked with boys” make them uncomfortable, and they share examples of how they stand up for themselves and their friends against bullies at school.

They debate whether their community impact project, required of each team every season, would best be of service if it were to benefit endangered animals, homeless people, or victims of sexual abuse.

Sometimes they come to practice happy, sometimes sad, sometimes engaged, sometimes distracted, sometimes grumpy, sometimes sassy, and usually all of the above.

These girls aren’t all friends, but they make room for each other and the experiences and feelings that each one carries. All this while training for a 5K, the first for many of them, which will conclude this fall session on Saturday, Nov. 12.

Despite all this magic, my weekly commitment is a chunk of time I sometimes think is inconvenient, easily disposable to make room for “more important” things. But at each practice, I’m reminded that even though I’m the volunteer — the grown-up charged with helping them grow into strong, joyful, brave women — the girls serve me as much as I serve them. They’re already strong, joyful, and brave. And on top of that they’re honest and intuitive and willing to be vulnerable in ways that adults can only aspire to.

They set an example for me, too, and sometimes it feels like the best thing I can do is get out of their way.

Maggie Fazeli Fard, RKC, is the senior fitness editor at Experience Life.

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