Standing in a muddy athletic field outside Charlotte Country Day School in Charlotte, N.C., Molly Barker gathers a group of 16 elementary school girls into a circle. "I want you all to shut your eyes," Barker tells the youngsters, who are dressed in T-shirts, sweatpants, and sneakers. "Now imagine a clear cord in your brain. It fills you with energy. It tells you that you are perfect just the way you are."

Not too long ago, Barker would have had trouble delivering such a message—especially to herself. In 1996, some three years after conquering a 17-year bout with alcoholism that had led to a broken marriage, Barker founded Girls on the Run (GOTR), an after-school program aimed at third through fifth graders that uses running to boost self-esteem. Since then the organization has grown to include 40,000 girls in 38 states and Canada. In 2000 it launched a spinoff, Girls on Track, which targets sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Barker, 41, a triathlete currently training for her fifth Ironman competition in Hawaii this September, says she never envisioned such success: "I just thought, 'Wouldn't it be neat if I could give young women the same feeling I have when I get out there and run?' "

The courses, which typically take place twice a week for three months, are administered by local nonprofit groups like YMCAs and schools that have enlisted as GOTR chapters. Volunteers serve as coaches, and program fees (which help cover the cost of curriculum materials and T-shirts) average less than $100 per session. In return the girls participate in activities designed to promote self-awareness, relationship skills and positive body image, all the while training for a 5K (3.1 mile) run, the capstone of each session. "It is so unimportant to me how fast they run," Barker says. "What matters is how they encourage their teammates."

Morgan Long, 13, has found comfort in such support. She joined GOTR five years ago, after her mother died from a stroke. "I think it's made me stand up for myself more," she says. Adds Roxanna Hartline, 51, who oversees a GOTR chapter in Holland, Mich.: "Girls that age are just starting to get attitudes—but they still crave adult attention; it's important for them to see there are women who want to hang out with them."

Barker can certainly relate. The youngest of four children, she was raised in Charlotte by insurance salesman Hank Wilmer (who died in 1983) and his wife, Mary, who was an alcoholic for seven years. Wilmer, who died earlier this month, kicked her addiction in 1970 and became an alcohol-abuse counselor. But those early years of turmoil ("The shame was overwhelming—like a wadded-up piece of paper in my belly," says Barker) as well as her parents' 1976 divorce left Barker with "a spiritual void," she says. At age 15 she started drinking—"It kept me from feeling," she says. Not even a stint at a youth outpatient center when she was 17 could get her to stop.

Running was the only thing that kept Barker from total loss of control. At Charlotte Country Day School she competed in track events, and while a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in chemistry, she ran four days a week on her own.

Still, Barker kept drinking. By 1989 she had gotten married, received a master's in social work from UNC and taken a job as a student counselor at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C. But "nothing was working to fill the hole inside me," Barker says, and in 1991 she quit her job and her marriage and began drinking heavily.

Over the next year Barker bounced from her mother's house to the homes of friends, including that of high school pal James Barker, now 40, a bicycle mechanic. The couple married in 1994, and, with the help of a support group, Barker finally quit drinking. "Once I got sober," she says, "I knew I had to find a calling." Three years later 13 girls signed up for the first session of GOTR at Charlotte Country Day.

Barker has since separated from her second husband ("We're not searching for the same things in life," she says) and lives with their two children, Hank, 6, and Helen, 3, in a three-bedroom Charlotte duplex. Being there for her kids—and her runners—is what sustains her. "The emptiness I used to feel," she says, "is now filled with something that matters."

Galina Espinoza
Robin Reid in Charlotte

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