When Carmel Valley mom Courtney Mouratoff's fourth grade daughter Erin came to her and said, "I feel so free when I run, mommy," she knew she had a serious runner in her family.
Luckily for the Mouratoffs, a female-focused running group for young girls was right in their own backyard with Girls on the Run, a national program that has a site at the Carmel Valley Recreation Center.
The group not only gets girls moving in preparation for a 5K race, but it also stresses the importance of self-respect and a healthy lifestyle.
"She's excited to workout and run more," said Mouratoff of her daughter. "I think that anything that works on a girl's self esteem and empowers them is excellent."
Girls on the Run has been in San Diego for six years and this is Carmel Valley and coach Kathryn Reid's fifth year on the program. This season there are 19 girls enrolled in the group with seven assistant coaches, meeting twice a week at the park. They are all gearing up to run the Jingle Bell 5K in Balboa Park on Dec. 13.
Reid, who used to coach adults training for their first marathon, jumped at the opportunity to work with the young girls.
"They change so much in just 12 weeks," Reid said.
Practices started on Sept. 9 and already last week they ran their first mile.
"They did really well," Reid said.
Molly Barker founded the Girls on the Run organization in North Carolina in 1996. Barker is a four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete who started running with her mother when she was 13-years-old. At age 15, she ran three miles for the first time on a dirt track near her school.
The school's baseball coach noticed her feat.
"I felt the most beautiful I ever had in my whole life," said Barker, even though she was covered in mud, she glowed with her accomplishment.
Feeling beautiful became more difficult as she grew older and she realized that she wanted to do something to help empower young women. She wanted to teach them that being strong, brave and confident is something that will always make them beautiful.
She used her experience in counseling and teaching along with research on adolescent issues to develop the 12-week, 24-lesson curriculum.
The program that started with Barker and 13 young girls has now grown to include 160,000 girls running in 150 different cities. San Diego has four sites including Carmel Valley, Point Loma, Balboa Park and Kit Carson Park which is an entirely scholarship site where runners are sponsored by the organization.
More than just instilling a love of running, the program is a complete self-esteem booster, said Cathy Prestonise, program manager at Girls on the Run San Diego.
"They gain a positive attitude toward physical activity and exercise," said Prestonise. "They are not focusing on being thin, they're learning that it's what's inside that matters."
The curriculum is set up explore different topics important to developing young girls. They talk about who they are as a girl and learn about healthy body image and how to eat. At last Thursday's practice, Reid was teaching the girls about the food pyramid.
Additionally, the girls take on a service project to spread their message to an even larger community.
To learn more about Girls on the Run, go to