For the past four months, 26 all-girl teams from East Baton Rouge Parish elementary and middle schools have been running through extremes of heat and cold to prepare for Saturday’s Girls on the Run 5K, which turned out to be soggy but pleasantly cool.

From the moment participants and their parents stepped through the neon green and hot pink balloon arch into the pre-race festival, Saturday’s event was dripping with girl power. Brightly colored bandanas with messages of strength and confidence, glitter, headbands, buttons, tutus and costumes of every conceivable design dominated the pre-race warm-up.

Even the portable toilets had messages of encouragement posted inside: “You can do anything, you have SHE power, you can change the world.”

Girls on the Run teaches girls from third to eighth grades to build a running base slowly over time, Wildwood Elementary School coach Nina Anderson said.

As Wildwood teammates Faith Smith, fourth grade; Jordyn Minor, third grade; and Shyanne Kyes, fifth grade; finished up the last laps of their final practice on May 7, they had nothing but good things to say about the sport.

“I love to run,” said Faith, though she has asthma. Jordyn said she runs with her father on the days she’s not training with her teammates after school, and Shyanne runs with her sister.

Third-grader Trinitee Vance said she hopes one day to be a basketball player, and running will help her achieve that goal.

The girls were all smiles as they cranked up the music and celebrated the end of their last practice with pizza and electrolyte drinks — they’ve also learned the importance of hydration for good performance — but Anderson said they’ve grown to this point.

Many of her 20 girls started with less confidence in their abilities.

Don’t mess with my tutu

To look at the Parkview Baptist team, with pink bows in their ponytails and glitter from signs they made the week before stubbornly clinging to their running shoes, you might hesitate to call the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders change makers. That would be a mistake, coach Madison Gourney said.

In addition to challenging themselves physically, all GOTR participants learn ways to deal with the mental and emotional challenges that come with being a modern girl.

Gourney and fellow teacher and GOTR volunteer Marja Liner sat in a circle with 20 girls in the third, fourth and fifth grades on April 28, their next-to-last practice before the run.

They were talking about advertising and the media, and the messages they give to people, particularly girls and women.

Liner brought up a timely controversy regarding a feature in the April issue of Self magazine, in which a writer referred to women wearing tutus while running as “lame.”

As soon as the words left Liner’s mouth, all 20 preteens audibly gasped in unison, then came a series of shocked comments. “But they’re meant to inspire? … What if you want to cheer people up? … They wear those to support people with cancer. … That’s awful,” the girls said almost all at once.

Tutus are a big part of GOTR culture, and just about every team member knows the story of Monika Allen, a cancer survivor who ran a marathon in a tutu while she was undergoing chemotherapy. It was Allen’s picture that ran with the feature, and Allen happens to make and sell tutus to benefit GOTR San Diego. Girls on the Run locations from all over the U.S. wrote to the magazine to protest this spot, including GOTR South Louisiana.

“So you can make a difference, and you can send a positive message if you respond in a nice way to a negative message,” Liner said.

The girls have had a great time training, Gourney said, because the curriculum goes a long way to bond the girls as a team, and teach them new ways of handling challenges in life.

I feel ____ when you ____.

That has certainly proved true for Sherrie Roper, head coach at The Runnels School, and her team. When her girls confront a sticky situation, they have learned to run through this fill-in-the-blank message: “I feel _____ when you _____ because _____. I would like you to _____.” It has come in handy, she said.

“Our guidance counselor said she has seen a change in so many girls in the program,” Roper said.

“Situations and hurtful confrontations these girls encounter, they’ve been handling it themselves with stuff they learned at GOTR. It’s age-appropriate, so it doesn’t come across as cheesy,” she said.

Taylor Woods, a third-grader at Runnels, said she’s learned several valuable lessons throughout the semester of training. “Be a good sport, be nice to other people, how not to gossip,” she said.

But she’s also using the training program to spend valuable time with her dad, who is running the 5K with her, and helps her train when she’s not training with the Runnels team.

Each GOTR team member chooses or is assigned a running buddy.

“He’s active military,” her mother Carolyn said, “so this is a good way for them to spend time together.”

Meredith Wartelle said her daughter Cassidy, a third-grader, is also a gymnast.

“She didn’t like to run before this program,” Wartelle said. “Now she loves it. And her vault scores (in gymnastics) have skyrocketed since she started.”

But Roper said the physical discipline is only a small part of the GOTR training plan.

Roper’s daughter, Micah, a seventh-grader, said she wasn’t a stranger to running when she started Girls on the Run in fourth grade.

“My mom always ran,” she said. But being a part of the team has helped build her confidence. She ran for class president in fifth grade, and the lessons she learned helped her campaign, she said. She also tried out and made it onto the varsity track team at the school.

But the most comforting changes for Micah’s mom have been her daughter’s reactions to the difficult situations every girl faces in junior high, particularly the pressure to fit in and go along.

“As her mom, I will tell you from my own experience, it has given her confidence and strength, and taught her not to be a follower. I am so proud of her for that,” she said.

And her younger sister, Ryan, in fourth grade and also a GOTR team member, is watching and learning.