Running for Her Life

In 1993, a morning jog may have saved Molly Barker’s life. Now, she tries to keep other girls from reaching that point

Molly Barker pulled on her socks, New Balance shoes, one of her black, form-fitting tank tops, and a pair of tie-dyed shorts — her uniform, really — and stepped outside for a run. She wanted to move, to forget, to lose herself in the steady and familiar rhythm. It’s what she had always done — first on the track team at high school, then college, and later in marathons and Ironman triathlon competitions. She tied her long, blond hair back in a ponytail, which she could feel swing and bounce as she moved down the street.

She was well educated, her body taut and fit, her legs strong, and the night before, Molly Barker had thought about killing herself.
After a near-lifetime of fighting alcoholism, she was tired of fighting. “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she says. “It had gotten that dark. I didn’t see a way out.”

Instead, she ran.

It was a sunny July afternoon, and as she ran down East Boulevard toward Kenilworth Avenue the wind picked up, whipping the leaves around on the sidewalk. Then it happened.

“This amazing feeling came over me,” she says. “I had never felt so alive. It was like everything shifted from black and white to Technicolor. It was the best high I ever had, and I knew I had to reclaim that feeling as often as I could.”
That meant she had to stop drinking.

She joined a support group, started doing drug prevention work with kids, and made amends with people she had wronged. She also decided to use running — the one thing that had kept her from spinning totally out of control—to help others. She approached Charlotte Country Day, her old high school, about organizing a running program for girls that promoted self-respect and healthy living. Much to her surprise, school officials agreed.

“Molly was trying to figure out where in life she could give of herself and make a difference,” says Frank Justice, Charlotte Country Day’s assistant dean, who was also Barker’s faculty adviser. “She looked inward and saw where there had been a need in her life growing up. She was very excited, and asked me if I thought the program would work. I said ‘Let’s just throw it out there and see what happens.’ ”

Barker plastered hot pink flyers around town urging young girls to participate. That first year, 1993, thirteen girls showed up.

Today, Girls on the Run (GOTR) is an internationally heralded program and has been featured in People, Runner’s World, and on ESPN.

“Isn’t that awesome?” Barker says, who lives with her two children, Hank, seven, and Helen, four, in a Charlotte duplex. “It’s so cool.”

One of GOTR’s biggest goals is to help its young members break out of what Barker calls the “girl box,” where, often because of unrealistic societal expectations, girls obsess over their looks, bodies, and being well-liked, especially by boys.

“It started for me around sixth grade,” she says. “The other girls started to develop, but I was such a little jock that it took me years to catch up.

So I was a bit out of sync with  everyone else. The weird thing is that athletics helped free me from the girl box. When I was running or playing sports, I felt good about myself.”

When she was fifteen, Barker started using alcohol to get those same feelings of confidence off the track. “When I drank, I could be more flirtatious, giggly, and all those other things I thought the world wanted me to be.”

Barker was raised in Charlotte along with three older siblings. Her father, Hank Wilmer, was an insurance salesman who ran for mayor in 1976. He died of brain cancer in 1983. Barker’s mother, Mary, who passed away earlier this year, had her own struggles with alcoholism. She kicked her seven-year addiction in 1970, when Barker was in fifth grade, and later became an alcohol-abuse counselor. “I grew up around it [alcoholism], and that’s definitely part of my story, but my mom was my absolute best friend. We had an ideal relationship — once she got sober.”

After Barker graduated from Charlotte Country Day, she went to college at UNC-Chapel Hill, where her drinking escalated. But she also continued to run, often competing against men, which helped boost her self-esteem. But no matter how often or fast she ran, the drinking always caught up with her.

“I was living two lives,” Barker says. “From the outside, I looked like I had it together. I was a healthy athlete; I was out there winning races. I appeared to be pretty centered. But on the flip side was this person constantly finding reasons and excuses to drink.”

One person who had no idea about Barker’s double life was her older sister, Helen Nance, who, like most people, saw Barker as a happy and successful woman with a bright future. “Molly always excelled at everything she attempted,” says Nance. “whether it was track, grades, or extracurricular activities. As a big sister I was really impressed. Like most people, I wasn’t aware of the struggles she was going through.”

By 1989 Barker had gotten married, received a master’s degree in social work, and was working as a counselor at Davidson
College. But she felt lost and empty inside, and she was drinking more than ever.

“The thing about alcoholism is when you’re under the influence, you can get rid of all the things you don’t like about yourself. But when you wake up the next morning, all those things are raging even louder. It becomes this endless cycle, and you feel shameful.”
Barker divorced in 1991, and that started her on a dangerous downward spiral. She bounced from job to job and drifted from one friend’s house to another. “Those were some of the darkest days of my life,” she says. “I wasn’t destitute or lying in the gutter, but my drinking was out of control, and I was growing really depressed. It was a horrible time.”

She had her lowest moment on July 6, 1993. Continuing to lose the battle with alcohol and feeling overwhelmed by her depression, she called her sister and told her that unless things changed, she was thinking about ending it all. Her sister managed to calm her down and convinced her to hold on.

The next day, while running down East Boulevard, Barker had her epiphany.

“I attached myself to other people who were in recovery,” Barker says. “I started working at the Drug Education Center doing prevention work with kids, and basically began getting my life in order. It was sort of like cleaning my table so I could look people in the eye again.”

Using her background in counseling and teaching, and inspiration from such works as Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher (“It talked about the struggles of girls,” Barker says. “I felt like it was describing me.”), Barker developed the early version of GOTR in 1993.
“I had thirteen kids sign up that first year,” she says. “The following season twice as many showed up, and it continued to grow from there, branching out into other schools and area YMCAs, then other states.”

Today, GOTR is an international, nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members in forty-one states and Canada. “I never imagined it would get this big,” says Barker.

GOTR, designed for third through fifth graders, meets twice a week for twelve weeks. It combines running with lessons that promote physical, emotional, social, and spiritual growth. Allee Olive, thirteen, participated in the program a few years ago, and in addition to training for and completing a 5K run, Olive says GOTR taught her some important lessons about life. “We talked about how to stand up for what you believe and who you are,” she says. “It made me feel more confident and empowered.”

Barker has also developed Girls on Track for sixth through eighth graders, which addresses many of the same issues as GOTRs.

"I often wonder if GOTR came along for the girls or for me,” Barker says. “Every year it helps me learn something new about myself. I spent most of my life feeling like something was missing. Today, I finally feel complete."

For more information, visit www.girlsontherun.org or call 704-376-9817.