Beneath a grove of quaking aspens at Steens Mountain Running Camp in southeastern Oregon, Melody Fairchild circled up the high school runner girls and women coaches. She spoke about her legendary running career as an elite high schooler, collegiate athlete, and pro, including specific challenges she faced as a female athlete. Then she asked, “What makes you happy?”
At first, the group was silent. Eventually someone spoke up. Then others did, too, buzzing about happiness, health, and sport. That talk sparked special conversations that carried on beyond the grove, throughout that year at camp and subsequent sessions, and now 14 years later, across the country.
“It is the epitome of the feminine approach of leadership through consensus building, rather than top-down leadership,” says Fairchild, author, coach, and director of Boulder Mountain Warriors in Boulder, Colorado. “Circles are deeply rooted in tribal cultures, where everyone is on equal ground, can see one another, and be heard.”
Young runners say “girl talks” create (and protect) safe space and time for athletes of any age to learn, listen, and grow. Even the collective silences, if awkward, are powerful. These special conversations offer an opportunity to bond as a team and community, and are especially important knowing the systematic cultural and societal pressures girls and women face, inside and outside of sport.
Ava Knap, a senior at St. Joseph-Ogden High School in Illinois, discovered girl talks through a Wildwood Running clinic, and has hosted them for female athletes in Illinois. “I have seen a tremendous change in our team’s environment. Sometimes these touchy subjects are altogether avoided, and athletes don’t have the chance to speak about their struggles,” she says. “They are instead taught to fear them. When we purposefully made conversations about mental health, RED-S [Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport], and amenorrhea, it empowered the girls to speak up about these topics and destroy the stigma with the word ‘period.’”
The most powerful conversations center on the “ideal runner’s body,” and how runners are often pressured into underfueling and overtraining, Knap says. Other common topics include toxic narratives, puberty, and periods.
When Maire Davis Markham, assistant cross-country and track coach at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, attended one of Fairchild’s sessions at Steens, she’d been coaching for five months. “[Fairchild] shared information about how girls’ bodies change and how if you embrace your body and let it do what it is supposed to do, you will come out strong and probably even a better runner,” Markham says. “After being a competitive runner for over 20 years and now a new coach, I had never heard someone have this conversation.”
Markham’s athlete wanted to take what they learned back to their teammates. “They felt empowered. And I knew right then what my role was going to be…That conversation high on the mountain tops motivated me to start Girls Talk.”
A longtime elementary school teacher, Markham developed a template for girl talks to support coaches and moderators to step back, while also teaching. Starting at Lincoln, she has led talks and mentored coaches at the high school, collegiate, and club level—including Idaho’s Boise Bettes women’s running club—in at least 10 different states and shared the concept with hundreds of athletes and coaches at camps and conferences.
Eva Novy-Hildesley, a junior at Lincoln in Oregon, credits girl talks for creating a healthier environment for her team. “It is through genuinely meaningful conversations that people begin to build trust and valuable support systems, and I think for our team girl talks have been a big part of that,” she says.
Her tips for approaching these talks? Be vulnerable. Ask questions. Implement, as “putting them into practice is what creates lasting impact.”
Markham also shares tips for creating your own girl talk:
- Have a “big idea”—a topic and why it’s important.
- Use a prompt, such as an article or podcast.
- Provide snacks.
- Keep it optional and not during a busy or stressful time (try the off-season).
- Prepare follow-up questions to keep the conversation going.
- Reflect using pen and paper.
- Remember it’s OK if someone doesn’t talk; they are taking it in.