Coaches Robyn McGillis of Central Catholic and Marie Davis Markham of Lincoln were at a running coaches clinic in Boulder, Colo., last year when they came to a vivid realization.
Guidance specifically designed to address the physiological and emotional needs of female high school runners was sorely lacking.
“We asked, 'What do you do if you have a girl who starts going through puberty and they experience a plateau?'” McGillis said. “And the answer was kind of, 'Well, we don't. We just kind of keep training hard.'
“We thought, 'Gosh, we know there are confidence issues that happen and there's a big dropoff. We tend to lose a lot of girls junior and senior year.'”
Not satisfied, McGillis and Markham agreed to meet the following week in Portland to discuss how they could more effectively address the issues, and Wildwood Running was born.
McGillis, the girls track and cross country coach at Central Catholic, and Markham, an assistant at Lincoln, have joined forces to start a female runners support program that features a coaches clinic, virtual running camp and mentorship.
They organized a coaches workshop for August, which was forced to go online due to COVID-19, and now have more than 200 runners from across the nation signed up for the Wildwood Virtual Girls Running Camp, a 12-hour event that will be spread across three weekends in January.
The camp will feature former high school and college runners as counselors. The registration fee is $40 for individuals, or $35 for those signed up as part of a team. Scholarships also are available, no questions asked.
Information is available at wildwoodrunning.com.
“The big emphasis is for girls to receive information,” Markham said. “They're going to break into small groups, kind of like they would at a camp, and digest the information, talk about it and reflect.”
Registered teams will have their own breakout rooms.
“There aren't a lot of opportunities for teams to get together and talk,” Markham said. “Practice is only 90 minutes long, and that's usually focused on the physical piece. This is an opportunity to talk about these big topics that I think as coaches, we don't have that time to chat with them.”
McGillis said it is a chance for female athletes to “break the stigma” of topics that are largely overlooked.
“What if we could empower them with more knowledge about what's happening to their bodies?” McGillis said. “Instead of it being a taboo thing that they don't want to have happen, that it empowers them, and they can wrap their minds around it and say, 'Yeah, this is what's going to happen, and this is science.' It's not a bad thing, it's a good thing. So they don't feel shamed or embarrassed to talk about it.”
Markham, a six-time state champion runner at Lincoln who went on to a college career at Oregon, said the camp philosophy is to “develop the whole athlete” rather than just the technical aspects of running.
“It's really focused on nutrition, mental health, visualization,” Markham said. “We have a cooking class. We're talking about puberty and menstruation, just really focusing on all the topics that might be important for girls to navigate as they're going through high school and their bodies are changing.”
Markham said that many young female runners struggle with psychological and physical challenges.
“We know that as girls start to pump estrogen in their body, it's a fat-building mass,” Markham said. “Whereas boys are getting testosterone, which is a muscle-building mass. Things change for them, and it can be hard.
“We want girls to be strong in mind and body, so our message is that we want girls to understand that you don't want to fight your body. You want to embrace your body.”
Markham and McGillis drew inspiration from a talk at Steens Mountain Running Camp by Melody Fairchild, a former University of Oregon star who struggled with an eating disorder during her college career.
Fairchild, who coaches the Boulder Mountain Warriors youth team in Colorado, co-authored a book with Elizabeth Carey titled “Girls Running: All You Need to Strive, Thrive, and Run Your Best.”
“There's just so much information out there that could help and empower these young women, but this was the first time it had been done at this camp,” McGillis said. “It was like, there's a big missed opportunity here.”
Wildwood Running has partnered with Strong Runner Chicks – an organization of experienced female runners -- to develop a mentorship program. For $100, high school and middle school girls can connect with accomplished runners for six months. It will feature monthly workshops and social engagements.
“It's just an avenue for girls to have someone in their corner besides their parents and their coach, who they can talk to,” Markham said. “It can be running-specific, it can be about other things.”
After getting good feedback from the more than 100 coaches who participated in the online coaches clinic in August, Wildwood Running is planning another one for the summer of 2021. It is scheduled for in-person in Eugene during the Olympic Trials.
Wildwood Running is looking to expand its influence in the coming year.
“There might be some opportunities with summer camps that are already in place where we can come and talk,” McGillis said. “Eventually maybe we'll do our own camp.”