NATICK — Around town, the sight of girls wearing distinctive purple T-shirts, running here and there and on the oval track surface at the high school, has become common.
They are not running for the sake of running. They’re running after something: the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes after finishing a 5-kilometer road race, and the physical and mental health that exercise can provide.
The middle school students are members of the Strivers Running Club for Girls, founded five years ago by Colleen Phelps, a 46-year-old mother of two who recently completed her fifth Boston Marathon, in 3 hours 37 minutes. Her 14-year-old daughter, Caroline (“she is the reason I started Strivers”), plays lacrosse. Her son, Michael, 12, plays football.
Sunday morning at 8, Strivers Club members will be stepping off in the first Mother’s Day 5K Road Race at Natick High. The race is cosponsored by the club and Women’s Run Inc. , a sports gear retailer founded by women.
The early start, Phelps said, will give parents and their children a chance to run and get back home in time to “enjoy that Mother’s Day breakfast the kids have been planning all week.”
Phelps said she chose to focus her efforts on girls in middle school, in part, because she saw that by that age, their athletic choices begin to taper off — if a girl isn’t into soccer or lacrosse, what are her options?
“Girls at the middle school age are trying to figure out who they are, where they fit in,” said Phelps. “Their maturity level is all over the board and they all look different. We try to give the girls a place where everyone fits in.”
Running, Phelps believes, builds self-confidence, self-esteem, and healthy living habits.
Members can also learn about the benefits of cross-training and a healthy diet from nutritionists such as Nancy Clark.
The Strivers have listened to words of inspiration from two elite distance runners: Olympic Marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, a two-time winner in Boston; and more recently, three-time Boston Marathon champion Uta Pippig, who visited with the members and their parents a few weeks ago.
“Not only are they role models, but they show the way that running can open doors,” said Phelps.
Alexeya O’Brien, 13, has been part of the program for three years. She said although she does not consider herself an athlete — her main interests are in dance and theater — running provides another physical outlet, and she finds the group “a very supportive community.”
Belonging, she said, had made her more outgoing.
O’Brien tries to embrace Phelps’s concepts of a “physical body, physical mind and physical heart,’’ reflected in community service.
Another 13-year-old, Maeve Sheehy, said running provides an outlet for the stresses of everyday life.
“You don’t have to think about anything else but the running,” she said. “I definitely plan to stay with it.”
Megan Cuddy, 11, a two-year member, says that running makes her stronger for her other sports: lacrosse, soccer, and basketball.
“My whole family runs,” she said.
Club members have also learned lessons from other athletes of note, including Doug Flutie, and have participated in the former quarterback’s annual race that raises money to combat autism. To date, the Strivers have raised more than $12,700 for the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism.
Phelps said that through the community service projects, her organization has generated more than $50,000 for local charities, and members have donated countless hours to local nonprofits.
In that spirit, Phelps said, a portion of the proceeds from Sunday’s race will benefit Embrace A Family, a nonprofit that provides support for families faced with a cancer diagnosis. Embrace A Family was founded by the family and friends of two Natick mothers who died of cancer in 2005.
The club’s training sessions at the Natick High track are noncompetitive and designed to build endurance gradually.
Phelps said she is proud that 300 students have gone through the Strivers program. Every one, she said, has completed a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) race at the end of their session.
Juliana Green, 12, is one. “I feel proud when I finish a race,” she said. She’s aiming high in her running career.
“I really liked Uta,” Green said. “She inspired me to run a marathon someday.”