People know Amy Dowe by her running shoes.

They're always Nike Air Pegasus. Always orange or pink. Always eye-catching.

After her kids get on the bus for school, she roams the foothills, anywhere from 2 1/2 to five miles.

"People will see me in the store and say, 'I know your sneakers!'" said Dowe, 40, a fitness instructor and mother of two.

She loves to run.

"It's just a way to free my mind," Dowe said, and then sounds like a parent who regularly loses control of the radio dial in the car. "I listen to my music - whatever I want to listen to - and just go."

For the past four months, Dowe has shared her love of running with 15 girls, including her 9-year-old daughter Emma, in third through fifth grades at Canyon View Elementary School through a program called Girls on the Run.

The national program has 19 teams in the Tucson area, said Mary Atkinson, who oversees the city's groups as well as coaches a squad at Whitmore Elementary School.

Coaches not only train girls to run a 5K but help build their self-esteem.

"Girls on the Run isn't just coaching, it's really about developing this confidence and self-worth," Atkinson said.

It's life lessons plus exercise, said Dowe, who'd heard about the program from a friend. She teamed with another friend, Kelly McLaughlin, and together they pushed to bring Girls on the Run to Canyon View. Teams need a minimum of eight girls and are capped at 15 - Canyon View ended up with a waiting list.

Dowe and McLaughlin shared coaching duties at the twice-a-week practices and spent extra time during the week preparing lesson plans that cover topics like popularity and the importance of seeking out supportive friends. One exercise, of the physical and mental variety, had the girls repeatedly jogging onto the Canyon View playground to Dowe. If she told them something negative, the girls trudged back to the ramada. A positive comment meant they could skip.

Afterward, Dowe asked how they felt hearing those mean things.

"I kind of hear that a lot," one girl admitted.

It bothered Dowe, even weeks later.

"As a mom, it's very heartbreaking to hear what some of these girls say," she said. "You don't want them to feel hurt and pain."

Dowe herself was afraid to run for years. She stuck to the treadmill because it was safe - she could hop off any time and didn't have to worry about getting stranded. She felt embarrassed about the idea of running out in public. Back when she played lacrosse in college, her teammates teased her about how she ran since bunions affected her stride.

"I was always intimidated to go ahead and put myself out there," said Dowe, whose friend and neighbor eventually coaxed her outside for a jog.

Now she wouldn't dream of staying cooped up inside on a treadmill. She runs alone and with friends whenever they can get together on a weekend.

"It's like a therapy session," Dowe said.

Though she's only been running seriously for a few years, Dowe has already tackled half-marathons and, of course, the Girls on the Run 5K late last month.

The end-of-season event, around Tucson Medical Center's campus, had added significance for Dowe because it took place just days after the Boston Marathon bombing that left three dead and injured many others, including her best friend, who lost her right leg.

"I was able to do it in her honor," Dowe said. "I had run several times in the morning on my regular run and it was very difficult. This was all joy."

Her girls, clad in pink shirts with their hair sprayed bright colors, were full of energy and smiles and encouragement, cheering each other on to the finish line.

"It was amazing," Dowe said.

She's already signed on for next year.

"To know you can make a difference with these kids, it's awesome," Dowe said. "I'm looking forward to doing it again."

get inspired

The national, nonprofit program designed to inspire girls in third through fifth grades to be healthy and confident has been in Tucson since 2010. Practice sessions that culminate in a 5K run are held in the fall and spring. Go to to learn more.

"Girls on the Run isn't just coaching, it's really about developing this confidence and self-worth."

Mary Atkinson, oversees Girls on the Run in Tucson

Contact Kristen Cook at or 573-4194.