One Woman Shares Her Story Running 30 Marathons In Nearly 30 Countries to Help Empower Women Around the World

Run to Reach was all about creating a positive impact on the world one 26.2-mile run at a time.

The traditional life trajectory after matrimony usually involves settling down with your lifetime companion, investing in a house in a peaceful suburb, and committing to a 9-to-5 job that guarantees a comfortable living. However, this predefined path was never my cup of tea. I yearned for an electrifying adventure that involved making a meaningful impact on the world. During my honeymoon trip across Namibia in September 2018, I finally conceived my unconventional passion project: attempting 30 marathons in 30 different countries before my 30th birthday on June 8, 2020. It was an exhilarating challenge that resonated with my life's aspirations – something my previous employment at a design PR firm in Paris, reminiscent of the stressful atmosphere in The Devil Wears Prada, could never facilitate. But my ambition wasn't merely globetrotting or exploring exotic locales. An intense desire to contribute loomed large within me, prompting me to collaborate with women-centric or women-led non-profit organizations working towards empowering women in each of the individual countries. My ultimate objective by the end of this ambitious journey was to amass a total fundraising amount of $100,000 for these frontline groups. Upon further refining the project's framework, the only certainties were the initial few marathons I'd participate in and the partnering non-profit organizations in those countries. Everything else, like the logistics of traveling across these nations, effective fundraising strategies, and my perseverance to complete the endeavor, remained shrouded in uncertainty. But I held onto the belief that running would be the medium through which I could establish authentic connections with these groups and communities, with everything else gradually falling into place. I christened my 18-month project 'Run to Reach', embarking on this exciting journey in January 2019.

Becoming a Globe-Trotting Marathon Runner

Originally from Atlanta, my life took a turn when I landed a marketing internship at a tech start-up in Japan after finishing college. This move was inspired by my previous experience teaching English in Vietnam while still in school. However, the sudden demise of my father made me realize the need for an outlet to cope with my grief. A friend suggested participating in a marathon happening in Tokyo, and without giving it much thought, I signed up.

The daily running drills quickly became my therapy, helping me deal with my loss. The sense of accomplishment I felt upon completing that first marathon transformed me, instilling a newfound belief in my capabilities. The thrill of conquering challenges prompted me to sign up for a second race in Korea and eventually led to the completion of 10 marathons in different countries, setting the stage for the launch of Run to Reach.

While planning for Run to Reach, I was initially drawn towards picturesque locations like Argentina, Cuba, and Seychelles. But soon, I realized the real adventure lay in exploring lesser-known countries that were usually off the tourist radar. Fast forward fourteen months and seven pairs of shoes later; I had completed races in diverse locations such as Oman, Sierra Leone, Chile, Doha, Madagascar, and Mongolia, among others.

Each country presented its unique set of challenges. In Guatemala, I raced up an active, smoke-spewing volcano. Somaliland, being a conservative Muslim nation, required me to run the complete marathon in full-length clothing under scorching heat on a monotonous stretch. In Yemen's island of Socotra, due to extreme daytime heat, the marathon commenced just an hour before sunset, leaving me to navigate most of the race amidst the disorientating darkness, with only my nostalgic '80s and '90s playlist for company.

Unforgettable experiences weren't always around the races themselves, but rather the human spirit they encapsulated. In Afghanistan, my co-runners were 45 local women who used the marathon as a tool to assert their freedom and challenge societal expectations. In contrast, in Cote d'Ivoire, a West African country, I faced gender discrimination when officials disallowed me from participating in the race due to my gender. After explaining the potential PR disaster this could cause due to my project, they conceded to let me and another female runner from France participate, under the stipulation that we forego any prize money if we won. (For the record, I didn't win).

While these countries may not be conventional travel spots and might even be perceived as perilous, one must remember that conflict isn't the complete narrative. An open-minded approach and personal interaction with the locals will reveal their happiness for your appreciation of their homeland's beauty rather than an intention to change it. This has led to a greater level of respect and warmth shown towards me during my travels.

Putting the Spotlight on Empowering Organizations

Despite the continuous journey and scarcely a month's rest at home in the past year, running marathons has come to be the effortless part of the project. The fact is, I can rise and run a marathon without requiring any training—it has become another day's work. Nevertheless, the administrative aspect of Run to Reach—from raising funds and driving awareness campaigns to actual interactions with the organizations—has been the most challenging yet fulfilling part. Before each race, I allocate a week or two residing in the host country, striving to understand the work my partner NGO undertakes profoundly, immersing myself into their mission, and collaborating with them to create a powerful campaign that highlights their initiatives and optimizes their visibility. But before long, I find myself on another flight to a different country, ready to initiate the entire process once again. While it might be emotionally draining to show such deep empathy and make relentless attempts to comprehend what these individuals are going through, it is also unbelievably satisfying. I have gained knowledge about numerous issues hitherto unknown to me and interacted with countless remarkable individuals from various empowering organizations.

In Afghanistan, I collaborated with the non-profit organization, Free to Run, which is dedicated to creating safe environments for women to participate in sports and physical activities. In Cote d'Ivoire, I partnered with Empow'her, an organization that offers entrepreneurship training programs specifically designed for Ivorian women. Furthermore, in Somaliland, I teamed up with the Edna Adan Hospital Foundation, a charity committed to eradicating preventable maternal and child deaths as well as putting an end to female genital mutilation within the country.

The COVID-19 Complications

Wrapping up my 28th marathon in Yemen in March 2020, I was soon caught up in the global uproar caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. The consequent cancellation of my marathons scheduled for Greece and Mt. Everest put me at a crossroads. Nevertheless, if there is anything this journey has impressed upon me, it's the power of positivity in transforming obstacles into opportunities.

I quickly realized that wallowing in disappointment was not an option. Instead, I resolved,"My project will be seen through to the end. It might differ from what I initially anticipated, but I am determined to use this situation to my advantage". This shift in perspective led me to conceptualize and execute a virtual marathon on a global scale.

In the course of a month, I dedicated approximately 10 hours each day persuading runners worldwide (many of whom were strangers) through social media to be part of my unique project. The hard work paid off from my small apartment in Paris: On May 24, I was virtually accompanied by 500 runners from across 110 countries on a run (also, 39 of these participants completed full marathons). Despite covering all 26.2 miles solo, I experienced an unprecedented connection with numerous runners from diverse locations. It felt as if I was competing in all these countries although I was physically running in France. By the finish line, I managed to gather over $13,000 for the World Health Organization's COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, which is aimed towards speeding up the development of treatments and vaccines, supplying essential resources to frontline workers, among other needs.

The 30th Marathon

As my 30th birthday approached in a fortnight, I had to complete one final marathon. Given the limited options due to most European borders being closed until after my birthday, I was fortunate to find Andorra, a tiny nation bordering France and Spain, welcoming French visitors. The country's embassy and tourism board were keen on promoting their stunning landscapes to runners like me. Moreover, I aimed to raise funds for Black Visions Collective, Campaign Zero, and Black Curriculum, all organizations committed to combating racism and police brutality. Just before entering my 30s on June 8, I embarked on my last marathon at a height of 7,300 feet amidst falling snowflakes. It wasn't just any marathon; I ran an additional few miles to commemorate my birthday. As I traversed through mountains, battled with severe leg cramps, and covered those 30 miles, I found myself musing over the past 18 months and the significance of Run to Reach in my life. There were moments when I contemplated giving up or wondered if my zeal for this mission was fading. Despite feeling prepared to transition into the next phase of my life, I paused a few miles short of the finish line. A thought crossed my mind, "I don't want this to end.”

As I glimpsed at my spouse, patiently waiting by the quaint lake with his improvised finish line, I experienced an immense sense of liberation and couldn't help but sob. Even though I've been through seven bouts of food contamination, countless vehicle breakdowns during journeys, and seemingly endless hours spent communicating with NGOs and conducting research, many aspects of Run to Reach were incredibly enlightening and emotional. Ultimately, I managed to amass $51,700 to aid and empower women globally.

The question of what lies ahead remains largely unanswered for me. My hope is that I can keep sharing the inspiring stories of the women I encountered, perhaps through a podcast or another ambitious endeavor. But my existence will always be divided into two phases - "Life Before Run to Reach" and "Life After Run to Reach". Were there challenging times during this project? Without a doubt, and those moments of despair will never fade from memory. However, I believe life is all about embracing audacious ideas and stepping out of your comfort zone every now and then. What spurred me to embark on this journey and what gave me the courage to pursue it, remains unclear. But I am immensely grateful for the decision I made.

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