Justifying The Freedom Runners

On September 26 of this year, Samantha Gash will begin a 2,300-kilometer run across South Africa’s Freedom Trail. She and her partner Mimi Anderson will attempt to run the entire trail in just 32 days, and in the process they hope to raise $50,000 for women’s-health initiatives within South Africa. Apparently lots of women end up leaving school early because they don’t have access to normal feminine-hygiene products and feel ostracized from their communities. And with super low wages in much of the country, many families cannot afford to buy such products. Sam feels strongly enough about this cause that she is willing to run two marathons a day for a month in an attempt to raise money and awareness. My question is: why?

Seriously, why would anyone look at a problem like that and think, You know what would help this? If I ran a really long way across the country. What does running long distances have to do with a lack of feminine-hygiene products in South Africa? If one really wanted to help this problem, wouldn’t a better option be to move to the country for a while, live among the communities, and learn intimately what is creating these issues, and then work to resolve them from the inside out? This problem is obviously one of great concern to a lot of people, and very worthwhile to focus on, but I’m just missing the connection here. How does long-distance running have anything to do with resolving a shortage of feminine hygiene products in South Africa?

The whole project appears to be a random connection of disparate concerns. Which came first–the run or the desire to fix this problem? Perhaps Sam simply wanted to run the Freedom Trail and then decided to make it into a cause for good. Or did she instead feel so strongly about alleviating this women’s issue in South Africa that she tried to find a way to help… and somehow landed on running really far? Either way, I suppose we should applaud her civic mindedness in trying to monetize her running for a good cause. But that just transfers my concern to the donors. What person, interested in alleviating the shortage of women’s hygiene products in South Africa, would view their best option of donating to the cause to be to support some random white girl’s long-distance trail run across South Africa? Surely one could find a more direct way to contribute to the cause than that. More importantly, surely people don’t need arbitrary physical challenges to make them want to help the less well-endowed. Or so I’d like to believe.

Yet this kind of project is common. People regularly put themselves up against extremely difficult yet totally contrived odds in order to raise awareness and money for something they believe in. Sometimes the connection is clear, like when cancer victim Terry Fox ran across Canada in the 1980’s, he did so to raise money for cancer. Cancer victim plus long run equals awareness of the issue and subsequent cancer funding. But Sam’s connection to her cause seems to extend no further than that she also is a woman. Those South African women don’t trail run, at least not competitively, because if they could afford to do that they could also afford tampons. And Sam isn’t South African, or from a similar background, or even from the same continent. She’s just a girl from Australia who likes to run and wants to help. In the end, the goal seems to be to raise awareness for a little-known issue and inspire people to donate time or money to their solutions. Arbitrary, perhaps, yet apparently effective, given such events’ ongoing success.

Now, having cut into Sam’s validation for her long runs, I should mention that I run long distances too… but I don’t donate to anybody. I travel around the world to compete in mountain races, but when cast against the angelic light of Sam’s project, my runs seem shady and self-motivated, more inclined to favor personal wealth and glory than to alleviate the sufferings of the disenfranchised millions. Why I run and climb in the mountains is much more difficult to explain than it is for someone who donates to charity. People like Terry Fox and Sam can (could) say, “I spend hours every day training to complete these challenges, but it’s for a greater cause than myself.” But all I can say is, “I spend hours every day training to complete these challenges… and I’ve had some very special experiences.” Or I could say that I’m trying to inspire people to be better by doing my own best. But that is a stretch. By comparison to people like Sam my running goals are selfish. I’m not creating sweeping global change–I’m playing games. Any crossover between those two categories is peripheral at best. I’m just a dude running in the mountains.

And I think that’s totally okay. Mountain running makes me happy and healthy in a lot of different ways and I don’t intend to stop, even if that means I have to be selfish to do it. That’s not to say that creating projects for the betterment of others isn’t good, but to require that everything you did be productive towards such ends would be to overwhelm yourself with inadequacy and guilt. Sometimes a guy just needs to go for a long run in the mountains to figure things out, selfish or not. And in my case–wherein I get to make a career of such running–nothing is different. I’m still just a dude running in the mountains. Maybe I’m not contributing to the betterment of society in such tangible ways as Sam, but there is more than one way to be a good person.

My guess is that Sam really does love to run long distances just like the rest of us, but she chooses to make her runs useful in a tangible way. Such a selfless thought process should be an example to the rest of us. She is using her specific skill set to do something that is undeniably good. But, selfish though this may be, I don’t want to do that, at least not right now. I want to be an athlete simply for the sake of being an athlete–to see what I can accomplish in my field with as few distractions as possible. I don’t want to fundraise; I don’t want to set up charities; I don’t even want more sponsors than I absolutely need to outfit me. I simply want to be the best that I can in the fields I choose–mountain running and mountain climbing. That’s what I love and that’s enough for me. While I’m an athlete, I’ll be an athlete. And when this career is over I will choose something else, hopefully something with more application to the wider world. But for now, I choose to run.

Philosophize however you wish on the ethics of different approaches. When it comes to specifics, Sam and I don’t actually differ so much. Whereas I see a run like Hardrock as an outstandingly aesthetic and inspiring goal–worthwhile in its completion to my absolute ability–Sam sees the Freedom Trail and the chance to contribute to a widespread group of underserved women as equally aesthetic and inspiring. To each goal we devote ourselves with a similar passion. Sam’s personal connection to the Freedom Trail is no more arbitrary or contrived than my personal connection to Hardrock or any other race. We’re both just doing what we believe in. That’s enough.

If you’re inspired by Sam’s project or you want to know more about it or mail them a briefcase full of cash (or tampons), please check out the website. Keep in mind that all of the money Sam raises in this project is put toward the charity Save the Children, which will then implement a series of strategies designed to begin working towards a solution to the issues and ultimately transfer the new industry to local people. Check out the website to see all the cool ways they will do this, and to see how transparent they are with every facet of the organization.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What motivates you to run? The pure desire to do something to the best of your ability, like what currently motivates Dakota? To assist others through your running, like what Sam and Mimi are intending to do later this year? Or something else entirely?
  • Do you agree or disagree with Dakota that as long as we runners are doing what we believe in, then that’s enough?

There are 5 comments

  1. ClownRunner

    At the end of the day most people do what they think is right–given their current circumstances. You've been given a gift and you are utilizing it in amazing ways. You inspire a lot of people. Your views on the world may stay the same, or they may change–too soon to tell (as Yoda might say). You have formed a lot of opinions to guide you on your path. Some of those opinions may become less black-and-white as you go down life's path.

  2. @AimforAwesome

    Nice timing… my childhood best friend (he's 47) and his 70 year old friend, just set out to bicycle across the USA for Jesus or something. He's never ridden more than 20 miles on a bike in his life. I just saw photos of them setting off. They don't even have a shoe/pedal clip system… or straps!

    I think this sort of thing was something special back in the 1940's or so. Today it's just too easy to ignore. However, I do know that if he makes it – there IS a God, and he cares about my friend riding his bike across the lower mainland USA.

    Raising money only helps so much. To say, I'm running across the Pacific Ocean to raise money for AIDS awareness might bring the cause a few tens of thousands of dollars. Wouldn't it be better to go help hands-on with the issue for a year, two, or ten years, if you really wanted to help? Running or biking some extraordinary distance is a whole lot easier and you don't have to face the tough issues. You don't even need to SEE anyone with HIV/AIDs… Just run and enjoy your time, like you are anyway. Makes it easier. Guess that is part of the point.

    I'm tired. Not sure what I'm saying.

    Thanks for the article Dakota, I always enjoy them.


    Vern L.

  3. E_C_C

    I've always had a problem with splashy undertakings whose purpose is to "raise awareness." Lots of hype, lots of money changes hands, and the problem is completely unchanged once the event passes. Sam's run passes the initial filter in this regard … the result of her effort will be to provide some tangible resources to a specific target group of people.

  4. dotkaye

    to be disagreeable.. Dakota's motivation is no purer than Sam's, since both of them depend on running for their livelihoods. The pure runners are the guys/gals who labor for their daily crust, then go running at 4am because there is no other time in the day available. Roger Bannister was the purest of runners; and perhaps the last of that breed who could be successful at both running and a working life.

    That said, I do respect Sam for giving back, and admire Dakota for his writing and running..

  5. Deeron08

    As usual, very amusing and well thought out. "A brief case full of cash (or tampons)"….great stuff. Its nice to read some solid wit on a Tuesday morning…..

    1. andymxyz

      Yes – always great to make a witty joke about serious, real world problems that the underprivileged are facing, and that you couldn't possibly understand. Ha ha! Good one!

      1. Deeron08

        My friend – I did not write this article – you are busting my balls cause I thought it was funny? How has humor detracted from real world problems? If anything it shines a light. Dakota amuses me -thats all.

        1. andymxyz

          That's an interesting take.

          Personally, I find that humor frequently can contribute to real world problems. (I think you meant "contributed to" rather than "detracted from").

          I am (honestly) curious if you would laugh at a witty, racist joke and then argue it shines a light on the problem of racism.

  6. Aaron

    Perhaps the novelty of such a thing is it’s only value. When it’s no longer novel to the general public it probably won’t be very useful to the cause.

  7. @PaigeMorrowLaw

    Before this post, how many of the guys in this thread were even aware that lack of access to feminine hygiene products could be a barrier to access to education?

    Arguing that someone should spend years working directly on the issue instead of raising money misses the point. When an ultrarunner decides to raise money to support a cause, they are not normally choosing whether to run a run or move to rural South Africa for ten years to work for an NGO on access to feminine hygiene products. They are typically deciding whether to run the race with a side goal of raising money and awareness for a cause, or just running without any other goal in mind. This particular run is very high profile and offers a unique opportunity to raise awareness about an otherwise ignored issue.

    I have often felt conflicted about charity marathons/bike rides/expeditions because I think we should donate to a good cause because it is good, not because a friend is running a race/trail that he or she likely wanted to run away. Nevertheless, they do serve a purpose: raising awareness and fundraising.

  8. mikehinterberg

    A challenging topic and one that doesn't have an easily generalized "answer" (if one is expected).
    Running or enjoying anything that does no harm to others is certainly defensible. Competition inspires greatness, and even outside of the top tier of athletic endeavor, running or doing anything with *quality* is also noble (see Pirsig). And running may increase happiness, health, and complement other aspects of life.

    I wish charity awareness were unnecessary, because all of us were on the same page with understanding and tackling major social issues, but in reality our attention is often consumed by heavily advertised/monetized interests, while important problems and certain populations certainly lack anywhere near a sufficient voice of advocacy.
    I like the example project because 100% of the costs go toward the cause, and it's a cause that is lacking in resources and messaging.

    OTOH, I think many of us feel bombarded with "charity fatigue" in a spectrum where things are less altruistic, but it's hard to talk about it openly without being lambasted. Yet some charities have a heavy and inefficient marketing cost; some donations are used to pay for training, registration, and even travel (including expensive and desirable places like, say, Hawaii) and valuable perks and goods; some charity athletes are very upfront on self-promotion. Again, people are free to do what they want and it generally doesn't hurt anyone, but ideally we'd have a clearer understanding of how efficiently and directly charity donations are spent: it's often a little difficult to click around and get this information directly. And some events with limited entries may, unfortunately, shut out qualified entrants in favour of donations, which may be tied circumstantially to having access to more money than anything.

    Lastly, have others run into this issue: people find out you're running in a race, and they ask, "Who/what are you running for?" You're left stumbling over your answer, which is really that you're running as a personal challenge to yourself — maybe you've been working on a PR for a few years, maybe it's a new distance, maybe you've lost a bunch of weight, or maybe you'd like your family and friends to join you and improve their health as well — but you don't have an easy answer. And maybe you donate monthly from each paycheck; or at the end of the year, when your employer matches your donations? But because you're silent and humble about the whole thing, it's not as visible as the half marathon charity runner on Facebook.

    Anyway, good stuff. We shouldn't assume or generalize that all charity runners are completely altruistic, and that all other fun or competitive running is 100% selfish.

  9. astroyam

    As usual, hilarious article!
    As far as running for a cause, if you set aside logic issues, the fact of the matter is that it works. It guilts people into paying if they want to know how the run went. So much the better, assuming the cause is useful.

  10. markymoro

    A few years ago I had a bout with Leukemia. Well-intentioned friends ran various marathons with a well-known fund raising organization (highly visible at many half and full marathons) as a gesture of support. They also let mutual friends and my family to let them know their run was in my honor. My friends and family are wonderful and were generous; some gave until it hurt as I knew for a fact some didn't have a lot of disposable income. While I was touched by the gestures of both the runners and givers, I was mortified that some may have felt particularly obligated to donate and at higher amounts because of what I was going through.

    Since then I purposefully avoid attaching charitable causes to my running activities. I am all for registration fees and additional personal donations going to good causes (I am running Wings for Life this weekend and donating to CAF via the TNF Endurance Challenges later in the year). But as astroyam mentioned – I don't want friends and family to think that my running hobby will cost them money.

  11. Aindriu1964

    I don't see this is such a clean cut issue, but something much more personal. _I run for a charity that I believe provides a great and much needed service in the cancer field….the name doesn't matter, but the work they do does matter. This is my choice….and there is a selfish element to it, as it helps me to rationalize the time and effort involved. I do not believe that I am a martyr to either ultrarunning or charity fundraising, but I do believe that I can be a conduit for raising awareness and helping people that might not get that little extra if I ran just for the heck of it. I'm not saying it's something everyone should do, just that it works to keep me focused and remind me (and I am no athlete, let me stress that…nobody is EVER going to pay me to do this full time!) just how lucky I am and not to take for granted the gift of being able to toe the line and look for the finish. Life is very short!

  12. colorunr

    Interesting. I never need to justify why I run. Sometimes I run because I'm focused on a race. Sometimes I run because I worked and worked, did everything I could-and my patient still died. Very humbling. I imagine Sam witnessed something very humbling as well.
    It would be far more interesting if someone from Irunfar did an article on bad ass ultra runners who don't spend their time justifying why they run or updating their glamour blog every time they head out the door. How about the ultra runners who have actual careers. (sorry-but working in coffee shops or running stores doesn't cut it). Cassie Scallon (nurse), Rory Bosio (nurse), Tina Lewis (nurse practitioner), Pam Smith (physician), Rob Krar (pharmacist), Luke Nelson (physician assistant)….stop glamorizing how awesome it is to "run full time". What the heck are you going to do in 2 years when the bigger faster stronger runners are here? It would be nice to think that there is a job with an application to the wider world waiting for you-but should know that there are college graduates with bigger faster stronger brains who have more life applications.
    Lets celebrate those who are not writing about justifying their glamour blog-instead work their butts off, study, and run to be free…if only for a moment. Then back to reality.

  13. johnopower

    "If one really wanted to help this problem, wouldn’t a better option be to move to the country for a while, live among the communities, and learn intimately what is creating these issues, and then work to resolve them from the inside out?"
    Really? Nobody knows the problem intimately enough and a foreginer needs to head in and find out whats going on? Furthermore, a foreigner working to resolve them "from the inside out" would have long term benefits, more so than if locals were supported to address things themselves?
    I disagree.

    1. Head over Heels - Aysha

      I agree. Its good to know what the problem is and the solution the community has come up with, but you can't have every foreigner butting in. And its much better to play to your talents. Charities need money and sanitary products cost money. Unless you're planning to create a factory that makes them for free, but then that creates problems of its own. … Oddly my friend is also running across africa this august, but we're not famous, so its a bit more of a slog to raise the money and organise the trip but I'm discovering so many reasons why this journey is good for me (organising it and recovered from mental health issues) and others who are involved. The charities we are raising money for I know intimately and are tiny. So I know that every penny makes a difference. We also wanted every country to benefit from Emma running through as otherwise it seems a little rude to me. That's just how it works in my head. So one of the charities is donating to projects in each country. Except Mozambique, we haven't found a charity in Mozambique. Anyway this is turning out to be a long reply, there's a lot of reasons why you choose to do something like this, maybe I'll write a blog post of my own if I get time. I think it doesn't matter why you run and its great that Samantha wants to raise the profile of an issue that is really important to all woman. And its a pretty important issue, you don't need to know much to understand if you are bleeding you either can't go out – to get educated or work – or you have to use something else, moss, rags, cotton wool and these can have health consequences. If we only stuck to charities that benefited us what would happen to people or causes in real need. But its also great that people run for the sheer love it. Interesting article though. It cuts pretty close to what we're doing so maybe I will write that blog post.

  14. mtnchallenge

    I'm coming at this from the non-profit/charity side. We are a small outfit and struggle with raising money for our work (mountain climate research). Since we're based in Silverton, CO, home of Hardrock100, we came up with a virtual ultra running event that will hopefully be more fun than many typical fundraising methods. Maybe even Dakota Jones will be interested :-) … shameless promo for MountainChallengeSeries.com

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