Justifying The Freedom Runners

A discussion about the fundamental motivations of runners.

By on April 30, 2014 | Comments

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?
Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.