For American Liz Warner, an impending 30th birthday milestone was an opportunity to plan something that would mix her passions for adventure and social change. In January last year, with 10 marathons already under her belt, Liz launched a fundraising project: Run to Reach, with the aim of running 30 marathons in 30 countries before her 30th birthday, whilst supporting different female-focused NGOs (non-government organisations) in each country.
With only 5 left to run before her birthday, Liz, who lives in Paris, spared some time to tell me about the project and her experience so far.
Tell me about your background – did you run growing up or play sports?
I grew up playing the sport squash pretty competitively up until university. After experiencing a bit of a burnout from squash, I decided to sign up for a half-marathon with a good friend – having never run more than a couple of miles before! It was such a positive experience and only made me want to keep pushing my physical boundaries with running. So I decided to bite the bullet and sign-up for my first full marathon in 2013 when I was living in Tokyo.
From that point onwards, I became completely addicted to running, mostly for the powerful meditative effect it had on me. My long early morning runs became such a sacred part of my day and also allowed me to push through a very difficult period of my life, following my father’s sudden passing. Like for many, running has become my form of therapy; with every foot forward I feel mentally lighter and more emotionally balanced.
Tell me about what you’re doing with Run to Reach and what you’re hoping to achieve?
In 2019, I combined my passions of change-making and adventure and launched Run to Reach, an 18-month marathon fundraising campaign with the goal of running 30 marathons in 30 countries before turning 30 in June of 2020 – aiming to raise $100,000 to support local, women-empowerment organisations in each country visited. Beyond the personal challenge, the purpose of this project is to shine a significant spotlight on these organisations and the positive impact they have, working to give each one global recognition and visibility.
Was there a particular moment or experience that inspired you to launch Run to Reach?
The idea of Run to Reach initially popped in my head during my honeymoon in September 2018. I was definitely going through a transition period in my life professionally, where I felt stagnated by my career path. The overriding emotion I was feeling was one of setting new intentions; not of settling down, but instead, diving into some kind of high-wattage adventure that involved putting a real, positive dent on the world.
Once I let the idea of ‘Run to Reach’ marinate in my head for a few days, it became clear that this project had the ability to tick off each of these new life objectives. So, with the support of friends and family (and my new husband), I decided to say yes to this crazy idea, knowing that this opportunity might never present itself again. If I’m lucky enough to get to the point in life where I’m old and grey, I most probably will be proud that I took this leap of faith and tried my best at living a life full of stories.
How did you physically prepare for a big increase in marathon running?
Before starting this challenge in January 2019, I was in fairly good ‘marathon training’ shape. On a good week, I would run on average 60 miles, so I wasn’t too preoccupied with adding too many more miles to my weekly total. I was more focused on training and strengthening my mental endurance, as I felt this is what I needed to build up when taking on one or two marathons a month. In the lead-up, I would try to spend at least one or two days a week running for a 6- or 7-hour stretch all around Paris, which really helped me build up my mental toughness.
Which marathons have you run so far?
It’s important to note that this Run to Reach mission only involves my final 20 marathons (of the 30), as I had already completed 10 marathons before starting this project. I have completed 25 marathons out of the 30 in Egypt, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Paris, Lebanon, Austria, Portugal, Qatar, Oman, Western Sahara, Guatemala, South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Australia, Mongolia, Chile, Madagascar, Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, and Colombia.
Simply put, marathon running is booming all across the world now!
Has working with female-focused NGOs around the world been eye-opening?
Absolutely, it has been one of the most powerful, eye-opening experiences of my life. I actually set pretty strict criteria during the selection process of each of the 20 partner NGOs in this mission. I made it a priority to select organisations that I felt a strong connection to, those who could prove that at least 90% of all contributions go to their beneficiaries, and who represented sustainable development in all of their actions. It honestly proved very difficult to find and connect with local organisations that were completely transparent about their funding streams and actions.
But since the list was set and each partnership confirmed, I have been blown away by the work being done in each of these countries. From providing microloans and entrepreneurship training programs to offering family planning services, each of these NGOs are empowering the world’s most vulnerable women to define their own identities and grow as leaders of change in their community.
You joined the non-profit Free to Run while you were in Afghanistan. Can you tell us more?
It is still not culturally acceptable for women to participate in any type of sporting activity in Afghanistan. Afghan women continue to face continuous harassment, offensive reactions, and sometimes even threats to their safety, simply for running in public. In light of this issue, Free to Run identified an overwhelming need to develop and support opportunities for women and girls to become involved in sport, especially for those affected by war and conflict. By providing women with safe spaces to run in Afghanistan, Free to Run’s aim is to use sport as a platform to provide important life skills, while also giving members the opportunity to build their social networks.
It was incredibly inspiring to witness first-hand how the Free to Run Afghan women runners are using running as their weapon of change to encourage future Afghan women to defy cultural norms and assert their independence in society. Crossing the finish line with these fiercely courageous, resilient Afghan women runners at the Marathon of Afghanistan was one of the most humbling moments of my journey thus far.
Have you experienced much human kindness and hospitality during your trips?
A big yes! The acts of human kindness and hospitality from strangers have been endless. One of the warmest human interactions I have experienced on this journey was attending a Sahawari wedding at a refugee camp in Western Sahara. It felt like such an honour being included as a guest at this colourful wedding event and witnessing the sheer joy of the Sahawari people, who materially and socially have so little, yet continue to celebrate life in such a big way.
I’ll also never forget being summoned to the dining room by the owner of the tiny guest house I was staying in, in rural Kyrgyzstan. This sixty-year-old woman had just announced that her daughter had given birth to twins that day and that we all needed to celebrate the happy news by spending the night around the table, polishing off a bottle of vodka. There was a lot of laughter, even some dancing involved. In retrospect, it was a very bizarre experience! But I also feel so grateful to have been welcomed in such a warm way and to have been made to feel ‘at home’ in such unfamiliar spaces.
Which has been the most challenging marathon you’ve run?
All of the marathons have been difficult in their own ways! Running up an active volcano (twice) during the marathon in Guatemala was definitely tough. But then taking on a marathon in 36-degree heat on a relatively flat course in Cote d’Ivoire also felt very trying!
What have been the highs and lows of your challenge so far?
The highs of this journey have definitely involved travelling to some pretty far-reaching countries I never even dreamed of going to before – Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Mongolia, Chilean Patagonia. And of course, having the opportunity to work closely with such a broad range of admirable women organisations and being able to do everything in my power to promote their incredible work. It’s also been hugely rewarding forging so many new life-long friendships on this journey, as well.
But an inevitable burnout period began to creep in a few months ago. All of the glitter and excitement from all the travelling started to wear off, the stress of all the finances involved in this mission began to peak, even running started to feel anxiety-provoking.
Nevertheless, I feel grateful to have gone through this turbulent storm of self-doubt, as it has become of the greatest personal lessons I have learned from this journey: to simply take a step back and unload the figurative bricks of pressure off my shoulders. Having gotten this far, I now feel excited about the unknown or what’s to come in the remaining six months of this life adventure.
How often do you run now and has your training changed since you started the challenge?
It really varies from week to week, [and depends] whether I am travelling or back home in Paris. The honest truth is that I’ve found it pretty hard to train openly outside in a lot of the countries I’ve been travelling to. As a result, my marathons have almost become my training runs! To make up for my lack of training runs, I do travel with a yoga mat, so that I can at least focus on strength training exercises and stretching, to try to prevent any injuries.
How are you feeling mentally and physically after doing at least one marathon a month?
Surprisingly, I’ve felt more than fine doing all of the marathons! I think what continues to exhaust me is the travelling and the administration/backend work that goes into the campaign – coordinating with each of my 20 partner NGOs, trying to sort through all travel logistics, figuring out my monthly budget, reaching out to sponsors etc. I so look forward to marathon days because it honestly feels like a day off from all of the other work goes into this project!
What are your staple items of kit for your marathons?
I wear very few accessories when I run, not even a watch! I always make sure to wear my running belt, so that I can keep my Huma gels on me, as well as my phone to take lots of photos and videos during the race. When I know the temperature will be above 30 degrees, I will of course also run with a camelback. But other than that, I am very much a minimalist in terms of marathon kit!
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I have done some fun collaborations with several brands (Sundried, BAM clothing, Huma gels), as well as Solvital solutions, a sun-protective natural supplement company that donated a significant amount of Skymiles towards my travels.