At the age of 13, when I first began my journey as a runner, I knew that I had been given a gift and could someday rank among the best in the world. I also knew I was given that gift to help others. Running came easy, but I had no idea how to run for a good cause. It would be many years before I realized that when shared with others, running can be a win-win.
Reframing Running Around a Good Cause
After winning the men’s marathon U.S. Olympic Team Trials in 2008, I was approached by Michael Chitwood, the founder and leader of Team World Vision. His team raises money to bring clean water to thousands of people in Africa who otherwise would not have access to it. They train, race, and fundraise in various races across America as a way to use their miles to serve the less fortunate. When Michael contacted me, I had an “ah ha” moment; I finally realized the link between running and helping others. My wife Sara and I ended up partnering with Team World Vision to help bring clean water to 90,000 people in Zambia.
After the Beijing Olympics, I was in a pretty bad funk. My 10th-place finish wasn’t what I’d dreamt of, and after two weeks off post-race, I was in need of some inspiration. So Sara and I headed to Zambia and visited a few of the communities that we’d helped bring water to. It was exactly the inspiration I needed. It was my first trip to Africa and certainly a life-changing experience. I was blown away by how happy the people were despite how little they had. They showed me that happiness doesn’t come from possessions or wealth; it comes from relationships and community.
One long-lasting memory I have from that trip is talking to a villager at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for one of the boreholes we’d funded. By bringing clean water to his village, he told me, we’d helped increase the life expectancy from the mid-30s to the mid-40s. Even though mid-40s is still young, adding 10 years to someone’s life by getting a bunch of runners to train together, fundraise, and finish a race was incredible. It added a deeper layer to the miles I logged. After speaking to that villager and learning how much this single hole meant, I thought of all the runners back in the U.S. who had contributed and how they were winners even on poor race days because they brought years of life to those in need.
Win-win running is the best of both worlds: You win because of what you accomplish physically, but someone else also wins as a result of your running. After Sara and I had our initial partnership with Team World Vision, we began our own organization: The Hall Steps Foundation. This was our way to give back through our running and encourage others to do the same. Running can be a powerful instrument of change: physical change within our own bodies and social change that makes the world we live in a better place.
How You Can Help
I want to encourage you to think of the smallest, easiest way you can turn your running or physical training into a win-win. You don’t have to travel abroad to make a difference. Maybe paying it forward means going on a run with someone who could use a training partner; maybe it’s taking your friend’s kids out to the track for a workout to give their parents a date night; maybe it’s starting a running club in a nearby underserved community. Taking the first step with something small allows us to start moving in the right direction and see how rewarding it can be to use our running to have a positive impact on a good cause.
There are so many ways to make running about more than just getting in shape. Start thinking of it as a way to help others with every step. Who knows, you might even benefit from changing your outlook. I’ve certainly found that the more I make my running about helping others, the more life-giving running becomes to me.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.