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March 17, 2017

Run4AllWomen and Making Running a Political Act

“Serious Mileage Gets Painful. Fast.”

On Saturday, January 21, at 6:21 AM, Alison Désir and her entourage of fellow Run4AllWomen runners arrived in Washington, D.C. exhausted, exhilarated, and what I can only imagine was more than a little stinky. They’d just completed an over 240-mile relay run from New York City to  D.C. in about three days to take part in the Women’s March. They slept for short bursts in a van donated to the cause while their fellow relay runners handled some impressive chunks of distance on the roads. Then they switched off. Désir, an endurance athlete and running coach based out of Harlem, New York, soon discovered that, “sleeping upright [in the van] after running serious mileage gets painful. Fast.”

When I first heard about Alison Désir’s campaign (called Run4AllWomen) to run with a group of three other women from her home in New York City to Washington, D.C., I was impressed. People doing big, spontaneous activities that involve complex logistics and magnanimous feats of endurance is something I dig. It feels primal, feels like pushing out at the boundaries of possibility, just doing stuff that most humans usually can’t, don’t and/or won’t in their lifetimes. But this run was also more than that.

When Enough Is Enough

In the U.S’s post-election, post-inauguration reality, activism is becoming currency. People post daily about which Senators to call for what, or which bills and proposals have been put forth that you might not know about. At least on my newsfeeds, it’s clear that huge swaths of Americans, from a range of demographics, have mobilized. The thing is, it can be hard to know how effective all the social media activism is, and whether it’s posturing, i.e. activism for the purpose of portraying yourself as an activist, instead of actually pushing forward a cause you are passionate about.

Which is probably why, when I expressed excitement over Désir’s relay project and the crew’s success in finishing the distance by their goal time, a colleague of mine wondered, why? Why did they do that? What did it accomplish? It’s easy to get back-patting happy and report on things that appear good on the surface level without digging deeper. So it seemed important that I consider whether this relay run was actually effective – whether it was enough.

When I put this question to Alison, she brought up a good point:

“I think that as women, in particular, we often ask ourselves if we are ‘good enough’ ‘smart enough’ ‘pretty enough’. Well, we are all enough. And Run4AllWomen was enough.”

The numbers back her up. Through the pain of upright sleeping and the sheer magnitude of miles run, Run4AllWomen managed to raise donations totaling $104,000 for Planned Parenthood. And they received an outpouring of support, with over 1,000 people joining them along the way on the run.

These stats went way beyond Désir’s goals. She’d hoped to bring in $44,000 (as an homage to POTUS Number 44, Obama). She more than doubled that.

And she brought people together, too. Men, women, people of color. She had only planned on having three other runners with her the entire time, but instead, people heard about Run4AllWomen and jumped at the opportunity to be involved. “Every time we met a new person along the way there was a burst of fresh energy and excitement. Each person had a special story and connection as to why Run4AllWomen was important to them. I wish we’d had the forethought to record some of the testimony people were giving us along the way; it was powerful stuff.”

What Now?

Désir’s vision going forward is to continue to bring people together for the purpose of running as activism. She’s announced 22 new Run4AllWomen ambassadors and will host a summit at the end of April in New York to welcome the women, share and discuss some of the larger goals, “for what has now become a movement,” said Désir. “It is all still a work in progress, but our guiding principles are grassroots activism, empowerment through fitness, alignment of the community around a common goal, and advancing the cause of women’s health issues and conversations.”

In August, the new ambassadors will host runs across the U.S. and Canada to continue fundraising for Planned Parenthood.

Political Running

So is running as a political act effective? Well, there’s certainly been a precedent set throughout history, especially for women, where just running while female exists as a political act. Bobbi Gibb and Katherine Switzer both illicitly ran the Boston marathon before women were allowed to – before women were considered physically able to run the same amount as a man. Switzer was even chased along the course by officiants in a failed attempt to tackle and stop her from running. Just this past summer, Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa used his marathon race and the platform of the Olympics to protest the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on political dissent by crossing his arms above his head as he passed through the finish line.

Désir was quoted on her intention for the run before they began, saying, “This is us using our bodies and powering our way to D.C. It’s making running a political act.”

Since then, she’s had more time to reflect on what it means for running to be activism.  She’s resolute that, “Yes, I do think it was effective as a political statement in many ways. Firstly, four women of color spearheading an ultramarathon is something that you rarely, if ever, see happen. Beyond that, speaking openly and publicly about female reproductive rights and taking to the streets to fight for them them, is powerful. Particularly when you think that just 50 years ago, women were still thought physiologically incapable of running long distances. Run4AllWomen sent a strong message that we are unafraid to use our powerful bodies to demand change.”

Photo Credit: Rachel Link 

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