Martha Walker (Mission 29.2) Interview
It’s what Martha Walker exemplifies.
Ultrarunning is one of Martha’s demanding passions, it’s not her top priority.
This wife and mother of four is also the founder of Mission 29.2, a non-profit organization that organizes ultramarathons in the developing communities of Haiti, The Bahamas, and eventually beyond, in an effort to benefit educational programs for children. Martha graciously (and surprisingly) found time to answer questions regarding Mission 29.2, time management, and her own moving story:
1. Most of your time is spent running or helping others, so are you the happiest person in the world?
I am a pretty content person but I can assure you, I’ve had my fair share of bumps and bruises in life’s unpredictable journey. My husband and I have been fortunate to lead the youth of our church for over 15 years. We are passionate about teaching students, as well as our own children, to “think big” in regards to making positive change in the world. In spite of my fear of flying, it was this thinking that led me on my first trip to Haiti. It was also this first trip which inspired me to combine my desire to serve others with my passion with running. Who would have ever thought it would work?
2. What are the people like that you’ve met in Haiti, and how have they responded to the races?
It’s taken 5 years of relationship-building to come to a place of comfort in my work with the Haitian people. There have been countless communication challenges with the deep cultural differences that exist between us, and I’m sure there will be many more walls to scale in the future. However, when I bring a team of runners and volunteers to Ouanaminthe, one common experience we all seem to have is the overwhelming sense of acceptance and appreciation for what we are trying to help them with. It’s very important to me and to the people I work with, that we never try to impose our cultural ideas into our efforts. It’s not our place to do so. We are intentional about asking what we can do for our Haitian partners, rather than assuming what they need. This has proven to be a wise decision that has allowed us to build a high level of trust from the Haitians with whom we work. While the idea of long distance running is somewhat foreign to most Haitians, it’s a sport that is starting to catch on. I am excited to share my love of running with people in this developing country where they don’t typically run for fitness or enjoyment.
3. Talk a little about the programs Mission 29.2 currently helps or hopes to.
Our goal at Mission 29.2 is to support the educational needs of children within developing communities around the world, using organized 29.2-mile/km races as a catalyst to accomplishing this goal. We seek out and partner with educational establishments who are operating in developing countries such as Haiti. Through the use of web based social networking sites and word of mouth, we pull together a team of energetic individuals from around the world who are inspired to join us on one of our organized trips. Each team member is encouraged to raise a minimum of $1000 to support the educational needs of the children they will soon be meeting personally. This January will be our 4th annual 29.2 mile race in Ouanaminthe, Haiti. Donations have supported 2 locals schools in the community as well as an agricultural nonprofit based out of Haiti. This September will be our Inaugural Eleuthera Bahamas 29.2km race. We are in the process of organizing our traveling team to support a much needed afterschool program on this small island. We have 7 spots open if you’re interested! We have some feelers out in the Dominican Republic, India and even Tanzania; however, every organization we partner with will benefit local children’s educational needs.
4. Where did the 29.2 come from?
In the three years of planning and preparing for these events, we’ve connected with key people in the communities to agree upon race details, secure lodging for our team, and ultimately to work out the final allocation of the donations we are raising. We feel very confident in the system we’ve put into place and plan to follow this model in future locations. Still, there is one very important lesson we have learned in organizing and executing these races in Haiti. That lesson is: NOTHING goes as smoothly as you planned it would go. You need to be highly prepared on paper, but you must be flexible at all times to deal with the unexpected things that arise every day or even minute. In fact, the name of our organization incorporates one such change we had to make at the last minute of our inaugural race. Before the race at a meeting with one of the Haitian leaders who was helping us coordinate the course logistics, we told him that the final section of the marathon would be a short, out-and-back leg (rather than running another full loop), which would put the finish line at the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. In short, he replied that he had already informed the Haitian runners that the course would consist of complete loops, and he would not go back and tell the runners that the course was different from what he had already told them. That meant our original plans to run a 26.2-mile marathon were scrapped, and we would now be running a 29.2-mile ultra! This gave birth to our slogan, “It’s more than a marathon; it’s a movement.” We will continue to be flexible and will adapt accordingly as we bring this movement to new countries. Our ultimate goal is to create a brighter future for children and families in developing countries by funding educational opportunities and community development…not as foreigners with a better plan, but as partners.
5. With a husband and four children of your own, how do you balance family life with charity work?
I really want to start by telling you a story of my past which sets the tone for my present and future serving efforts. Fifteen years ago, my husband and I gave birth to our first son, Jonathan. He was perfect in every way, except that he was born with essentially half of a heart. We fought like hell to find a way to repair his cardiac defect, and we tried numerous surgeries and procedures to help him, but in August of 1998, Jonathan died. It was the most painful experience either of us has ever had to endure. Fast forward 10 years—I had the overwhelming epiphany that fighting for the educational hope of the children in Haiti was a fight I had a standing chance at winning. It was a challenge with a cure and a new hope for me to battle. I’ve always enjoyed a good fight! I won’t pretend the road has been painted in gold. I am a wife and mother of four. My husband and I work several jobs to put our own kids through school and keep the household secure. That does not leave a ton of time for the demanding needs of a developing nation such as Haiti. I simply set out to do what I can while keeping my family the highest priority. There are monthly teleconferences, planning meetings, and social networking needs to be met, but the Mission 29.2 team leaders all work hard to avoid burning anyone out. I find this journey to be very similar to running a 100-mile race. It’s slow and steady, pay attention to when you start to get run down, take time to refuel, be less concerned about how fast you’re moving at one moment in time and more focused on the goal, and learn from your mistakes so you can celebrate ALL your minor victories! I think this is why I am so excited to be part of this movement.
6. What does your personal running routine look like?
I can assure you there is nothing stress-free about being an ultra-runner with children, multiple jobs and running a nonprofit. However, I believe it’s the running which allows me to refocus and clear my mind at the end of the day. Our two youngest children are 11 & 14 and we are just getting them involved in trail running with us. It makes family time an exhilarating priority. In a perfect world I will get in five to six runs per week averaging 50-60 miles total, however the kids always come first which makes finding balance in my training often takes a back seat. My hope is to train for and complete two to three 50 mile races, and one 100 mile endurance run each year. This year I am training for and attempting one of the most difficult 100 milers, Sawtooth. What am I thinking? The stillness and tranquility of the single track trails is where I find my relaxation.
7. Are you able to participate in the races?
So far I have been fortunate enough to participate in each of the Haiti races. The Haitian runners approach the starting line with just as much excitement and anticipation as we do. To me, it feels very much like the races in I have participated here in our country. However, some of the Haitian runners settled into the starting position with little protection for their feet. Unlike my team members who were sporting their advanced running shoes that were chosen carefully for support level, comfort, and the perfect fit, the Haitians donned anything from sandals to worn out, secondhand shoes to the start the race. They simply don’t have access to the myriad of different running shoes, clothing, and gear that we do. I personally feel the most rewarding part of running these races is the relational element. It is not uncommon to run alongside someone for several hours who does not speak the same language and yet there is acceptance, and appreciation for the struggle you are both enduring. As Mission 29.2 expands to new locations, I am sure running these races will become more of a challenge.
8. What advice would you give to anyone interested in getting involved with Mission 29.2, or charity work in general?
We have a simple saying at Mission 29.2 “Get Involved!” We currently offer two locations to travel to which is Ouanaminthe, Haiti and Eleuthera, Bahamas. These will be annual trips a runner or supporter may wish to look into. Because we are a fairly new non-profit, funding is crucial. In order to spread the word about Mission 29.2 and to expand to future locations to be added, we need financial support. Our fundraising efforts consist of a founding members program you can read about on our website, direct donations and grants. Our website provides information to make tax-deductible donations. We are currently seeking a volunteer to offer grant writing assistance. Visit our website to hear more about the movement we are involved in and spread the word. If you are interested in running 29.2 of the most meaningful miles or kilometers of your life, or if you want to join the support team, on one of our future trips, please contact us via the link on the website and we will provide you with more details. Also, we are always looking for new locations with established educational organizations in developing countries with whom we can partner. We are hoping to organize a Mission 29.2 race here in the United States, and we’ll need volunteers to make this happen. I’m thrilled about the progress and direction of Mission 29.2. I hope you’ll choose to be part of our story in one way or another. If not our story, my hope is for you to find where you are most needed and dig in; leading a selfless life is extremely fulfilling.
Big thanks to Martha for her time, and to Mission 29.2 for making our world a better place! Be sure to visit Mission 29.2 at their website, and look for them on Facebook and Twitter.
By Brent Miller, SKORA Ambassador