Liz Warner completed her goal during the pandemic on June 8th, 2020, her 30th birthday. Thirty marathons, in thirty countries by age thirty-that, was her quest. Here’s her story of navigating setbacks along the road of illuminating that each of us can contribute to the ongoing play.
About Run to Reach
Run to Reach is about using the power of running to inspire and evoke change throughout 30 countries across all seven continents. It helps runners find effective charities that runners can support leading up to their race. Run to Reach can make a powerful difference for runners, their causes, and the planet. It is a platform that connects fitness enthusiasts, nomadic travelers, and nations together in the race—and causes—of a lifetime.
About Liz Warner
Born and raised in Atlanta, Liz Warner turned towards running almost 6 years ago while living in Tokyo, where she knew no one nor spoke the language, as a way of grappling with her father’s recent passing. Soon after, she decided to combine her new love of running with her passion for travel and deep, deliberate exploration of other cultures.
In early 2019, Liz 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 organizations in each country visited.
Instrumental to Liz’s mission is her desire to leave a positive social impact on the countries she visits, one equal to their impact on her. She partnered with 20 local women-focused NGOs across the world, whose tireless work for female empowerment and social activism often goes unnoticed. The final month of Liz’s journey brought her everywhere from the dense jungles of Sierra Leone, to turquoise waters in Yemen, to the central highlands of Afghanistan to undertake some of the world’s toughest marathons. With each step, she hopes to engage in the rich and diverse cultures of these extraordinary communities and highlight on a global scale their natural beauty and inspiring initiatives for equality. Whether it’s transforming education facilities in local towns and villages or providing women with the resources they need to become leaders in their communities, Liz hopes that Run to Reach will enforce change across the world.
Aaron: Friends welcome to another episode of work, life play, or we want it all today. My guest is Liz Warner and back early in the pandemic, she was on her way to completing her goal. So the punchline is she made it. And what that was was this big, cool goal of 30 marathons in 30 countries by her 30th birthday.
Well Liz Warner is exceptional and amazing. And at the same time, she's just super normal. Human has a life, a career, a husband like there's, there's not much that would have said she's Oh yeah, she got a special letter in the mail that picked her to be the one to take on this big feat. No, that didn't happen. What happened was just like me and you. She decided to give a punch to the humdrum in the face of life and said, what if, what if I did something kind of wild kind of inspiring kind of cool.
So you're going to hear about her run to reach organization that she started. And this is her story about navigating the setbacks along the road of illuminating that each of us, this trail, this path that she's helping show us the way that we can contribute to what Walt Whitman calls is the ongoing play. So what will your verse be? Liz made 30 marathons in 30 countries by her 30th birthday. Her verse so far you can do this. This is good for us. That's keep going. Hope you enjoy it.
Liz Warner, welcome to Work-Life Play Podcast. Tell us about Run to Reach.
Liz Warner: Of course, thanks so much for having me on. I launched run to reach at the beginning of last year. So January, 2019, basically for the past seven years since I ran my first marathon I had become completely addicted to running and traveling all over the world to run marathons. So I had already run 10 marathons when I came up with the idea of run to reach and essentially with run to reach, my goal is to run 30 marathons in 30 countries before I turned 30. And in each of the countries in which I would run, I have partnered with a local women focused charity and that country to go there and raise awareness about what they do and also fundraise for their cause.
The past year has been pretty crazy. I basically did 60 marathons in a year and in some peculiar interesting countries like Afghanistan, Madagascar, Mongolia. I really tried to choose countries that were a little bit off the radar and not so often traveled to, so yeah, that's sort of the gist and I'm now at 28 marathons in I have one month to go before my 30th birthday and obviously with all of the races being canceled, I am now actually organizing my own around the world virtual race which has been a beautiful silver lining in this whole project now just involving more people in my races.
Aaron: That's cool. So you basically, you're creating your own race, inviting people to attend and dissipate themselves. That's cool. When do those happen? When did they scheduled?
Liz Warner: So this virtual race is scheduled for next Sunday, actually. And what's so cool about this virtual race. Like I really thought to myself, obviously there are many virtual races going on now, so I was just, you know, I thought to myself, what could I do to make my life a little bit different or, you know, more interesting. And so I've been putting a lot of effort in to reaching out to vendors truly from all over the world. And so my goal is to get runners from a hundred plus countries involved in this race. So just today I had someone from Butan sign up. I have a few runners in Iran who just signed up. So really it's like, it's a truly global race.
I'm also fundraising for the WHO’s COVID-19 response fund. So I'm also really trying to tie in what's going on now with the global pandemic and, and this whole crisis period. So, so yeah, I mean, it's, it's I have a lot of respect for, for race organizers now. Cause it's, it's not at all something I was expecting to do in this whole project, but it's, again, like I said, it's been a really wonderful way to involve more people, my project. And also it's made fundraising a lot easier even in this very difficult time financially for the world. I feel like people are, you know, empathizing with the world around them. Cause we are all going through this really terrible. Yeah.
Aaron: We're all united. It turns out right. Yeah.
Liz Warner: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Very cool.
Aaron: So I have some questions for you. I'm just thinking about it is so you're, you're in very near your goal, which is amazing how cool congratulations. It's very fun. And what I'm curious about is if in the beginning, your motivation, your design, your aspiration for this compared to in the middle, what changed and what were some of your early assumptions, beliefs convictions that you've found really challenging to continue and you may have had to pivot and I guess find, find new motivation to keep going. So take us to the beginning and that put us in the middle and then we'll go back to where are you today?
Liz Warner: Yeah. Great loaded question. So at the beginning, what was, I think really difficult about run to reach was that I had literally two months to plan everything and retrospect, I really wish I had two years because yeah, I mean all of these marathons, you know, some of them were a week apart from each other. And so even just not only figuring out the marathon schedule because I was running all organized races, but you know, coordinating with 20 different nonprofits, figuring out travel logistics, figuring out my budget.
And so, you know, I think when I started this project, I was just so excited about life. I had all these expectations, you know, even I sort of assumed it would be really easy to get a sponsor and, you know, a big sponsor to help support me. Like I just went into, I just dove deep really quickly and this project and kind of in a very naive way as well. Like I didn't really know anyone who had done something similar like this before or a similar campaign. And so I really had to figure out everything on my own.
And I mean, now looking back, I obviously learned so much because of that, but it definitely made, you know, probably like two or three months into the project, I definitely hit a point where I was like, Whoa, you know, spending way more money than I thought I don't have as many like connections and context to help me, you know, gain momentum because at the same time I literally started from zero with this project. Like I had zero credibility. I had zero followers on social media. I really had to build everything up from scratch. But you know, at the same time, six months into the project, you know, I had been traveling for five months straight without even going home.
I went back to the U S actually and had sort of a month off. And that's when I totally reassessed my project and pivoted. And I actually, at the beginning of a wrench rage, I was working with many different types of organizations and I was actually choosing to travel to countries that I personally really wanted to go to, to travel to like Cuba and the state shows. And then six months in, I was like, no, no, no, I need to choose a theme amongst all my organizations to make my message tighter. I need to really travel to places that would not only be super interesting for me to see, but also would be really eye-opening for, for the people who are following my journey, you know, to expose them to all these different cultures. And, and so I really scrapped all work that I had done up until that point and just start over and I've had to do that a lot.
I think over the course of this project, it just continue pivoting and, you know, I've become more interested in, in a different aspect of the project. And then towards the end of last year, like probably three quarters way in, I hit a complete burnout period where, you know, I think when you're traveling nonstop for that long, it like all the glitter and excitement begins to wear off. Of course.
And I think all the finances just became really stressful. And you know, you also stop appreciating sometimes all the places that you get to see. And you know, again, because fundraising had become really difficult. I sometimes I'd be traveling to a place and not really raising that much money. And it's like, what's the point even now, you know? So I definitely had a point where I was questioning why I was doing the whole project to begin with and you know, but then luckily I had a really good support system around me, my husband, who has sort of been you know, my biggest supporter. I don't know how from day one, because actually when I came up with this idea, it was during our honeymoon. He had just moved to the same city as me. Yeah. I mean, that's why I married him essentially. Cause he would say yes to these crazy ideas too.
Aaron: Let me, would you mind if I pause you for a second? So I want to go back to in the beginning, was it more of a vision of a running project or was it more of a vision of like a personal adventure project? Was it more of a vision of a, I want to do some good in the world project. Like what's the kind of, what's the core of the mission that you began with?
Liz Warner: Really a mix of those three, but I think, you know, my background actually, before I did wrench reach, I had been working in marketing communications for six or seven years and I knew that no matter what I did, it had to be something like there needs to be a hook with the project. And so this whole idea of running 30 marathons in 30 countries where 10 30, like that was the hook. But I knew that running was only going to be 1% of the project. It probably was the way that I was going to, you know, bring people into what I was doing, you know, target other runners who would, who might be really interested in this project. But really I knew from day one, the core and the driver of wrench reach was, was, you know, again, shining light on some of the incredible organizations I've been really lucky to work with and really digging deep into what they do and traveling to these countries to learn more about the issues there.
I mean, there were maybe a few trips that I got to actually spend maybe a week or so traveling around, but a lot of these trips, I really just went there, worked with the NGO for a week or like figured out a way that we could put together a strong awareness campaign about what they do. Then I ran the marathon and then I left, you know, so it really was focused around shining light on these organizations that I've partnered with during this whole journey and sort of the running part, running the marathons. It felt like my day off, you know, it felt like the one day that I was like, okay, I don't have to worry about marketing or like reaching out to a million people on email coordinating with all the NGOs. So yeah,
Aaron: That's, I would imagine like in our, I'll just call our car Instagram culture. And maybe I'll just ask the question. Is it okay if I just ask you some real direct questions?
Liz Warner: Yes, please go for it.
Aaron: I imagine seeing you on video here and just getting acquainted with you your, it would be easy for people potentially dismiss you as, Oh, this is just somebody trying to be Instagram famous versus this is someone trying to actually do good in the world. Yeah. And when you're trying to raise money, you know, the first beautiful women on Instagram doing cool, amazing things, exotic locations can take you really far. Yeah. That's again, why I was asking like, okay, so then in the middle now, how does that actually work when it's like a grandiose cool idea with a great strategy and a 30, 30, 30, that gets all really cool. And it turns out this stuff is actually really hard to do. They're running. That's helpful to hear that the running is only 1%, but I would love just to hear a little bit about when you then found yourself in the middle of the store.
You have this lovely husband supporting, which is amazing. That's cool. What were some of the reasons people didn't want to help even the NGOs or didn't want to fund? And then what were some of the things that you learned about yourself along the way?
Liz Warner: You know, I was hyper aware of the type of image that I was giving off on Instagram. You know, it's sort of, I think with social media in a way, personally, for me, I'm not someone who I was never trying to be an influencer with us. And I think even you can see on my Instagram, I never, I never have promoted products. Very rarely. You know, again, I worked with several sponsors, but it was very rare. And yeah, I, to a certain degree, getting people wrapped up in this project, it's also, you know, how do you gain attention? And at the end of the day with Instagram, it's, it's sort of a tool for people to, it's like an escapism tool, like a tool for people to sort of look on there and, and loose themselves in thoughts, dreams, and like to I mean, especially travel.
So in a way I knew I needed to plan that in order to get people to pay attention to the other stuff I was going to talk about, which was issues concerning women and all of these countries. And a lot of stuff that I, I was talking about in my Instagram. It's not always sexier interesting topics that I think a lot of people go in Instagram for. And so I, I was very conscious of how I had to balance that because at the end of the day too, I didn't want it to just be about travel and Oh, just beautiful pictures of me running and all these exotic destinations. But I do firmly believe that you do need some sort of balance because it can't be one or the other.
Aaron: Yeah. That's probably where your marketing background probably helps some thoughtful strategy around how do we craft the story so that it is,
Liz Warner: But I, you know, I did get, I did get some backlash, like of course people were like, who is this privileged? Or like, what is your story? How are you financing? I would get these questions all the time. And, you know, at the beginning, like I could tell, you know, my husband, it really bothered me because I also felt like sometimes these questions were very intrusive.
I think another kind of strange thing with Instagram is like people, once they start following you for a very long time, they think they know you and it's you know, it's also a very strange world on there. And, but then, you know, now if you, if anyone were to ask me, I'd be very transparent. And I do think that, you know, people looked at what I did and they kept saying, you know, this is so inspiring. And I think when they ask these questions about like finances, it's just because they want to know potentially how could they do this in the future themselves. And I, I really respect that. And I think it's also, you do need to be transparent sometimes, but again, you have to balance that because I also think that there needs to be some sort of boundary with Instagram. And I was not about to go on there and talk about my marriage problems or like whatever, you know, really personal stuff,
Aaron: I think what's cool in the reason that that, that line of questioning is important to me is what I love about your story is that you you've done something really bold and audacious and really dreamy and whimsical. And what I think is really helpful for people to understand is even when we start with those kinds of dreams, visions, what ifs, you don't have to have all the answers to begin them. And we can just start moving forward and experimenting, trying things, but know that there'll be days that will come where, especially when you're in the middle of whatever the quest is, there's a great book.
The Chris Guillebeau wrote called the pursuit of happiness, the happiness of pursuit. Yeah. And about this idea of, it's not actually the accomplishment of the quest journey that you have to learn to love, because there's always going to be shit days and setbacks, as Taylor Swift says, haters are gonna hate, so they're going to be them too, right?
Liz Warner: Yes. I think even when I looking back a year ago, this journey has been all about creating my hard shell and sort of, you know, not being so offended by a certain comments and, you know, actually being, you know, accepting criticism, not criticism, but just feedback because again, that's how you grow. That's how you learn. That's how you're able to see different perspectives. And I think I definitely feel much more open to discussing certain topics than I did. Yeah. Say towards the beginning of, of this whole project,
Aaron: Tell us about your favorite run so far.
Liz Warner: Ooh, that really feels like choosing between children.
Aaron: One of your friends.
Liz Warner: Okay. I mean, I think truly one of the most life changing trips on this whole journey was going to Afghanistan and it was just a very charged trip in general, because basically there was a waiting list to go on this trip, surprisingly, and to run this marathon there, my mother was very unhappy with me going and it was, you know, I think I put myself on the waiting list in April. The race was in October and it was maybe six months of me just like going back and forth and her just being really, really angry about it. And, but, you know, I went there and again, so much of this journey has been about going to these countries and sort of smashing any preconceived notions of the place that I had prior. I think of course, it's always the people that you remember the most.
And I spent all this time with this group of Afghan women, runners, who I'd be running the marathon with. And I was supporting the organization that they were part of called free to run. And then the marathon itself was a beautiful, it took place in this national park, North of Kabul, a hundred kilometers North of Cabo in this area called Bamyan. And it was just, you know, these towering canyons and these turquoise lakes sort of sprinkled throughout the national park. And the marathon itself was tough. It took like nine hours to complete, but just the landscape was divine. And again, you would never sort of put these two, you know, Afghanistan with a beautiful sort of backdrop, these two ideas together. So I think that's what also just made it so memorable.
Aaron: So amazing. So tell us about, you mentioned people a stand out as some of the, even beyond the running humans themselves. So tell us about a couple of your favorite humans.
Liz Warner: Oh, a couple of my favorite humans, you know, I've made really good friends on this trip, especially meeting some cooler, other runners at the marathon who then come to join me on different parts of this trip. I always think back, you know, my time in Afghanistan and there's one girl I actually became particularly close with her name was Haznia and yeah, she was about my age maybe actually a few years younger, 23. And she was a project manager for feature on the NGOs working with there that basically they provide safe spaces for Afghan women to participate in sport just because in Afghanistan is not acceptable at all for women to just go out for a run, it's actually quite dangerous. And so she lives in probably one of the most conservative parts of Afghanistan where women are fully covered head to toe, you know, one night we're having dinner.
And what was also really striking about the conversations with some of these Afghan women is that they were just open books. And she was just telling me this horrific story about a few years back, she was at her university in Kabul and was walking to her class and there was, you know, this huge bombing that happened right there. And a number of her classmates had been injured. A few professors unfortunately were casualties.
Again, we read about this stuff in the news, but to actually hear a story from someone that's sitting across from you, and you're actually just totally wrapped up in your relationship with them and sort of connecting on all these different levels. It just was a really sort of earth shattering moment. I still talk to her all the time on, on WhatsApp and Skype, and we've sort of continued our relationship. And when I think back so many times, people are like, Oh, you know, what you're doing is so inspiring.
And for me, it's like, I, you know, these are the inspiring women to me and inspiring people on my journey. And you know, I'm not also going to a lot of these countries and I'm not saving the world. It's the people working at these organizations and the people living in these countries that are actually, you know, they have the courage to, to really try to change the system and the environment. And so I think that's also a message that I really try to communicate a lot is that yes, like I am doing this crazy project, but it's, it's really just to shine light on the work that's being done in the countries themselves. It's really just to showcase their incredible work.
Aaron: And is that discovery for you? Is that news to you compared to when you started the beginning? Because what I hear in that, you know, I'm not saving the world, it's like the NGOs are that that's a lot of humility. And I wonder if in the beginning, if you had that sobriety to the work that you were about to go, do you know, there is this
Liz Warner: Notion of like white saviorism. And I have always been very conscious of that even to a point where like I have a complex about it, where I'm so scared of coming off, like I'm going into these countries and saving these people. Cause I am not showing up to do good. I knew I needed to be really careful with the kind of image that I wanted to put forward. And you know, by no means, you know, was I going to go to some of these places and, and try to claim that I was, you know, saving?
Aaron: Yeah. Well, good for you. That's really, I think special actually. Well what stood out to me when I received the message from Kate, but having you here on the podcast is what I look for is I look for real and I look for no BS and Nope, no phony, no plastic, no. Perfect. No. And so, and a lot of times I get requests that are infused with lots of the other. So what I loved about yours was just this long obedience in the same direction, and you're not there to your finish line yet. And now here you are being disrupted and having to pivot again, and even just hearing some of the intent that you have as your, yeah, this, this campaign, this quest that you've had this crazy wild idea and you're really close, but it's not done yet.
Liz Warner: The last two races in this mission, they were supposed to be really cool. My last race was supposed to be on Everest actually. But really if I had to choose between doing this virtual race and, you know, the plan races originally, like the virtual races are so much cooler. So I am feeling really grateful for this new opportunity that has come out of a somewhat miserable situation. Yeah. Fortunate, upset. Yes.
Aaron: I love it. And I love that. Yeah. The reality is this is what life looks like. Yes. We can do our best to plan and go big and dream big and yeah. Swing for the fence. And it happens. The skill is actually how to, what do we do now? Yeah. So what a great example of, I wrote down like Everest versus virtual. So that's a pretty that's a pretty big, that's a good marketing headline, 30, 30, and it was either Everest or virtual. So I chose virtual and here's what we want.
Liz Warner: Yes. A hundred percent, you know, I think this whole year there've been so many moments that have not gone to plan and you just have to make lemonade out of lemons. Like that's is what life is about. And that is the biggest lesson. I mean, I've always tried to live my life that way, but I think now it's like, what was so crazy about the last couple months is so my 28th marathon, I was actually on this very remote Island off of Somalia and Yemen. And I almost got stranded there.
Like during this, before this whole lockdown period started and I did not have internet for maybe the six or seven days I was there. So I had no idea what was happening in the world around me. Like travel bans were going into place. I finally got service once we actually got kicked off this Island. And you know, I received so many messages from friends and family sort of preparing myself, you know, Liz, as soon as you get back to Paris, I'm so sorry where your project either needs to be postponed or like people will understand, don't worry. And you know, I didn't want to postpone my project. I'm really ready to wrap this up and there's always a solution. You know, if you're going to fail, there's always a way to figure out how to pick yourself back up.
Aaron: Well done well done. Have you ever seen the movie, Liz, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?
Liz Warner: I have, it's been a long time though
Aaron: Worth a re-watch. He finds himself in Yemen also. It's just kind of funny. Very it's super quirky, but if, if you're cool with the idea of a story, having a mythic reality to it, and if you watch it as a literal film, it's quirky enough to be distracting at moments. I think for some people, but as a mythic reality is like this guy steps forward in his life. And when he steps forward into the unknown, all kinds of things surface that would have never been possible, not then for just the letting go. And then what's cool is what emerges is totally unplanned. There's no way you could script it, but it's way more beautiful than had you scripted it. It just reminds me of some of the adventure that you're living here.
Liz Warner: I love that. I want to watch that movie this weekend. It sounds very fitting.
Aaron: Well. Great. Well, where can we find all of your work and run the reach?
Liz Warner: The website is runtoreach.com. Same thing with Instagram @runtoreach, Facebook is consistent, run to reach. And yeah, I also launched recently a final fundraising push to try to get 2,600 people to donate $26 ahead of my final 26 miles. So it's a bit of a stretch or it's a bit of a reach, but you know, again, this has been really the, the main purpose of my project to raise money, to, you know, get people to empathize with causes that are way beyond them. I think that's also a whole another topic of discussion. I'm feeling really optimistic about the world, even during this crazy period. Like I feel like there's this renewed sense of consciousness and compassion towards others. And I feel actually very good about humanity at this moment.
Aaron: Great. Well good. Especially for the countries that you're reporting from, right. You're on the front lines, what humanity is actually like not what the news feeds us. So I love how you're giving us a, you know, here's from my vantage point, here's what I see. Here's what I experience and here's yeah. This is an adventure. A buddy of mine calls it the, a story worth living.
Liz Warner: Yes, exactly.
*We’ve done our best for this transcription to accurately reflect the conversation. Errors are possible. Thank you for your patience and grace if you find errors that our team missed.
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