I’m running through a slot canyon in the Grand Canyon, and feeling exhilarated, almost intoxicated. I am on the first leg of a crazy quest that will see me run 1,049 miles (1,688km) to raise awareness about our global water crisis, and I’m having what can only be described as a spiritual moment. It feels like I’ve left my body and am looking down at myself moving through this narrow, winding ravine.
The canyon is bone dry, but it was forged by water. There was a time when this space was a raging river – a mighty fluid force that, over time, carved away at the rocks that now tower over me.
When you’ve run in the driest regions on Earth, and spoken to people who’ve managed to eke out some kind of survival in the most water-scarce contexts, running through a place created by the sheer force of water is overwhelming.
The Grand Canyon – 277 miles (446km) long, 18 miles (29km) wide in parts and an average of 1 mile (1.6km) deep – was made by the Colorado River at least 6 million years ago. Today this river serves water to some 40 million people in the western United States and it’s stretched too thin.
That’s part of why I’m running 40 marathons in 40 days, along six rivers on six different continents. Because the world is in the midst of a global water crisis. We have to focus the world’s attention on the need to contain our water usage. If we don’t, by 2030 the demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent.
Clean, safe, accessible water for all is the most pressing issue our world faces today. Goal Six of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. This goal has become my life.
Once upon a time, I was a corporate lawyer. I helped the World Bank to structure its first carbon funds, and founded the largest private carbon fund in the world together with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Trust.
I left that to do something meaningful about water scarcity, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation, which affects people’s livelihoods, food security, choices and futures. Water has far-reaching implications for job markets and our economies, as well as our common safety and stability.
But most of us take water for granted because the biggest source of water we use is invisible. It is “virtual water” consumed in the making of products and utilities – the T-shirts we buy, the fuel we use, the coffee we drink, the cars we drive and the food we eat.
This isn’t the first time I’m running for water. Last year I wore out eight running shoes across seven deserts, doing 40 marathons in seven weeks. This year I’m running alongside not just the Colorado River, but the Amazon, the Murray, the Yangtze, the Nile and the Thames.
I don’t think of myself as extraordinary, or special, or heroic. If I had to attribute qualities to myself I would say that I am a pragmatic optimist, and that I’m stubborn – I don’t like being told what I can or cannot do.
At the age of 22, I broke my back and the doctors told me I would never run again. But I wanted to prove them wrong. I started swimming, and managed two laps (which felt like crossing an ocean). Swimming led to biking, and eventually running. In the beginning, I’d only run a little bit at a time. If you told me back then that I would run over 1,000 miles (1,600km), I wouldn’t have believed you.
The thing is, I have this notion that a person can do anything that they put their mind to. This is how a few yards became a hundred miles, then a couple of hundred miles, and eventually resulted last year in my becoming the first woman in the world to run 40 marathons in 40 weeks.
What happens to your mind when you run farther than most people have ever run before? There are breathtaking moments, like when I ran through that canyon and time seemed to stand still. I felt like I was a part of this incredible, timeless universe.
But doing distance also means facing the most miserable moments of your existence. I have run through the most terrible depression and confusion, through times when I’ve wanted to quit. What keeps me going then?
During those dark times, I try to get outside of myself and out of my mind, and into someone else’s. I’ve memorized this gorgeous prose on running by an American poet, author and musician – the legendary Gil Scott-Heron. In bleak moments I think of Scott-Heron intoning: “I always feel like running. Not away, because there is no such place. Because, if there was, I would have found it by now. Because it’s easier to run, easier than staying and finding out you’re the only one … who didn’t run.”
Scott-Heron paved the way for the American spoken word movement. In some small way I’m hoping I’ll help pave the way for another big social movement. By running I want to help to enliven a new generation of people who will hold businesses and governments accountable for water usage, wastage and corruption.
I’m running, because, like Scott-Heron says, it is easier to run than to stay and find out you’re the only one who didn’t run. This test of endurance, this thousand miles is all about pushing government and the private sector to unite and find innovative solutions to the world’s water crisis.
I run because we all have to run. When it comes to water and solving the world’s water crisis, we’ve no other choice.
What can you do to join the race to ensure we try end the world’s water crisis? Know your water footprint. Lobby the brands you buy to commit to sustainable water management, and to measure and disclose their water footprint. If you own or run a business, commit to the CEO Water Mandate. Finally, if you have any influence in government, please take the water crisis seriously by integrating SDG6 into your policy framework.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.
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