Erin Sprague is the youngest person ever to run a marathon on all seven continents. That’s right, all seven continents. A member of the class of 2005, a history concentrator, and a former resident of Quincy House, Sprague, who ran cross country for the Crimson, started running marathons when she graduated.
It all began as something casual. “I love to run and it’s a good way to keep running and keep competing, so I ran a couple in the United States,” she says, “Somehow, during my travels, I came across the idea of potentially running a marathon on all seven continent.
“As I started to research it, I began to realize that I could be the youngest person to ever do it. It evolved very organically. It all started with the idea that it was possible, and it could work, so I started to check the schedule of marathons.”
That schedule brought her to her first international race in October 2006, where she ran the Olympic course in Beijing. At this point, the record was still purely athletic endeavor, that is, until Sprague started spreading the word about what she was doing.
“People eventually understood what I was doing, and the question I always got was: Why? So I thought it would be really great to do this for something that was a little bit larger” recalls Sprague.
It was at this point that she teamed up with international development profession Dana Worth, and together they set up the non-profit organization “In the Running.” Sprague describes the charity as a “mini-foundation,” which donates to a grassroots non-profit in each of the seven continents that she runs.
“We did a lot of research on different types of causes we might want to donate to and also different types of organization. Basically, I called everyone that I had ever known, people I hadn’t talked to since my senior year who I’d heard were in Africa, working with charitable healthcare organizations to try and get recommendations on good grassroots non-profits.”
Sprague was also adamant that she chose the organizations based on their specific relevance to problems within their continent. However, that wasn’t the only criterion for choosing an organization.
“Once we had an idea of the cause we wanted to support within each respective continent that narrowed down the list. I called the executive officers of each of the organizations and put them through the wringer with an interview and all sorts of questions, trying to get an understanding of where the donations would be used. It’s great to donate at the grassroots level because your donation can hopefully have a lot more direct impact, but one of the risks is that you don’t have the layers of accountability that you have with a bigger organization,” she remarks.
After an intense process, Sprague chose to support:
Girls on the Run (North America)
A Drop in the Ocean, which is a student-based group at Harvard (South America)
Co-operation Ireland (Europe)
The Polaris Project (Asia)
The Silver Lining Foundation (Australia)
Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (Antarctica)
These support such diverse causes as female empowerment, combating poverty, peace, HIV/AIDS research, human trafficking regulation, aboriginal advancement, and environmental conservation.
“What we wanted to do was not just raise money for these organizations, but also to raise awareness. These organizations have great operations on the ground, but they’re in places like Kenya where people have never really heard of them, especially coming from the United States. We wanted to help these organizations out and put them on the map.”
As her philanthropic team was assembled, about 11 people staffed mainly with Harvard graduates from the classes of ’04 and ’05, their network expanded and they were even more able to facilitate their project.
“We looked at what we could provide and we saw that we could provide resources – get interviews, get press articles for these organizations, raise funds in cities like New York and Boston and get them to people on the ground who know a little bit more what to do.”
It seems as if Sprague has also had a lot of success with this goal of awareness. For example, Co-operation Ireland hopes to expand and implement their peaceful reconciliation program in the Middle East, and, as Sprague mentions, “By giving them our story, it gave them something that they could use for further outreach.”
Her favorite response, however, came from the “Silver Lining Foundation” in Australia. “We were these Americans who came from really far away to donate to this little charity in the middle of the Australian outback. On their webpage they feature all of these really famous people in Australia, and then they feature us. We tried to tell them, we’re just a small group from the United States! We’re not famous at all!”
Of course, this was no walk in the park. Despite having to look after the philanthropic side of things, Sprague also had to consider her training. All of this, of course, in addition to a full-time job at the Blackstone Group in New York.
“It’s not easy at all,” she continued. “It involved a lot of early morning wake-ups. One of my biggest problems was running a race in Antarctica. Training for that was probably the most intense thing I’ve ever done. I’m from upstate New York, up around the mountains, so the December and January before the race, I would take the train home almost every weekend to run in as much snow as I could.”
Of course, the snow in Antarctica wouldn’t be plowed, so Sprague had no choice but to run alongside ski trails in the massive drifts.
Sprague was no stranger to people’s shock by the end of her journey. Every time she told anyone about the project, she says that “people sort of did a double take or they said, ‘Oh, so you’ll run on six continents.’ People couldn’t believe that a marathon on Antarctica exists. You see the wheels turning in people’s minds as they figure out how you could run in that ice and snow.”
But Sprague attributes the success of her fundraising, which totaled nearly $100,000, to the uniqueness of her mission. Of course, it helped her do something amazing too.
“I was never fast enough to set a running record for speed, so I knew I’d have to get creative about it and find a way to outwit the competition!”
However the Guiness world record and “In the Running,” came to be is only the beginning of a much larger story. Sprague hopes to continue to expand her charity with “a new generation, having a new athletic goal, and trying to build more of a team around it.” Now that the brand is off the ground, Sprague and her team are focused on getting more people involved and continuing the mission of publicizing and supporting her seven very special non-profits.
Whatever the case may be, the fact still stands: On July 6, 2008, Erin Sprague did something incredible. She became the youngest woman to run a marathon AND make a difference in all seven continents of the world.
Wrirten by: Erica Richey
For more information on Erin Sprague’s mission and charity work, please visit http://www.intherunning.org/.