An Inspiring Mission: Dana Casanave’s 52 Marathons in 52 Weeks

Dana Casanave and myself, just after the pre-race dinner at Idaho's Mesa Falls Marathon & Half Marathon in late August 2010.

In the course of running races, whether it’s in your own city or somewhere far across the country, one of my favorite experiences is meeting random people I’d never meet otherwise and getting a chance to hear even just a little bit of their stories. Well, last week I had a chance to meet someone who left an impression I’ll remember, I’m sure, for the rest of my life.

You might remember last week, when I traveled to Idaho last weekend for the annual end-of-August Mesa Falls Marathon & Half Marathon, that I mentioned that I had a chance there to meet and talk with Dana Casanave, a runner and marathon enthusiast from Leesburg, Va., who’s running 52 marathons in 52 weeks to raise money for children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa.

This 29-year-old mother of three — whose children are 5, 7 and 9 years old — is doing something that most of us would believe is way, way beyond our own ability. She’s literally running 26.2 miles every weekend, and traveling usually by car to cities near her hometown, but also often by air. She’s incurring thousands of dollars in travel expenses — and paying for everything along this journey herself — in addition to attempting to raise $26,000 over the course of this year for 25:40 and the children and families they support in South Africa.

What I didn’t know before meeting her and getting to know her is the distance Dana has traveled to get here, in so many ways. What is now a love for running, she says, started out at something that was extremely difficult for her to do, as she had struggled with her weight for much of her life. After the birth of her second child, she found herself at 230 pounds, and decided that she had to do something to bring her weight under control. From running first on a treadmill to running later in races, her love for the sport has grown ever since.

Learn more about Dana and 25:40 in this YouTube clip:

I thought about writing an extensive article about Dana and her journey, but what I thought might be a better idea would be to let her speak in her own voice, and give you guys a chance to hear about what she’s doing in her own words.

Here is our question-and-answer interview (edited for length):

TJ: How did first get into running? Have you always done things like this?

DC: Not like this, I have to say. I am very driven, I am a goal-oriented person and I like doing things that are challenging, that’s for sure. But physically this is not something that I would have ever seen myself doing. I come from a history of being extremely overweight and out of shape, and [before I got into it] running was probably the thing last on my list that I wanted to do — exercise was a four-letter word.

So really the whole idea for running 52 marathons in 52 weeks was because I just love to run, period. For me, I was out for a run one day and I was thinking, man, it would be so awesome if I could run a marathon every week if I could. Then I started thinking more on that, could I really do that?

TJ: How did you find the organization you’re partnering with to raise money?

DC: A couple years ago I did the Marine Corps Marathon and I decided I was going to run that for charity. I had never run a race for charity before and I thought, I’d really like to do something to help someone else with my running. So I went through the Marine Corps Marathon website and looked at all their charities. 25:40 is one of the charities that they work with. Reading about the mission and everything that 25:40 does, I just felt really compelled to run with them.

So I signed up to run with them and I was given a child to run for, a little boy who’d lost both of his parents to AIDS. That whole experience was really life-changing. Being able to raise the funds, and knowing that I was running for someone else – I wasn’t running for my own time, this wasn’t anything about me –- this was about doing for somebody else. And I knew then that if I had the chance to do something in the future, I’d like to partner with them again, because it was just a really great, memorable experience.

Note: In each of her races, Dana wears a shirt that displays the name and photograph of an individual child in need back in South Africa, whom 25:40 is working to support.

TJ: How did you decide to run every race for an individual child?

DC: I thought that it would be much more personal to run for an individual child at each race. Because the truth is, when you think about problems in the world, especially in a place like Africa, the numbers get huge. We’re talking about millions of people that are in need, millions of people in poverty, and you look at that and it gets overwhelming, and you think there’s nothing we can do. It’s just too much.

The truth is, you can’t fix everything. You can’t save everybody. But, by making it personal and saying, this is an individual child, this is their life, this is what they’re going through, it gives you a lot of motivation. It’s given me a lot of motivation through these runs.

TJ: You must have a very understanding and supportive husband and family through all of this! What’s been their reaction?

DC: That’s what everybody tells me! (Laughs) When I came up with this idea, I kept going over it in my head and I was thinking, nope, there’s no way I can bring this up to my husband, that he would shoot it down. He last year complained that I was running too much, so I thought there’s no way he’s gonna go for this!

I was completely shocked when he said, sure go ahead and do it. But after discussing what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it, he was like, you know you have gone through a lot for me when we were in the military — a lot of moves and transitions, and times when he was gone and I had the kids all by myself. He said, I put you through a lot having to do that, and I feel like it’s my turn to support you in doing this — so that was really cool.

I felt like this was the time for me to do it, not just because of when you get older, you’re asking for more trouble when you ask your body physically doing something like this. But also with my children, I felt like this was an age where I could do this. As they get older and get more involved in their own activities, I didn’t want to be leaving when they’re going through all that, so I felt like I needed to do it now rather than later.

TJ: What have been the toughest challenges of this journey, physically?

DC: It has not been easy – I dealt with some injury issues a couple months back, to the point where I was concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to continue, issues with my knee and my IT band. Really what it is, is just probably overuse, and the fact that there’s very little time to rest. I’ve got 6 to 8 days max to rest between races. So it doesn’t give your body much to recover on. But I told myself I was pushing for this goal for a purpose, and so I’ve done everything I can do try and maximize the recovery in between these races.

TJ: What have been the highest and lowest moments for you over the past year?

I won’t lie, there have been a couple of races where I started out the race and was in quite a bit of pain. And I’m thinking, I’ve got 26 miles to go and it’s scary stuff, honestly. It’s a scary feeling.

But there have also been some really incredible moments. Probably in my opinion the one that stands out the most to me was after a race I did in March — I was with my family and we stopped at a McDonald’s to get something to eat, because my kids were starving hungry. And I really didn’t want to go to the McDonald’s and eat because I had just run a race and I didn’t have any clothes to change into and I was thinking, I don’t want to walk in there.

There were a couple of boys who were standing behind me and they were reading my shirt, because I always had the information and the picture of the child on my shirt. The boy I was running for was named Jack, and the shirt mentioned how he only gets one meal a day.

Well, the boy behind me tapped me on the shoulder and he handed me a dollar bill and said, I want this to go to Jack. That spoke to me on so many different levels, for one here I was worried about my appearance, and if I hadn’t gone into that McDonald’s, I would have missed that opportunity for that child to be a part of something. Here he’d come in there probably to buy himself something to eat, and instead he was giving me a dollar so another child could eat.

TJ: What has been the biggest thing you’ve taken away from this experience so far?

DC: That this journey is about me running these races and raising these funds, but on a much bigger level, it’s about inspiring people to do something. I really think everybody has something that they can give. If everybody can give something –- it doesn’t have to be huge, but if we all do something, what a difference that would make in our world, everywhere.

I think people really need to see, what is laid on their heart, what do they need to do? Obviously not everyone wants to go run marathons. That’s great, do what you’re called to do.

Learn more about Dana and read more in depth about her marathon experiences at her website, www.52Beginnings.com.

And learn more about 25:40 and their mission at their website, www.2540.org.

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