Meet the runner transforming the world through gratitude
© Mark White
When running events were cancelled in 2020, Mark White decided to set-up a unique challenge – 26.2 miles over 24 hours, with a focus on being thankful for something after every mile.
Running a marathon might seem like an epic challenge, but what if you had 24 hours to do it?
During the UK’s first lockdown in 2020, Mark White, a keen runner and social entrepreneur from Hertfordshire, came across a new concept. Rather than doing it in one hit, the idea was to complete a marathon (26.2 miles) in 24 hours – starting with a 5km, followed by one mile every hour for 24 hours. But he gave it his own twist.
After every mile, he shared something or someone he was grateful for. Why? Well, it’s easy to take the everyday things in life for granted. “I wanted to combine running and gratitude to encourage more positive thinking, especially during these hard times,” says Mark. He is a firm believer that a regular gratitude practice will not only improve your mental health, but have a positive ripple effect through all layers of your life.
White is a real ideas generator. In 2014, he founded Your Town CIC (a community interest company) to bring vibrancy back to town centres and build communities through running. It was a huge success, with thousands of participants taking part in its running events across 10 UK towns.
His inspirational community work gained him a place on Red Bull Amaphiko – a project that champions social entrepreneurs driving positive change all over the world. He was the first person in the UK to take part. But running didn’t come naturally to White.
It all started with ditching cigarettes
“I haven’t always been a runner,” explains White. In fact, quitting smoking actually inspired him to lace up his trainers back in 2011. “A friend suggested I try running as a way to stay stopped. To be honest, I hated it.” White struggled on and eventually confessed this to his friend. “He said to me, ‘One day Mark, it will feel like walking.' As soon as he said that, my whole relationship to running changed – and I’ve run ever since."
I’m 18 years sober and gratitude is something I’ve known the value of for years. It brings things into perspective and helps you not get caught up in the noise of the world
Rather than chasing PBs and ticking off organised long-distance events, White took a different approach to running; he recognised how important running is for uniting communities and improving mental health. Last year was set to be different year for him though –he was training for an ultramarathon, until the Covid-19 lockdown brought that to a halt.
“All events were postponed and I was looking for another challenge,’ says White. “That’s when I came across the idea of running a 5km followed by one mile every hour for 24 hours.” In addition to going the distance, he would dedicate every hour to something or someone he was grateful for. “I’m 18 years sober and gratitude is something I’ve known the value of for years. It brings things into perspective and helps you not get caught up in the noise of the world.”
A global gratitude movement
In April 2020, White completed his first 24-hour marathon challenge on his own and received enormous support from followers on social media; the Run Grateful movement was born. Dozens of participants joined in the second event virtually, jogging from their front doors and sharing their experiences online. By September, the first official in-person Run Grateful Challenge was held at Ashton Playing Fields, London, with runners joining from all over the UK. “It was absolutely incredible," says White. Day and night, 24 individuals paced around the running track for 24 hours, every hour, all in the name of gratitude.
Why gratitude? It’s predicted that up to 10 million people – one fifth of England’s population – will need mental health support as a result of Covid-19. That’s why White believes it is more important than ever to build mindful practices into your life.
The benefit of practicing gratitude is even scientifically proven. According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, those that regularly expressed gratitude were more optimistic, exercised more and made fewer visits to the doctor. “I am so fortunate in a lot of ways,” says White. “Run Grateful is a nice way of being mindful and encouraging positive thoughts. I thought, if I shared my practice – combining running and gratitude – maybe it could bring value to others, too.”
The nitty gritty of the challenge
So, what is the challenge actually like? The average time to run a mile is about nine-to-10 minutes, so you have around 50 minutes of waiting before your next mile. During his initial solo challenge, White snacked, stretched, had a bath and spent time writing about who or what he was grateful for. “The 24 hours just flew by," says White. “Your relationship with time changes when you’re running in shifts. The first few miles are quite easy, but you do still have another 20 to go.” White didn’t sleep and kept himself fuelled with a few Red Bulls through the early hours.
When you’re younger, you might want to go hell-for-leather to get a certain marathon time or PB, but as you get older, your relationship with running changes and you want a different focus
When it came to joining 24 runners in person for the first Run Grateful race though, Mark explains it was a different feeling. “You’re all in it together. Some people napped, others powered through. It was incredible.”
Completing a marathon over 24 hours with no sleep is a tough undertaking, so White has opened up the Run Grateful challenge to include One Grateful Mile. To complete it, participants have to run one mile and say what they’re are grateful for at the end – making it something everyone can take part in. “When you’re younger, you might want to go hell-for-leather to get a certain marathon time or PB, but as you get older, your relationship with running changes and you want a different focus.”
Building community in towns through running
White has always been focused on running as a powerful force for social change. Run Grateful isn’t the only revolution he has ignited. Back in 2011, White sent himself an email with an idea for a running event that started and finished in his home town of Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Three years later, his idea came to fruition in the form a community event called 'Give Your Town The Run Around'.
Running a CIC has its challenges, so when Red Bull Amaphiko came along, it was good because I needed to step outside my day-to-day, reflect and gain extra support from like-minded people. The stars aligned and I was lucky enough to be chosen
“Running sparks my creativity,” says White. “I get all my ideas when running, so I started ‘Give Your Town The Run Around’ to connect communities together, support local initiatives and bring a good feel to my hometown. It’s more than just going for a run.” The event led to Mark founding Your Town CIC – a community interest company organising events, projects and clubs up and down the UK to build and celebrate local communities. These have now become purchasable packages for anyone who wants to build communities in their own local areas.
It was Mark's enthusiasm for community that gained him a spot on the Red Bull Amaphiko programme. “It came at a critical time for me,” says White. “Running a CIC has its challenges, so when Amaphiko came along, it was good because I needed to step outside my day-to-day, reflect and gain extra support from like-minded people. The stars aligned and I was lucky enough to be chosen.” Starting a social enterprise comes with a lot of self doubt, White explains. “It gave me the reassurance that I was on the right path, doing the right thing.”
While Your Town continues to flourish, Run Grateful is on its way to becoming a global movement with participants from over 50 countries worldwide signed up to its most recent event last October – pretty incredible considering, six months ago, it didn’t exist. “Over the next few years, I believe it will be globally powerful,” says White. No doubt, it will.