It all started with a simple but intriguing idea on a layover at Moscow airport: What if you could get the whole world running? Everyone, worldwide, on the same day, at the same time. A race of epic proportions with just one lone runner left at the end. A world run. But could it be done? It could.
Meet Anita Gerhardter, CEO of Wings for Life, a charity whose mission is to make spinal cord injury curable. Two years of planning later, the Wings for Life World Run saw the light of day – but not before adding a little twist. The Catcher Cars, vehicles equipped with sensors, introduced to literally catch the runners not running towards a finish line but away from the finish line that chased them.
With the race concept in place, the Catcher Cars moved into pole position in everyone’s minds. Completely new tracking technology was needed, so thousands of runners across the world could be ranked fairly. To ensure each year’s race would eventually end, the Catcher Cars increase their speed at given intervals until the last runner is caught.
On May 4, 2014, a team of time-keepers and techies, communication and media experts sat at Global Race Control in Spielberg, Austria, with their collective hearts in their collective mouths. After two years in the making, those seconds to countdown were the longest, quietest in months. Would it all go off without a hitch?
With the start of the race, though, came the start of the smiles. Data and images and stories flooded in from around the world to Global Race Control. It was a day of personal victories, from the first man to be caught in Hennebont in France at 5km, to the thoroughly entertaining ‘pink dancing lady’ in Austria, and teams of people running in Australia and South Africa, Canada and Poland, sharing their experience over social media.
From the beginning, at the heart of the Wings for Life World Run was to get as many people as possible running globally at the same time, so 2015 introduced the Selfie Run, giving runners using the Wings for Life World Run app, and who couldn’t get to an official location, the chance to be a part of the newest thing in running. From the Arctic Circle to the Canadian prairie, hundreds joined in the ‘run for those who can’t’, including Formula One star Daniel Ricciardo, who covered 12.56km alone in Monaco in his #1 race number.
Runners in official locations thrilled to see they were alongside celebrities like British Formula One racer Mark Webber in Silverstone, Slovenia’s President Borut Pahor in Ljubljana and Prince Abdulaziz Turki Al Faisal of UAE in Dubai.
Leaving the Best Til Last
But the best moment for many was the end, when the Catcher Cars, driven by some very recognisable faces, caught up with them. What better way to end a race than to be cheered and waved at by Formula One driver David Coulthard, Paris-Dakar champion Marc Coma or Stratos jumper Felix Baumgartner?
From fun run to serious athletic competition, the first-ever Wings for Life World Run Global Champion was Norway’s then 18-year-old Elise Molvik, who finished at 54.79km. Global contenders, like ultrarunners South Africa’s Eric Ngubane Italy’s Giorgio Calcattera and USA’s Michael Wardian, battled it out thousands of kilometres apart, but the race has twice been won by Lemawork Ketema, both times in thrilling competition with Peruvian, Remigio Quispe. And 2015 saw the first wheelchair competitor, Aron Anderson, take the national crown in Sweden at 64.82km.
In the two years since its inception, 136,677 people participated in over 40 locations, raising more than €7 million to help fund spinal cord injury research projects all over the world.
What the future holds
From the beginning, Wings for Life World Run has been an organic being, growing in the most unexpected and most exciting ways. A race focussed on getting runners in every corner of the global out there running for those who can’t? Because every single extra person who runs for those who can’t brings the cure for spinal cord injury one step closer.