How James Leitner Uses Ultra-Endurance Running to Give Communities Clean Water for Life
You can call him crazy and he wouldn’t disagree. James Leitner has a crazy dream - a world where everyone has access to clean water. And he has a crazy way of making that happen - symbolic ultra-endurance running challenges to raise funds for his nonprofit, MissionCleanWater.
James discovered his passion for clean water during his junior year of high school when he learned that a billion people in the world don't have clean water to drink.
“I was blown away by that fact because I never thought of water as an issue before. It is so easily available in New Jersey, why is there not clean water available everywhere?” James said. “It felt like my entire worldview changed. It was all I thought about. I wanted to become involved with water-based nonprofits, I started hosting fundraisers, I narrowed down my potential college options based on their research on global water issues. It felt like I couldn’t stop this pursuit until I knew everyone had clean water.”
After learning more about the clean water sector (both its triumphs and its failures), James founded MissionCleanWater at just 24-years-old to build sustainable, community-based water systems for underserved communities. Despite the fact that clean water is not a new area of development, James has become a trailblazer in the field in multiple ways.
James and MCW set a high bar for sustainability and community involvement. While many national and international organizations in the WASH (Water, and Sanitation, Hygiene) sector have been working towards solutions to clean water scarcity for many years, the sad truth is that many clean water projects fail within their first year. According to UNICEF, 30-50% of WASH projects fail after just two to five years. MissionCleanWater is different in its dedication involving the local community in every aspect of planning, implementation, and follow-up in order to ensure that their water systems are long-lasting and sustainable. Unlike many wells that provide clean water for a few months or years, James and MCW provide clean water for life.
“A successful project is about much more than digging a well,” James says. “A complex range of economic, political, and community-driven issues need to be accounted for.”
Unfortunately, this is often overlooked when NGOs are moving quickly from project to project. Without the time to develop a strong, collaborative gameplan with villagers, and without proper follow-up for months and years after completion, many well-intended clean water projects are destined to fail.
In order to be successful and sustainable, MissionCleanWater starts at the grassroots level. In collaboration with the community, MCW establishes Water Use Committees to provide transparency and project management, distribute the water in a fair and energy-efficient way, make common repairs, and diagnose issues that require expert assistance.
A typical clean water system is a $40,000-$60,000 investment. With a long-term vision and approach designed for sustainability, MCW maximizes this investment to have a far-reaching impact that goes beyond water and provides upward mobility for an entire community.
James recognizes that his approach is different than most: “These challenges are a part of what makes the work so dynamic and rewarding. Every project is unique and requires a tailored approach.”
Not only is James setting new standards for sustainability in his sector, he’s also a trailblazer (literally) in his personal fundraising efforts for MissionCleanWater. Instead of your typical fundraising event or social media campaign, James uses ultra-endurance events as his primary fundraising mechanism.
This all kicked off in 2017 when James walked 3,250 miles from New Jersey to California while pulling 10 gallons of water to raise money for a clean water system in Tanzania. The walk, which took him 143 days, symbolized the distance that women and girls in Africa walk every year fetching water for their families. During his cross country walk, he got caught in a hail storm, walked across the desert, and was attacked by a dog. Despite these challenges - and many others - he made it to California relatively unharmed and with the sense of accomplishment that only comes from completing an incredibly difficult task.
But 5 months of cross-country trekking wasn’t enough for James.
“During my cross country walk, I got used to experiencing extreme highs and lows every day, being outside all day, and exploring the country with a different perspective. Once I completed my walk, I had to assimilate back into normal society and the hardest part was not experiencing that fitness high anymore. I missed it, so I decided to focus all that energy on developing MissionCleanWater. I began using ultra events to fundraise and I never stopped.”
In fall 2019, James ran 100 miles in 24 hours, all on a .8 mile loop (that's over 130 laps!) at a New Jersey park. For another insane endurance fundraiser, James ran a marathon a month for 12 straight months, all while carrying 45 lbs of water over his head.
“Every race left me exhausted and the sheer weight of the water put so much added pressure. Depending on the month, it could be below zero or over 100 degrees. The course could be flat or extremely hilly. Each race put me at a low point of pure exhaustion, tunnel vision, and pain that I had to find a way to dig out of.”
While James’ fundraising methods may be insane, they’re also successful. So far, MissionCleanWater has funded and implemented clean water systems that have helped 4,500 people and 1,500 students gain access to clean drinking water, cutting their average walk to find water from 3 hours to 15 minutes.
James is about to kick off his next ultra-endurance event. This July, he will be running 30 miles per day for 30 days to raise $30,000 to fund a clean water system for the St Elizabeth’s All-Girls School in rural Uganda. This month-long journey will be one of his toughest yet - and he needs your help.
Join him in his journey at missioncleanwater.org/30miles. Supporters can sign up for a Virtual Run from anywhere in the world. How you do it is up to you! Join at any point during the month of July 2020, register for any distance, run as an individual or a team.
Not a runner? Don’t worry, you can donate directly to the cause at https://secure.givelively.org/donate/missioncleanwater/30-days-for-clean-water
Be a part of a movement. Run a mile (or many) and give someone clean water for life.