An athlete from Australia, Claire McFarlane, rowed at the national level. She also competed in the Australian National Championship when she was 18-years-old.
Back then, she did not enjoy running. This all changed in 1999 when Claire was raped in Paris while living there as a foreign student. In 2009, 10 years after the ordeal, the French Police caught the assailant through DNA. Claire identified the man in a line up, and the horrific memories of that fateful night came flooding back.
What followed was a long, costly struggle with the French justice system to put this man in jail. During that time, Claire had a demanding job, and she could not allow herself to fall apart in her life and work. She found it hard to balance reliving the trauma of this brutal rape and keeping a brave face in her everyday life.
She felt like her world was falling apart. To overcome these feelings, she knew she needed something to help her to heal. So, she began running. Running made her feel better and gave her the strength to continue through the difficult 6 years of the justice process. Running gave her hope. It allowed her to recover on a physical level and gave her a reason to keep going. She felt strong again.
Now, Claire is using her story to help others. In 2016, she founded Footsteps To Inspire, and she aims to run 16 km of beaches in every country of the world with the goal of peacefully ending sexual violence.
RS: What inspired you to create the Footsteps To Inspire movement?
Claire: The justice process was dragging on, and after 5 years, I didn’t have enough money to keep paying legal fees (in France, the victim pays). I decided to launch a crowd-funding campaign to try and help cover the ever-increasing costs.
That meant speaking out about my story, which was a difficult decision to make. But the most incredible thing happened, once I shared my story, it inspired other survivors around the world.
People reached out to me and shared their stories, many for the very first time. What I noticed was that sexual violence was affecting everyone. There was no stereotype. I had women, men and children all around the world who wrote to me.
After reading their stories, I knew I had to do something to change this. I found running particularly powerful for my own healing, and I realised sports are a really great way of bringing people together. “Sports has the power to change the world” – in the words of Nelson Mandela.
I thought that it could be easier to talk about sexual violence through sport. I knew I had to make it big and make it a challenge for myself. So, I decided to run for 16km. Sixteen being very significant because it represents the length of my own story, from the day I was raped until the day it ended in court, which is 16 years.
Also, 16km is a difficult distance to run on the beach, particularly barefoot. It is symbolic of the victim’s journey to becoming a survivor. I knew I had to run in every country of the world because if I want to make a change, impact and improve the situation for sexual violence survivors, I need to reach everybody in the world.
Footsteps To Inspire is a peaceful movement. I call myself a change maker, and I’m using sport as my tool of change.
Footsteps To Inspire has already helped survivors in 55 countries and I’ve ruFootsteps To Inspire has already helped survivors in 55 countries, and I’ve run on 56 beaches. I ran in two locations in the USA. In some countries, the laws on sexual violence can vary greatly from state to state, and if necessary, I’ll run in multiple locations, like with the USA.
Footsteps To Inspire not only supports sexual violence survivors, but it also creates a safe space for people who want to talk about sexual violence. It brings people together to be part of the change, to open dialogue and find solutions to one day ending a problem that affects 1 in 4 women, 1 in 6 men and over 230 million children each year.
RS: Through Footsteps To Inspire, how is the movement supporting the survivors of sexual violence?
Claire: I rarely run alone, I invite people to join me. The biggest run I had was 250 people who ran with me in Papua New Guinea. There are a few countries I ran alone, but I never leave a country without having spoken to people.
Sharing my story and being part of Footsteps To Inspire brings hope to survivors. It shows them that they have someone on their side, that they are believed, and they are not alone. It also brings hope to communities and people close to someone affected by sexual violence.
You see, it doesn’t only affect the survivor, it impacts everyone currently in their life. It’s very normal for parents and siblings to experience trauma when they learn that a loved one has been sexually abused. And if left unhealed, it could impact anyone who will come into a survivor’s life in the future.
In each country I run, I connect with communities, organisations, government services and survivors with the vision to inspire healing, identify solutions, educate and create lasting change. Footsteps To Inspire is about nurturing and supporting local organisations in their effort to help survivors, and this is how I envision leaving a long-lasting impact.
Some of the long term goals for Footsteps To Inspire is for it to become an annual global run, similar to the breast cancer awareness concept. The annual run would provide an opportunity to have a week of awareness, talk about healing and some of the difficult issues surrounding sexual violence, as well as raise funds to support the work of local organisations.
Footsteps To Inspire is also launching a country ambassador program later this year, and the first country will be Sri Lanka. We are creating a chapter, a local chapter in the country, and through it, there will be monthly runs–a safe space for survivors and non-survivors to come together in solidarity and have access to resources for help.
Through the country ambassador program, we will be creating a special training program for amateur sports clubs on how to handle sexual misconduct when it happens in their sporting environment. It’s an ambitious vision, but if we want to make our world a safer place, we need to aim high and take it step by step, like training for a marathon.
RS: What are some of the challenges that you faced running 16km of beaches in every country?
Claire: One of the biggest challenges is the sand on the beaches. It’s very rarely a hard surface for running and full of broken bits of shell, even glass, that is rough on my bare feet. For some of the runs, I have to use my Vibram Fivefingers to protect my feet while keeping all of those barefoot feels.
My very first run in South Africa presented a sand challenge. About halfway through, we hit a very soft patch of sand that continued for 2km. It was really hard to navigate, especially on the return when my body was tired. It was an interesting start to the journey; I think it was a real metaphor for life. Sometimes, we have difficult experiences, and we need to reach deep within ourselves to find our own resources to make it through.
Of course, the distance of running 16km along sand and barefoot is a challenge in itself. For my body, it feels more like running a half marathon each time, and I have to be cautious of injury. Running on a slight slope like the beach can irritate fascia.
Another challenge is the weather. In Switzerland, I ran in sub-zero and snow, and yes, I was in barefoot shoes. In other countries, it’s the complete opposite and it’s so hot I feel like I might collapse. Guatemala has been my hottest run ever, on black sand.
Then, of course, safety and being a woman on my own is a big challenge I have to think about all the time. In some countries, I do run alone, and it can be scary. There are very few places in the world where women can stay safe running alone.
RS: What is your most memorable moment throughout your Footsteps To Inspire journey?
Claire: I think every beach marks my memories, they are all so special in some way. Some of the stories are hard, deep and sad as well. I’ve heard some horrific stories. The ones from children are always the hardest to hear, and my heart breaks a little bit each time.
Papua New Guinea remains one of my most special memories. The local triathlon club helped organise the run. We were able to close roads, local businesses provided sponsorship, the US Ambassador spoke after the run, people donated to the rape crisis centre and even the sports channel came along to film the run.
This was only country number 5, right in the beginning, when I had no idea what kind of impact Footsteps To Inspire would make. I think what stays with me the most from this run is that there were people from all walks of life joining me, and they were all there because they want sexual violence to end.
RS: What is your long-term goal for Footsteps To Inspire to help end sexual violence peacefully? How can people contribute?
Claire: I’ve talked about some of the long-term goals in the previous questions. I think the best way people can contribute right now is to join our virtual run in Singapore on 6 December 2021, called ‘Let Our Voice Run’. It’s a special run to help end violence and inspire change.
I’ve partnered with a local NGO, LCCS – Lutheran Community Care Services, and all funds raised from the virtual run and week-long awareness campaign will go towards restorative programs helping survivors of violence and communities in Singapore.
The ticket price is SGD 25. There is an option to add on a limited edition T-shirt. And if running isn’t your thing, feel free to walk or cycle or show your support by buying a t-shirt.
There will also be info sessions, listening circles for anyone affected by violence, and a webinar during the week-long campaign. When you register for ‘Let Our Voice Run,’ you will receive more information about these activities.
We hope to reach 300 or more people for the virtual run, so please do show your support and run with us on 6 December. Your contribution matters!
If you want to make your contribution with Claire, you can join Let Our Voice Run Singapore virtual run on 6 December, 2020 to help end sexual violence peacefully.
How can you help the survivors?
Try saying this:
- “I believe you.” without any question or judgement.
- “It was not your fault.” Sexual violence is never the victims’ fault because no one will ever ask for it.
- “How can I help you?” It is important to listen to their stories. If we do not have the tools, resources or knowledge to help them, what we can do is to find someone that can help them. During ‘Let Our Voice Run,’ there will be a special info session on how to help.