Ask Paul Jansen Van Rensburg how many miles he has covered since he started running in 2006 and he can’t give you an exact answer. That’s perhaps because the Johannesburg native who now calls Algonquin home has gone from being a casual, three-times-a-week, runner to a marathoner and then an ultra-marathoner, running as far as 100 miles at a time. Jansen Van Rensburg, however, runs with a mission, raising money through World Vision to send clean drinking water to Africa as well as raising money to see that children around the world have a brighter future than they may face otherwise.
I first thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll run a marathon, why not?’ But then it was, ‘Why just run for yourself? We would always say that there’s two lives to change on the side of a running shoe. There’s your life you’re changing because you’re getting healthier. Then there’s a kid on the other side of the world whose life is getting healthier.
Growing up in South Africa during the apartheid years and seeing the pain of one group of people and then another, I always wondered, ‘What’s going to be that thing that is going to hook into me to give back?’ Running on this side of the world has given me that opportunity. So I’m going to run as many marathons as I can until the day I die and I will always run to change children’s lives in those parts of the world where they wonder, ‘Will anyone see me? Will anyone make a difference?’ I can be a person who can have a voice and for me, I run for the voiceless so they can have a voice. These kids, they’re nothing. So I lace up my running shoes these days so that can be different.
When I think of this little girl (that Jansen Van Rensburg first sponsored) and she sleeps on a cot on the cold floor in South Africa and her mom and three brothers and sisters do the same – no dad involved – she has no hope. I think, man, if she does that, then surely I can keep running. I grew up in South Africa, but I almost grew up with a first-world experience. I had all the opportunities, I had all the sports equipment, I had opportunities to go to the best colleges in the world. I had all of that and here’s a person whose living 6 1/2 hours from where I grew up and she has nothing. I think it will stay with me until the day I die.
Running 100 miles was a life-altering experience. Our idea was that if we do the running, we can get get 100 people to sponsor children. So people were like, ‘If you can run, I can help change a life.’ People ask, ‘Why did you do that?, Why did you run 100 miles?’ But the goal was to change as many lives as possible.
In 2010, in preparing for Comrades (the 56-mile ultra-marathon in South Africa) when we passed 50 marathons as part of our training, we just kind of decided to not count (miles) anymore because it was just getting ridiculous. To put on your shoes and say, I’m going to go run a marathon just for fun, that’s nuts and so we lost count. But we’ve done the Chicago Marathon every year (since 2006) except for 2010 when we did Comrades. I never, never, never imagined running would ever turn into anything like this, but once we got going and once I got the bug in me as a way of helping change lives, it turned into, ‘OK, here we go.'
• Jeff Arnold is a staff writer for ChicagoFootball.com. I’m Just Saying is a regular Sunday feature. If there’s someone you would like to see featured, write to the Northwest Herald at firstname.lastname@example.org.