By Leyna Roget
After a race for the World Military Games, Nick Macfalls observers a barefoot Kenyan runner rummaging through the garbage after a pair of discarded running shoes. Unlike the shoeless Africans who currently dominate elite distance running, many aspiring athletes in poor or war torn regions don’t have access to the shoes they require. This unsettling image prompts Macfalls to seize a new direction in athletic activism.
A competitor in the 1500 meters (that’s one mile for the non-metric public) and former member of the Olympic bound Nike Farm Team, Macfalls realizes the life of many competitive running shoes are coming to a premature end. It’s common in track and cross country to trash ones “worn-out” shoes after a single training season, which can last only 3-6 months.
Many miles are clocked on the shoes of avid runners like Macfalls, but what about the shoes of daily shoe wearers and occasional cross trainers? He concludes that “there’s an everlasting amount of shoes that we could collect and it’s never going to be a problem getting the shoes.” It’s throwing them out that’s the problem. Many shoes are thought to expire far ahead of their time, but in fact have enough breath left to provide needy runners countless more miles, to reach their athletic goals. Recognizing the demand for shoes on an international scale, Macfalls set out to collect as many shoes as possible and redistribute them to those in need.
In 2001 Nick Macfalls founded From Our Feet (FoF), a program that has since then facilitated the distribution of over 25,000 pairs of shoes overseas, and the recycling of at least another 8,000 pairs. In a single collection Macfalls receives 700-1300 shoes, adding, “we didn’t just get running shoes, we started to get other shoes and a lot of those then go to humanitarian purposes.” Macfalls acknowledges the profound effect that recycling shoes can have in supporting impoverished communities, sustainable business ventures and making the most out of our everyday reusable resources. In 2006, From Our Feet was recognized as California's Innovative Recycling Program of the Year for seeing the potential to reduce production and waste by reusing shoes.
Nick has set up donation sites around his home in Palo Alto, California, at local schools, churches, community organizations, and running races, creating a network of shoe conscious consumers. Some shoe donations have gone to orphans of the Tumaini Children's Center, survivors of the AIDS epidemic in Nyeri, Kenya. Seven-hundred pairs of recycled running shoes have transformed the spirits and success of their after-school running program established by a fellow non-profit organization Hope Runs.
Nick's vision is to encourage other individuals to start similar low cost programs in their communities. Macfalls suggests, “don’t take it on alone. Find out what else is out there, work with other groups, and just don’t be afraid to ask for advice.”