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"When women run together incredible things happen"

261 Fearless founders Dr Juliet McGrattan and Edith Zuschmann tell The Female Lead how they help women to lead a sustainable, healthy, courageous, and positive life.

Q. What is 261 Fearless?

Edith & Juliet: 261 Fearless Inc. is a global non profit organisation. We use running as a vehicle to empower and unite women through education programs and the creation of women-only local running clubs.

Through these opportunities, 261 Fearless breaks down barriers such as geography and isolation; misconceptions about running and physical activity; and lack of opportunity. 261 Fearless creates a global, social running network for women of all abilities and backgrounds to support and communicate with each other, encouraging healthy living and a positive sense of self-esteem and fearlessness.

Q. Where did the name 261 Fearless come from?

Edith: 261 is the bib number Kathrine Switzer wore in the 1967 Boston Marathon - a marathon during which she needed to overcome her fear when the race director attacked her for being a female in a ‘men-only’ race. She decided to keep running and finished the race. Through her fearlessness she became the first woman to officially register and run this historic race. Kathrine Switzer went on to revolutionize women’s running and continues as a game changer today.

Q. How did 261 Fearless begin?

Edith: In 2021 I started with a small group of women in Austria. My main aim was to provide them with a safe and secure space where they could run together, without any pressure. It was all about fun and making new friends. It wasn't just about running - it was about exploring for yourself, the strength you can gain through running and physical activity. I asked Kathrine Switzer, a dear friend, if she was ok if I called this group “261 Club” - and she said yes. Over the next 2 years the group grew and more and more women became interested in the 261 Club. So we expanded, and with the expansion we created our own 261 Education programme, which focuses on social running for women.

Q. What are the benefits of running, and particularly running as a group?

Juliet: Running has huge benefits for both physical and mental health. By being active, women can truly shape their futures, but it needs to be done regularly and long term. Running in a group helps you to overcome lots of barriers which can make running difficult. It’s easier to stay motivated and inspired with other people around you. You also get so much support and encouragement from group members which pushes you to see possibilities, try new things and make progress. Aside from the running, there’s the chance to share and discuss problems - such as women’s health concerns - in a safe place.

Q. Why did you want women to network through running?

Juliet: When women lace up their trainers and come to a 261 Fearless 'meet-run', they’re all equal. We’re all there to improve our health through being active and to have fun while doing it. You meet women of different ages from different backgrounds and cultures. It’s the perfect opportunity to make new friends and learn from each other. Having a shared goal means you feel you belong, and a sense of belonging is important for good mental and social health. We can all achieve so much on our own but we can achieve so much more if we do things with others.

As Kathrine Switzer says, ‘When women run together incredible things happen.’ The strength and confidence gained from running has a knock on effect on other areas of your life. Having a secure network of women around you helps you to succeed in all that you do.

Q. Why did you want to break down the barriers of geography, and how does this work in practice?

Juliet: We may be on different continents and from different cultures and backgrounds, but we are all women and running allows us to see how much we have in common. Running is a universal language - you don’t need any special equipment and it’s a perfect way to unite and support women regardless of their geographical location.

All of our 261 Coaches are trained with the exact same curriculum which they share with their members, so wherever you are in the world, you know what to expect at a 261 'meet-run'. Our coaching team has ongoing education both online and in-person, which gives them the opportunity to connect with other coaches around the world. Clubs have organised exchanges and visited each other. There is a lively community on social media and we also have 261 Charity teams at races which attract runners from different countries. We are most definitely a global community which is growing all the time.

Q. Tell us more about the educational side of 261 Fearless?

Juliet: Running is incredibly empowering, but the true key to empowerment is education. Only through learning can we really grow and develop. Our education program focuses on training women to become 261 Coaches, and Coaches to become 261 Master Coaches. We pride ourselves on a very high quality, evidence-based education program created and delivered by global experts. Science is always changing, so the needs of our Master Coaches, Coaches and members change with it. We also have a public facing educational program with our 261 Empowerment Talks on YouTube which share the expertise of successful, high profile women to offer knowledge and inspiration.

Q. How much has 261 Fearless grown since 2015?

Edith: Currently we have 261 Clubs in 12 countries (Albania, Austria, DRC, Ecuador, Germany, India, Israel, New Zealand, Switzerland, United Kingdom, USA, Zambia) on five continents. Since 2015 we have educated over 300 women, speaking 16 languages to become certified 261 Coaches. And over the last five years over 4,000 women have participated in local 261 Club 'meet-runs'.

Q. Are there any particular stories from participants of 261 Fearless that have moved you?

Edith: Our 261 Club Austria group in Vienna is helping refugee women to get active and connect with women from other countries. They have not only benefitted from running - they have also learnt German much faster and better than they would have without running.

Especially Marzia, a woman from Afghanistan - she joined the group and started running through the 261 Club offer. After one year she stepped up and asked if she could become a coach. Now she is a 261 Coach, leads the group together with an Austrian coach, and she has become a strong leader in her Viennese community. Furthermore, through connecting with the women in the 261 Club group, she got a job at a partner NGO.

To be honest, each story from each woman who steps up and commits to become a certified 261 Coach is special to me. In these days, when there are so many uncertainties and anxieties, I am impressed by all women who show courage and fearlessness and take over a volunteering role. They are essential players in the change of our society, and together we can make our communities better places for women.

Juliet: I was particularly moved when Sylvie, one of our Coaches from the Democratic Republic of Congo, spoke at one of our International Train the Trainer courses. She explained that women in her community did not associate running with having fun. The only time they had run was when they were running away from war. The impact of her words took a few minutes to sink in and I still think about it now. So many of us run for fun, for enjoyment and personal satisfaction, but not for survival. It’s so wonderful that through the hard work and enthusiasm of Sylvie and her co-coach Prudence, women in DRC can now get healthier through running and run with a smile on their faces.

The stories that show the power of running to help women move forward in life move me. A member in one of our UK Clubs had seen us running, and although hesitant, she asked if she could join as she had never run with anyone else. She had begun running in the dark, early mornings to help her lose weight. She had no confidence at all in her ability. She became a member, progressed in her running and recently stepped up to become a Coach. She wanted to help others to enjoy the benefits of running. Seeing that full circle close makes me so grateful for the work our clubs do in reaching out to all women.

Q. How does it make you feel knowing the impact you’ve had on so many women?

Juliet: When I look back on what we have accomplished in just a few years with a small team, I am so proud and also a bit amazed! It’s an honour to be carrying the torch and continuing the work that Kathrine started. But I know we have so much still to do so my eyes are firmly on the future. We need to reach more women.

Edith: I am proud of what we have achieved, but I also see and know the need to continue our work - especially these days, when women are facing a lot of barriers to enjoy sport and running. There is still a lot of work ahead of us, and I am very much looking forward to it.

Q. I'm rubbish at running but want to get involved... what do you recommend?

Juliet: Our running clubs are inclusive of runners of all abilities, but we know that it can still be intimidating for a woman who has never run before and doesn’t know where to start. We have created a 12 week, online program called Activate You which takes women from zero activity to meeting the World Health Organisation physical activity guidelines by the end of the program. It includes an interactive calendar with daily activity tasks, tips, advice and inspiration. There’s also a workbook and a supportive online community. Women can get fit at their own pace and in their own home if they choose. It can be done with walking but it’s also the perfect introduction to running. We really hope it bridges the gap between wanting to be more active and actually achieving it. The first round of the program is underway and the feedback is wonderful so we’re very excited about it.

Edith Zuschmann is a certified running and athletic coach for women and co-founder and CEO of the global running network 261 Fearless Inc. She is the developer of the 261 Fearless women’s running program for beginners and advanced runners. Its training methods focus on the entire body, and it has been successfully completed by thousands of women globally.

Dr Juliet McGrattan is a former General Practitioner and the 261 Fearless expert on women’s health. She is a 261 Master Coach and a founder and Director of 261 Fearless Club UK. She is an award-winning author of Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health and Run Well: Essential health questions and answers for runners, both published by Bloomsbury. Juliet is a writer and health expert for a range of British running and women’s health and fitness magazines and websites.

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