How one woman turned her love of running into an organisation that has transformed the lives of thousands of people.
In 2005, Annie Crawford decided she wanted to give back to the community. And so she trained 25 people to face their fears, run a marathon and collectively raise $50,000 for cancer - and with that, Can Too came to life.
To date, the non-profit program has trained over 13,500 people and raised more than $17 million for cancer research.
We spoke to Annie about her extraordinary and inspiring story.
Why did you decide to start Can Too?
There were three main reasons:
1. My father died of cancer at 51 and I am one of seven kids, so I saw first-hand the impact of the disease. I wanted to be able to fund cancer research so that other families wouldn't be affected the way we were.
2. I ran a marathon with a similar program to Can Too when I was living in the US. I loved it and the idea of sharing this personal transformation with others. I am passionate about living a fit and healthy life and so wanted to help others to do the same.
3. In the US, my husband and I were involved in setting up the US affiliate of a biotech company. This company was very successful, so I felt given my privileged position, it was my turn to give back to the community.
Who inspired you?
1. People who struggle with self belief, and who want to move beyond their comfort zone.
2. People who are going through cancer treatment.
3. Researchers who are trying to find a cure for cancer.
What lies at the heart of Can Too and its philosophy?
Can Too's values are to inspire, motivate, support our people in fun, fitness, friends and fundraising.
Lots of our people have a fear of getting started into exercise, a fear of the ocean, a fear of sharks, a fear of failure or just plain lack of belief in themselves.
At Can Too, no matter how competent you are in any other aspect of your life, it's okay to admit that you are scared to death of swimming out the back through big waves, or fearful of riding a bike, or that you want to face your fear of running and move beyond it for the first time in your adult life.
While Can Too, on the surface is a training program that raises money for research – it is more than that. It is a vehicle for personal transformation. It is about inspiration, motivation, support and empowerment to move beyond your comfort zone. It is a community that encourages you to change that part of you that holds you back from achieving your true potential.
What has been the highlight of the journey?
The highlight of the journey has been watching the transformation of thousands of Can Tooers (as I call our people) as they take on two challenges - both for fitness and fundraising. When you move beyond your comfort zone as you train for an endurance event, and face your fears and demons, you learn so much that can then make your own life better and the lives of those you impact along the way.
When you put yourself out there to fundraise, you can feel anxious and scared that you won't get the support that you deserve. It can be uncomfortable for many people. So when they achieve their fundraising goal, it is incredibly life-affirming.
Are there any stories that stand out?
There are so so many highlights I can't just choose one. Here are a couple of examples:
Ted was over 50 when he joined Can Too. He was 35kg overweight. He couldn’t walk 400m around the track. I was actually terrified he might have a heart attack and despite the fact that we believe in everybody until they believe in themselves, I was nervous! He was a self-confessed couch potato - the only one of 5 brothers who had never played a game of soccer in his life. What a transformation. Ted is a changed man.
Five years later, he has lost 35kg, run 12 marathons (always one of the last to finish – it does not matter), done four of our swim programs, our tri programs, a half ironman and raised $40K! His doctor says he has added 10 years to his life.
Then there was Sarah. Sarah was 19 when did when she first did Can Too. She was terrified of ocean swimming. She was the one at school who always avoided sport, put in minimum effort when she had to show up to a sports lesson, and even brought the odd sick note to the PE teacher.
One day when she was at training - scared stiff, she was half crying when she had to dive through the waves and swim out the back. At the end of the session I asked her why she was crying - she said it was because she never had believed in herself - she never believed that she could swim in the deep ocean. She had a negative self identity, that she had to shift before she could move on.
And move on she did.
She trained hard, week after week, and faced her fear of waves and sharks until she was able to complete her first ocean swim. Her negative identity shifted.
She realised if she could do the thing in her life she was most scared of, she could do anything. And she did – she decided to do a Master of Business – something she hadn’t believed in herself enough to do.
Ted and Sarah have taught me lessons about courage, about taking responsibility and about making a positive contribution to the community through fundraising.
In your book, The Annie Effect, you talk about your struggle with depression and anxiety, how has that shaped how you are today and your story?
I think it has made me a more compassionate, empathic person. It is one of the reasons that I needed to work in areas that gave me personal meaning and influenced my decision to do social work at university. It was part of the reason why I decided to set up Can Too and why I am involved with other not-for-profits.
Any advice for others suffering?
For people who are struggling, I would encourage them to get professional help, to share their feelings with family and friends and exercise every day. I would encourage them to find things that they are passionate about and do them.
Being altruistic is also good for your mental health! Research shows it gives you the helper's high, so get involved in something worthwhile in your community.
And of course do a Can Too program, because it ticks a lot of boxes for good mental health.
What's the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Never burn a bridge. Honesty is the best policy. Both of these are from my Dad.
My mum told me to always be gracious and accept compliments with a thank you.
The Annie Effect, by Annie Crawford, RRP $29.99, New Holland PublishersAustralia.
For more inspiring stories, take a look at our International Women's Day hub