After Nang Nonnarath Dunn’s second child was born, she began to run for exercise. Finding that the workout was easier after she was able to send her oldest to school, she would pack her toddler snugly in the jogging stroller, put on her athletic clothes, and hit the trail.
The 33-year-old Portland, Oregon resident is now a mother of three and at a point where she said running has simply become a part of life.
“Running has become part of my daily routine. Some people meditate, others do yoga, some people dance,” she said. “When I run, that’s my meditation and I feel rejuvenated. I’m clearer in my thoughts, and I’m at peace with myself and the people around me.”
She also mentioned that after a run, the extra energy allows her to keep up with her kids.
But caring for three children hasn’t held back her running career, as Dunn has three marathons and two ultra marathons under her belt. In addition to spending time with her family and running, she loves to camp, stay involved with the Lao community in Portland, and teaches Lao/Thai cooking classes at local libraries.
Well-known ultramarathoner Dean Karnanzes inspired her to run her first full marathon in 2010, with her first ultramarathon following in 2013.
Dunn, who was born in Laos and moved to the states with her family in 1988, always had a passion for philanthropic work, stemming from a 1996 high school trip to Thailand and Vietnam where she helped build schools for children in need. From there, she earned scholarships that allowed her to attend the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she studied sociology and women’s studies.
During a trip to her home country, she realized there was a way to raise money for a cause she was passionate about, but this time through her newfound love of running.
In 2012 during her fourth trip to Laos, Dunn was able to visit the village where she was born.
“While riding the bus back to a nearby province I looked out the window along this beautiful road. I was deeply touched seeing the mountains surrounding the villages, rice fields, and watched water buffalo sharing the road with people,” she recalled. “The thought of running 130 miles in three days, in three provinces was born.”
This thought was transformed into the Run Laos Challenge 2013, which in its final form was an ultramarathon relay that included Dunn and two other runners and began on November 1.
“The Run Laos Challenge 2013 gave me personal closure and, literally, a ‘running home’ after having immigrated to the [United States]. This was coming ‘full circle’ from my birth place, to my new home in the States, then back to my old home,” Dunn said. “The event became something larger than we expected. We had the honor of having the US Ambassador to Laos open the ceremony for us.
“When the news traveled along the course to our destination the villagers and school children would come out to greet us. People were not only curious but excited as we ran past their town.”
The opening ceremony for the ultra marathon was in Pakse. The runners stayed the first night in Paksong, the second night in Sekong, and completed the run on day three in the town of Attapue, where Dunn was born.
The main reason the ultra marathon was held is that it worked to spread awareness about human trafficking in Laos, as well as raise funds.
“The purpose of Run Laos Challenge is to promote a greater awareness of human trafficking in Laos and to financially support programs which shelter, educate and sufficiently prepare survivors for a renewed life,” the website stated. “This is an epic campaign administered by The VillageRun Foundation in collaboration with Village Focus International and other humanitarian groups supporting the function.”
Dunn said she joined because she’s passionate about human rights issues and raising awareness about human trafficking, as well as educating others about the cause, was something deeply personal to her.
“Human trafficking is a hidden yet dismal reality for women and children. Each year, tens of thousands of women and children from Laos face the horrors of trafficking, mostly in neighboring Thailand,” the website states. “Some work in factories or on farms in virtual slavery. Others are forced into the sex trade in conditions that are unspeakable. All victims are held captive with little or no hope of escape. But there are survivors.”
Funds raised from the run were given to the Shelter Project, which is a well-established program in Laos that seeks to provide emotional and physical care to survivors of human trafficking.
“Through the Shelter Project, young women are prepared to re-enter Lao society with enhanced skills and confidence, proffering a greater means of gainful employment in order to support themselves, their families, and to prevent being re-trafficked,” the website states.
In addition to Dunn, two others participated in the ultra marathon.
“I had the privilege to run this event with Siri Ketavong, a former Lao Olympian, and with Nancy Southasarn, another Portlander,” she said. “We raised $9,000 to give to the Shelter.”
Back home Dunn has another way to give back, through The VillageRun Foundation—a grassroots, nonprofit organization she founded with her husband in January 2011.
“Our mission is to help underprivileged school children in Laos,” she said. “Last year we partnered with a sister organization and built our first school in Luang Prabang Province.”
As for the future, Dunn will continue her work for VillageRun and has added a few running goals onto her bucket list, such as Western State 100 and Badwater.