23 seconds too slow: The beginning of the Free Hugs Project

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Three hours, five minutes and 23 seconds.

Twenty-three seconds too slow to qualify for the Boston marathon. Twenty-three seconds that could have made a year of training a waste of time. Twenty-three seconds that turned into many free hugs.

Twenty-three seconds made all the difference for Ken E. Nwadike Jr., a once-homeless kid and now the CEO of the Hollywood Half Marathon and the founder of the Free Hugs Project.

As a past track athlete and an avid runner, Nwadike said hearing about the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon was the first time hate went to his front door.

“It was disheartening to see runners who had trained their whole lives lose their limbs or even die in that race,” Nwadike said. “All I could think was what if a bomb went off at our race the week before. As a runner, it felt very close to me.”

It was then that Nwadike decided he would show his support by training for and then competing in the 2014 Boston Marathon.

“I started training for an entire year,” Nwadike said. “I thought if I trained and put in enough time I could pull it off.”

Those 23 seconds stopped Nwadike from reaching his goal.

“It was the first time I felt like I was going to cry when I crossed the finish line of a race,” Nwadike said. “I saw that 23 and realized all that training was for nothing. I wanted to show my support as a runner and as a race organizer and realized that wasn’t going to happen.”

From there, Nwadike said he was determined to find another way to show his support at the Boston Marathon.

Free Hugs Project

“I started talking to my friends and came up with this idea where instead of going there to run the race, I was going to go there and try to spread love,” Nwadike said. “I told them I’m going to wear this ‘Free Hugs’ shirt and try and give people hugs. And they told me that’s the stupidest idea ever.”

Nwadike said his friends wished him good luck and encouraged him to take a tripod to film himself giving away free hugs.

Much to their surprise, Nwadike said it was a huge success.

Runners even slowed down their pace or took a quick break to get a free hug.

“It didn’t matter that they were running a race,” Nwadike said. “It really moved people. One lady told me it was probably the first hug she’d received in 10 years.”

Nwadike posted the video of him giving hugs on YouTube, and by the time he got home after a eight-hour flight nearly one million people had watched the video.

“I knew I had to do more of this, so I said I’ll go to more running races,” Nwadike said. “And then as we started to move toward this political race and seeing all this tension going on and police brutality cases and protests, I said, ‘What if I used that same approach to go and spread love within this violence and see what could happen?'”

From running races to political races

“That was the point my work shifted from making feel-good videos to really showing up at the front line of these races trying to love away violence,” Nwadike said. “Now it wasn’t just ‘Free Hugs’ on a T-shirt, it was making dialogue with people to show them why peaceful protests are more effective than violence and destroying property.”

From the president’s inauguration to protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, after Keith L. Scott was killed, Nwadike said he was the peacekeeper not just giving hugs, but working to bridge gaps between the police and the protesters.

“There has to be more ways that we can demonstrate love in this world,” Nwadike said. “It can’t be fighting fire with fire. It’s almost like that 23 seconds I missed in qualifying for the race was meant to happen. Without that, this project would have never happened. We are all capable of changing the world in our own way.”

An impact at K-State

Alexus Lacy, junior in mass communications and multicultural co-chair of Kansas State’s Union Program Council, said UPC brought Nwadike to K-State because of the tension they noticed at K-State.

“After the post-presidential election there were a lot of conflicts and disagreements,” Lacy said. “We thought he would be the perfect guy to come here and make change.”

Robin Daniels, sophomore in secondary education, said she left feeling inspired after hearing Nwadike speak.

“I like how he goes about handling aggression and violence with peace,” Daniels said. “Our nation is very ‘fight fire with fire,’ and he’s standing up for a good cause.”

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Hi, I'm Kaitlyn Alanis, former news editor for the Collegian and a May 2017 graduate in agricultural communications and journalism. I have never tried a hamburger and I hate the taste of coffee, but I love writing stories and sharing what I learn with our readers. By writing for the Collegian, I can now not only sing along when the K-State Band plays "The Band is Hot," but I also know that most agriculture students did not grow up on a farm, how to use an AED to save someone's life and why there is a bust of MLK Jr. outside of Ahearn Field House. Thanks for reading!