Boston, New York, Marine Corps, Chicago. Getting into one of these marathons is half the battle. Year after year, missed qualifying times and bad luck with lotteries are the source of much heartache for runners. To some, racing on behalf of a charity offers a back door to the starting line when all else fails.
But these charity runners will tell you it’s not about the race bib.
Melissa Wilf, then of New York and now living in D.C., was willing to limp her way through the 2007 Rock n’ Roll Phoenix Marathon as a member of Team In Training (TNT), raising $6000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She was hoping to qualify for Boston — and her training suggested she would be able to — but a mysterious injury sent a shooting pain through her knee only two miles into the race.
“I can’t come home without finishing this race,” she remembered thinking. She was determined to honor her friend with blood cancer and her TNT family. And even though it was a rare 30-degree day in Phoenix and the bands and crowds had left the course in the later stages of the race, Wilf finished with her teammates walking by her side.
For Adam Gutbezahl it all began with a finish. After crossing the line at the 2012 Marine Corps 10k, the D.C. resident was about to collapse. But take a look behind him in his race photos and you see a racer with a prosthetic leg.
“He looks completely fine,” Gutbezahl said. While he didn’t know if his anonymous idol was a veteran, it inspired him. “These people have served our country and have gone through so much and still keep pushing.”
His involvement in the Wounded Warrior Project is his way of showing appreciation for service members, and in 2013 he decided to become a 50-state marathoner and raise $50,000 for the charity, which supports injured service members and their families. It’s a long-term goal — he plans on running two to three marathons a year — but one that he said will hold himself accountable for his fundraising efforts.
Last April, he knocked one of his first states off his list with the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon and a new PR of 3:43:43. Severely dehydrated in the final miles, he stopped at a water station, where a volunteer took notice of his Wounded Warrior top.
“He told me, ‘Come on, Adam, you’re doing this for an awesome cause. I’m proud of you. Thank you for doing this.’ It was just the thing I needed at the moment,” Gutbezahl said.
He raised $1500 for his Oklahoma race, more than his $1000 goal. The support largely came from emails and social media posts that connected him with contacts from college, law school and work.
Eyes eastward, Elliot Norman tried to stay injury-free as he prepared for the London Marathon.
The former Londoner, now living in Vienna (Virginia, not Austria) was running on behalf of the UK’s World Jewish Relief, which raises funds to reduce worldwide poverty, an opportunity revealed in a chance conversation his mother had.
Although thousands of miles separated Norman from his team, he kept in touch through video conferences. He remembers the look the eight novice runners gave him when he listed his five marathon finishes since 2009. With a 3:42 marathon PR, his teammates across the pond sent him emails in the months before the race to ask him questions about training and race-day logistics, which Norman said motivated his training even on the worst days of winter. Though an injury kept him from running to his potential, he raised about $4,600, exceeding his goal by about $1,200. And it gave him a sense of unfinished business that he will take care of next year in England.
A little over half of his funds came from UK sponsors. A donation of more than $800 from a whiskey club across the globe fired Norman up enough to head out for a run in below-freezing temperatures.
“I need to run because these people clearly have some faith in me,” he remembered thinking. “That was a ‘screw the weather’ type day.” On days he didn’t run, Norman shoveled snow. That alone raised a couple hundred dollars.
The London marathon claims to be the largest annual fundraising event in the world, with one-third of this year’s 36,000 participants running for a charity. Historically, about one-fifth of Boston marathon participants are charity runners.
Meaghan, who asked that her last name not be used, first noticed a lump on her throat in August 2012, which turned out to be stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a blood cancer that affects the lymphatic and immune systems.
She underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy, which meant biweekly IV drips to kill the cancer. She was mentally ready for the fight, but worries lingered.
“I could wrap myself around the chemo, but I had a really hard time worrying that I wasn’t going to recognize myself,” she said, adding “I was nervous because I had no idea what my new normal was going to be.
“I didn’t want to be ‘Meaghan with cancer,’ I just wanted to be Meaghan!”
By 2013, she was a quarter of the way through her chemotherapy and relied on short-term disability leave from work. Her hair began to thin, and it took longer and longer to recover after each treatment.
In April, an unexpected package arrived. A young woman named Kristina, who had heard of Meaghan’s battle with cancer through family friends, wrote that Meaghan was her inspiration for running the inaugural Nike Women’s Half Marathon with TNT. Inside the package was a silver necklace in a Tiffany’s box, which Kristina had earned as a finisher.
“I wore that necklace every day,” Meaghan said.
She also joined TNT and registered for Nike’s 2014 half marathon.
“I chose to run because someone somewhere selflessly chose to run for me. The odds of me being here wouldn’t be what they were without people like Kristina whose run for complete strangers to make cures and breakthroughs.”
#TeamWorkBitch was born. Meaghan and her friends Kendall Semidey, Cassie Whiteside, Martina Payne, and Jenn Young raised nearly $11,000 for LLS. They relied on emails and social media to spread their message, asked for corporate donations, held happy hours, sold team shirts and used March Madness brackets to raise money.
TNT became another family for Meaghan: “They accepted me for who I was,” she said.
On the Friday before the race, Meaghan spoke at the VIP fundraising dinner for TNT. She said it was one of the best nights of her life.
Though she used to have trouble talking about her experience with cancer, she then felt entirely comfortable sharing her story with this group of strangers once TNT helped her find her voice.
“I’ve always wanted to talk, but I just had to wait until I was ready.”
#TeamWorkBitch finished the race together.
“Crossing the finish line with my teammates was the best feeling and natural high of my life. I was so proud of myself, not just for completing the race, but for what it symbolized. It was the ending I needed in this chapter of my life.” She calls it her “take that, cancer” moment.
Doctors have confirmed that Meaghan is in remission. Body scans since last July repeatedly reassured her that things were okay.
Over 100 organizations offer a guaranteed entry into the New York marathon, about 70 for Marine Corps, 30 for Boston and 10 for Chicago. But the world of running isn’t strictly divided into those who run for charity and those who don’t.
“Experiencing Boston as a charity runner motivated me to set a goal of qualifying in the next few years,” said Alexandrian Robert McManmon, adding that he’d like to fundraise again, too.
He grew up in Newton, Mass., not far from the race course. Every third Monday in April, the McManmons would watch runners tackle Heartbreak Hill, and McManmon said he always wanted to run the iconic marathon. In 2012 he did just that while raising about $5,000 for the American Liver Foundation’s Run for Research team, which supports research efforts for the prevention, treatment, and cure of liver disease. He was part of a team of about 150 runners, mostly based in the Boston area, who collectively raised more than a million dollars.
Temperatures in Boston that day reached the 90’s, which means charity runners starting at 11 a.m. battled the heat from start to finish. While McManmon said it was a very challenging course, the support from Boston crowds helped him get to the finish.
“So many people were out along the course the entire 26 miles and they just wouldn’t let you stop. As you’d start walking they really encouraged you to get going,” he said.
About half of his donations came from fundraising events. Wherever he went, McManmon asked businesses if they would support his cause. That scored him a number of prizes, including a luxury wine tasting in Virginia, to raffle off at a happy hour.
“I was surprised by the generosity,” he said. Friends of friends arrived at a pub crawl he hosted in Old Town, which turned out to be his most successful event. He said he wanted these get-togethers to be an opportunity to support the American Liver Foundation—the second largest charitable organization at Boston—and to bring people together to learn more about the organization.
As part of the marathon training, one weekend, McManmon went up to Boston to join his team for its first 20-miler along the course.
“It was really inspirational to go up there and listen to some people who offered some stories about dealing with and living with liver diseases,” he said. “I also got to meet and run on behalf of a brave child that received a liver transplant at a young age. It really made it a more meaningful experience.”
For Max Lubarsky of Arlington, the courage of a young girl has inspired his training since 2011.
His sister Nicolet first ran the St. Jude Memphis Half Marathon in 2010 because their grandmother was a regular supporter of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which funds the research and treatment of cancer and other life-threatening diseases. When his sister posted a message about her fundraising efforts on social media, she received a message from Leticia Ramirez, whose daughter Arianna was a St. Jude patient in Memphis. The two families became quick friends, forming Team Rae of Hope in honor of Arianna’s middle name, Rae.
After Arianna’s brain cancer diagnosis at three, doctors told her family that the prognosis was grim. “Princess Arianna,” as she became known in the halls of her hospital, recovered and relapsed, but kept a positive attitude through it all.
“It was really a roller-coaster,” Lubarsky said.
Last fall tumors appeared in her scans again, and the disease developed too quickly for her treatments to save her. She passed away before her eighth birthday in March.
“One of the things we did on her eighth birthday that I think we’ll continue doing is doing eight random acts of kindness,” Lubarsky said. Whether they left flowers for co-workers or picked up the tab for a stranger’s coffee, Arianna’s friends and family passed on cards with her story as a way to live out her legacy of kindness.
They chronicled the project on Twitter with the handle #RaeofHope.
A few days later, a barista paid for Arianna’s father’s coffee, not realizing that she was bringing the movement full circle until he explained how much it meant to him.
Last year, Team Rae of Sunshine raised close to $20,000 for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. This year, Team Rae of Sunshine upped the ante to run the full marathon in Memphis and doubled their fundraising goals, which they hope to meet by selling team shirts, offering tickets to Nationals games, and hosting happy hours.
“Really, their family has become our family,” Lubarsky said.