Charity Races Mix Fitness and Fundraising

Donkey basketball. A classic example of two words you’d never include in the same sentence let alone next to each other. Yet some of you may have heard of it nonetheless. Donkey basketball was an annual event that took place in my small southern town when I was a kid: Real life donkeys in the high school gym, mounted by people and playing basketball for an audience. The whole point of donkey basketball was to raise money for a good cause. What can I say? We’ve come a long way since then!

Fitness-themed fundraising events continue today, but thankfully donkey basketball is a thing of the past (I hope!). Today, many charity groups hold specific fitness events with the goal of recruiting participants to help raise money and awareness for their cause. In return, the charity often provides participants with the tools they need to achieve their goals. Chances are that right now there are some charity events in your community.  You may have even walked, ran or biked in one! People participate in these events for a host of reasons, whether they want to contribute to a good cause, get some exercise, or wear their race T-shirt with pride.

I have had personal experience with charity races on three different occasions. My first was at the Country Music Half Marathon, which benefited a local group called Team ASK (Athletes for Special Kids). The second was the Tour de Cure bike ride for the American Diabetes Association. And most recently, I fulfilled my dream of running in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund. There are many others out there including the well-known Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team In Training program, which offers various events all over the country. (If you have ever seen a lot of people in purple tank tops during televised marathons or races, those are the folks!) And this year's Marine Corps Marathon has are over 70 participating charity groups from which participants can choose from.

So how exactly do you get involved in a charity race? It works like this.
  1. A charity group identifies an event, such as a half or full marathon, 5K or 10K run/walk, bike tour, or triathlon.
  2. The charity then recruits participants who agree to raise money for the charity and personally participate in the race itself.
  3. Participants typically pay a race entry fee (which can range from $10 to $40 on average). This money usually goes directly to the charity group, but also reserves a participant's spot in the race.
  4. In the months or weeks leading up to the event, participants are asked to raise funds, and are often encouraged to meet a minimum fundraising goal, as set by the charity. Participants will ask their friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers to donate money to the cause on their behalf.
  5. In turn, the charitable organization often provides support, coaching, encouragement, and training to help participants reach not only their fundraising goals, but also the level of fitness necessary to participate in the race.
Overall, a charity race is a great way to raise money and awareness for a good cause while staying motivated and encouraged to stick with a fitness program. Here are the top 4 reasons you should consider running, walking or biking for charity yourself:

1. Be part of something bigger than yourself. By participating, you are joining hundreds and thousands of others who have the same goal of helping people—and that just feels good! Many participants would probably tell you that they wouldn’t have just signed up for a race on their own, but knowing they would be helping others motivated them to do so. In running the Marine Corp Marathon last year, I was proud to wear the singlet with the Injured Marine Semper Fi logo. Many people would shout “Semper Fi!” as I ran by and that felt amazing!

2. Be part of a team. Anyone who played sports in high school or college will tell you that when their “career” ended, one of the biggest things they missed was being a part of a team. Participating in an event with a charity group puts you on a team of other runners, walkers, and cyclists who have a united goal and purpose. You even get to wear the same shirts or jerseys in most cases. For those who have always longed to be on a team, whether for the first time of the fiftieth, this is a great opportunity.

3. Build some very special relationships. When I was training with the runners from Team ASK with Special Kids, we met up every Saturday in the winter to train together. On those extra cold mornings, running become bearable an even fun knowing I would be seeing my friends. Also, sharing in the training experience and encouraging one another builds great bonds and friendships that last long after the event is over.

4. Get the tools you need to accomplish your goal. You may have had a lifelong dream of completing a marathon, or even a triathlon, but there was one problem: You didn’t know how to train to get there. Groups like the Leukemia Society’s Team In Training provide coaches who will give you weekly schedules so you know exactly what to do and when to do it. They also provide other tips for training and fundraising. Their goal is for you to succeed in your event and fundraising and to have a great overall experience. Sometimes there are even local groups with these teams that meet for weekly runs or walks.   
As I said earlier, a charity race really is a win-win scenario. But more accurately, it's a “win-win-win” scenario! You win by completing a dream or fitness feat. The charity wins by receiving the funding they need to fulfill their mission. And the people helped by the charity win by benefiting from the research, services, education and support that the charity provides. How much better can it get?

To close, let me share a real life example. A couple of years ago at the Country Music Marathon, one Team ASK runner was having a tough time during the race. She had reached the 20-mile mark of the 26.2-mile marathon and just gave up and quit. She sat down on a bench and basically said “stick a fork in me because I am done!” Our training coach (who had never had a person not complete an event) sat down beside her. He patiently listened as she explained why she was frustrated and “done” with the race. She was tired and hot and bored and all the fun was just gone! At that moment, Rick told her that she couldn’t quit and he pointed to the band on her wrist which bore the name of the Special Kids child she was running in honor of. Tears welled up in her eyes. She knew she couldn’t quit because this race wasn’t for her—it was for the child she represented. So she got up and finished the race! Today, she still says that was a defining point in her life and that she is so proud for her accomplishment and for not giving up.

The thought of walking a half marathon, running a marathon, or completing a triathlon may seem unreachable to you right now, but it really is possible. These organizations can give you the tools, coaching, and motivation you need to make it happen, no matter what your fitness level. (And trust me, there are people of all shapes, sizes, ages and fitness levels training and completing these events.) Why not go for it and do something you never thought possible? Choose a charity that is close to your heart, something you really believe in, and make your dream—and the dreams of others—come true!