Competing for a Cause

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Looking for athletic inspiration that serves a higher purpose and delivers a higher level of satisfaction? Welcome to the world of philanthrofitness.

The concept of athletic-event-meets-fundraiser isn’t a new idea. Anyone who’s walked for the March of Dimes can tell you that. In the last 20 years, however, athletic events that raise money and awareness for worthy causes have expanded beyond noncompetitive walking events and nickel-a-mile pledges into a billion-dollar industry that includes many competitive races.

Whether you’re an amateur or professional athlete, competing for charity allows you to combine two important goals: fitness and philanthropy. Participating in charitable athletic events infuses your athletic efforts with a new sense of meaning and perspective. It’s an appealing synergy: You throw your athletic energy behind a cause that serves others, and both you and the cause come out stronger for it.

Whether you’re looking to achieve a new athletic high or find deeper fitness motivation, events that serve a good cause can deliver inspiration and introduce you to new athletic and social communities that share your values, passions and concerns. If you need a new reason to stay in shape this year, consider one of the many options below — you might be surprised by the added sense of accomplishment you feel upon crossing the finish line.

Registration as Donation

The majority of road races and bike rallies are organized to raise money for a cause. In fact, athletes often compete in these events without realizing they’re also making a donation to a charity with their registration fees (check with the organization to see if your registration qualifies for a tax deduction and with your accountant to see how much of it you can deduct).

Take Nancy Scholberg Creuzot, 48, a runner since 1981, who never paid much attention to the beneficiary of her registration fees. That is, until 1989, when she signed up for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s Race for the Cure, which began as a single 5K run in 1983 and is now a series of more than 100 races across the country.

Creuzot, whose mother died of breast cancer at age 44, says she was touched by the presentation of the survivors: “I knew I had to get involved to honor my mother’s memory.” Every year since, Creuzot has volunteered at the race, including in 2001, when she was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer herself. She still runs for the cause every year. “When I’m participating, I don’t think of myself as a survivor,” she says. “I think of myself as an athlete.”

Pledging Allegiance

Pledge-based fundraising — where event participants collect monetary donations from friends, family, neighbors and coworkers for each mile completed — is another successful tactic when it comes to competing for a cause.

“This fundraising format is popular because it’s something anyone can do,” says Steven H. Biondolillo, founder and president of Biondolillo Associates, a marketing and development-consulting firm that primarily helps nonprofits with fundraising. “You don’t have to be a professional athlete or a professional fundraiser to ask your mom for a $15 pledge.”

Of course, asking for pledges isn’t something that appeals to every athlete, but to those deeply invested in a cause, it can be a mile-by-mile motivator and a feel-good way to extend one’s personal investment to a broader circle of potential advocates. As you seek pledges, you inevitably wind up marketing for both the event and the cause — driving up public awareness, event involvement and donations.

“People come to our event the first time to do the race,” says Virginia Tinley, executive director of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), for which the San Diego Triathlon Challenge raises about $1 million annually. “Then they get bit by the charitable bug to come back because of a passion for the foundation.”

Team Spirit

Some fundraising programs, like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training or the Arthritis Foundation’s Joints in Motion Training Team, offer more than just the event: They provide training and support — including qualified coaches, a mentoring system and group workouts — to see you through to the finish line. In return, participants raise $1,000 or more for the charity.

Izumi Couch, 35, of San Francisco, has participated in four Ironman triathlons through IronTeam, an arm of the Team in Training program. She finished the 2002 Ironman Canada in a time of 16 hours and 48 minutes, and has attempted three times, but never officially finished, Ironman USA in Lake Placid, N.Y. Was it all for nothing? Hardly — last year alone she raised $8,500 of the $750,000 raised by the 64-member team.

She keeps returning to the program partly because she’s determined to conquer the Ironman USA bike course, but also in memory of her friend Louie Bonpua, who died of leukemia in 2002, five months after finishing Ironman Canada. “It’s so rewarding to be part of something bigger than the race alone,” Couch says. “Training for this reminds me each day how lucky I am to have my health, and it feels even better to do it while helping others.”

Real Results

Do-gooder athletes can take special satisfaction in the knowledge their fundraising produces tangible results.

Take the work of Brian Druker, MD, the chair of leukemia research at the Oregon Health and Science University Cancer Institute in Portland. After receiving a grant from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in 1995, Druker developed a drug called Gleevec, used to treat chronic myeloid leukemia, gastrointestinal stromal tumors and other cancers. Today, Gleevec is the standard therapy for patients with these cancers and is saving thousands of lives.

“If I can help raise awareness that we’re on the right track, and help develop drugs like Gleevec for other cancers by spreading the word that the limiting resource is funding, I feel my time and effort is extremely well spent,” Druker says. And his time and efforts aren’t solely in the research lab. Druker has also raced and raised in excess of $50,000 through Team in Training.

So what’s your philanthropic passion? What’s your fitness passion? If you know, then it might be time to combine the two and make this your year to be “philanthrofit.”

Kara Douglass Thom also writes for Women’s Adventure magazine. She is the author of Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters with the Ultimate Endurance Event (Breakaway Books, 2001) and a children’s book, See Mom Run (Breakaway Books, 2001).