A Cause for Celebration: How fundraising groups are fuelling the growth in marathon race participation

Kevin Mackinnon explores the astounding growth of charity teams at major marathon races in Canada and around the world.

There were just over five kilometres to go for Sarah Grand. Just over three miles separated her from finishing her first marathon. Sure, she’d been training all summer for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, but despite all of that training she was in rough shape. That’s what happens when you’re doing your first marathon while still undergoing chemotherapy – and radiation therapy. When you can’t eat before your runs because the chemotherapy makes you feel too nauseous. When you’re doing a marathon to prove that cancer isn’t going to beat you.

Grand serves as a perfect spokesperson for what has become a remarkable trend in marathon running over the last decade, a trend that has some marathon critics fuming. The development of large marathons in the 1980s saw the number of participants double over a 10-year period. A decade later participation had doubled again, which, according to many marathon experts, was because of the steady growth of charity running groups.

“It’s sheer conjecture, but it’s my belief that programs like [Leukemia and Lymphoma’s] Team in Training opened a door for more women to comfortably train for and finish marathons,” says Active.com CEO Dave Alberga, whose company is responsible for hundreds of thousands of marathon entries ever year. “Likewise, I think it also exposed the world of distance running and walking to a far broader segment of the population, both female and male, by bringing greater purpose to the training, i.e. fundraising for a great cause.”

Alberga’s conjecture has facts to back it up, according to Dave Watt, executive director of the American Running Association. “It was the fall 1994 marathon debut by Oprah Winfrey that caused another ripple in marathon participation,” Watt says. “Now the marathon could be conquered by the average woman who may have been deemed ‘unathletic.’ If Oprah can shed 80 pounds, get in running shape and run a 4:29 marathon, then anyone can do it … As the 90s came to a close, women’s participation numbers in the marathon had doubled from the late 80s. At the turn of the 21st century, the marathon added a new twist: the charity runner. Charity groups began partnering with marathon organizations in the mid-1990s and became a growth vehicle for many small to medium-sized marathons.”

It wasn’t just mid-sized marathons, either. For many major marathons, a quarter of their fields are made up of charity teams. No marathon has more of a charitable component than the London Marathon, though. Since it began 30 years ago, the London Marathon has become the largest fundraising event in the world, having raised more than £450 million (about $750 million Cdn). Alberga’s and Watts’s timeline coincides with the huge growth of the event. In 1993, the London Marathon introduced a program to allow charities assigned race spots. Hundreds of charities were given the opportunity to buy guaranteed entries for £300 each, which they then offered to runners who weren’t able to register for the race. Athletes who took one of the spots had to commit to pledge a certain amount of money.

None of this even remotely worried Sarah Grand as she struggled to reach the finish line of the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Six years ago, event organizers developed the Scotiabank Charity Challenge (see sidebar), which raised $200,000 in its first year. That number has steadily grown each year. Grand was part of that fundraising effort, but the 24-year-old’s only thought on race day was getting to the finish line. “I thought of all the doctors and all the nurses who told me that I couldn’t do it, all the people who said my cancer would kill me,” she wrote after finishing the race. “I was going to do it, I had to do it, for me, for them, for anyone who’s ever had cancer and knows what it’s like to lie awake at night filled with fear and anxiety about what the future holds. So I kept on and before long I could see the big signs  – 700M to go, 500M to go, 200M to go, 100M to go! I could see it now, I could see the finish! The fans were cheering, I was going to do it, we were going to do it. I grabbed my mom’s hand and we ran as fast as we could until we crossed that finish line.”

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