The Marathon Journal
By Gear Patrol
on 4.3.14

Until recently, a typical runner could gain entry into a marathon one of two ways: by meeting minimum race times in other, smaller marathons or by entering their name into a random lottery. It wasn’t until the 1980s, with the London Marathon, that charity marathon running began — a runner could get a marathon slot by fundraising a predetermined minimum amount for a selected charity. A decade and a half after its London introduction, the concept of charity running gained mainstream popularity in the U.S., along with marathon running itself.

There is no doubting the impressive fundraising ability of marathons. The London Marathon touts itself as the largest annual fundraising event in the world. However, some have argued that the recent surge in charity marathon running has devalued the athletic spirit of a marathon and propped it up as a commercial and philanthropic venture.

Point:

They’ve never run or donated to charity before. Now they’re doing both, and for the most selfish of reasons — to be able to say that they did.

Charity runners, viewed as a whole, are diluting real running talent. In New York over the past six years, the number of charity runners has doubled, meaning that twice as many people are on Facebook, flexing in running gear and asking for money. Sure, they might raise a few dollars from their inner circle, but their inner circle won’t be donating next year because they won’t be running next year. Once they decided to run a marathon, they started competing for money and marathon slots with actual runners who may not have peers with the financial resources to meet charity minimums, or people who are, for various reasons, very devoted to a particular charity. The former chose running first. The latter chose charity first. The third group of charity runners chose themselves first.

This third group stumbled onto a scale and realized it might be time to lose weight. Or they flaked on a New Year’s resolution and viewed “marathon” as the magic word to turn things around. A marathon isn’t some fun thing that can be accomplished by “Some running over the summer”. It’s serious mileage and a serious accomplishment. And what’s worse, they invade Facebook feeds and their friends’ inboxes with sudden bouts of paradoxical philanthropy.

I get it. Very few people can qualify for a marathon. I can barely run a 7-minute mile, not to mention 26 of them back to back to back to…you get me. But this fact shouldn’t usher unqualified tourists into the side door of a marathon: charity running. They’ve never run or donated to charity before. Now they’re doing both, and for the most selfish of reasons — to be able to say that they did.

And their planned accomplishment isn’t even that exciting. They’ll walk/run 26 miles with 50,000 other finishers, ensure that their photograph is taken and then change their profile picture for a few months to them in a marathon bib. Running is spiritual; it’s what you do in the morning before work, not in front of cameras. And that money they raised? A drop in the bucket. Take the LiveStrong Foundation as an example. Last month, charity runners in the NYC Half Marathon raised $28,000 for the charity. Compare this to Livestrong’s annual budget, which is close to $45 million. Fundraising from a single charity runner can barely pay for one experiment, in one lab, somewhere.

If you are considering charity running and want to make a real difference, run without photographing yourself and donate without talking about it. Raise a few thousand dollars because you believe in it, not to wiggle your way into a race far outside of your skill level.

-J. Travis Smith

Counterpoint:

There’s room for all types in any sport: fast and slow, loud and quiet, big and little. Why marginalize someone’s efforts because they’re not a professional?

Marathons are a valid way to raise money for charity. Why wouldn’t they be? The 2013 ING New York City marathon raised $8,069,330 for charitable causes. That’s one city. One marathon. Millions more are raised for great causes every year.

There’s a special place in hell reserved for “experience hoarders” — those who get involved with something and suddenly turn insular. You know one. Heck, you may have been one, at some point in your life. These are the people that liked Kentucky Breakfast Stout/Thom Yorke/Memento before they were cool, and they let you know it. Now, these people are taking over marathoning.

I get it. It’s annoying when every soccer mom and baseball dad decide that they want a title that you’ve spent years earning. But are they really competition for the pros? While they’re plodding along near mile three, basking in the glow of what might be the proudest moment of their lives, the real competitors are already at mile ten, grinding it out for the purse and the glory. So they get to say they’re a marathoner, too. Are pro runners so insecure that an offhand comment at a party — “Oh, you run marathons? So do I!” — makes them want to stand on a table and yell, “But I run faster!”

There’s room for all types in any sport: fast and slow, loud and quiet, big and little. Why marginalize someone’s efforts because they’re not a professional? Everyone started somewhere — Chris Lieto, who placed first at the 2005 Ironman Canada, first at the 2006 Ironman Japan and second at the 2009 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, was a mortgage broker who decided to start training after watching the Ironman World Championship on TV. You never know where experience will lead you.

Amateur runners don’t take away from the true competitors. And if they help the world a little through their efforts, what’s the harm?

-K.B. Gould

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