Marathons Push Physical — and Charitable — Limits

More and more people are running in marathons to raise money for charities. The events raise welcome income for groups like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, but they're not necessarily the cheapest way to raise funds.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

You've probably noticed more and more people these days running marathons or biking long distance for charity. NPR's Diane Geng reports that while these fund-raisers do bring in large sums for good causes, they have their detractors.

DIANE GENG reporting:

It's 8 AM on a cool Saturday morning in northern Virginia.

Ms. MONIQUE FARRELL(ph) (Runner): Good morning, everybody.

GENG: Monique Farrell is stretching with her running buddies at the head of a wooded trail. She meets with them every weekend to train for a marathon they'll run in January.

Ms. FARRELL: Today will be the longest run I've ever done. Today, I have 14 miles, so I'm nervous but I'm really excited and I have my sister's pin on because I know that she's going to encourage me today.

GENG: Monique's sister passed away from leukemia in 1986.

Ms. FARRELL: My sister was 17 years old when she was diagnosed with leukemia and she died at the age of 24. And so over the years after her death, I had always made monetary contributions to the cancer societies and things of that nature and last year I got an e-mail about this organization called Team in Training and I thought that it would be a great thing to do in my sister's honor and in her memory.

GENG: Team in Training is run by the non-profit Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. It provides professional coaching and covers travel expenses to endurance events around the world. In return, participants each agree to raise about $3,500 for cancer research. Most, like Monique, never dreamed of attempting a marathon before.

Ms. FARRELL: I don't consider myself an athlete. I mean, I know I don't have the body of an athlete. It's always tough for me. I'm asthmatic. I'm overweight. But I just try to push myself, so...

GENG: Monique is one of many new marathoners who are swelling race courses and charity coffers. According to Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track & Field, most are women.

Mr. CRAIG MASBACK (CEO, USA Track & Field): There are more women taking part because women have shown a great affinity for these charitable endeavors than men have. In many of the major races in the United States now, there are more than 50 percent female finishers for the first time.

GENG: At this year's Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, spectators cheered on 20,000 people as they surged past the national monuments. One in every six racers was associated with a charitable cause, but not everyone thinks that's a good trend. Again, Masback of USA Track & Field.

Mr. MASBACK: There certainly are those who think that the advent of charitable running is not a good one because it has slowed the overall average speed of the runners and turned the races themselves into a kind of social event or a party. Those are people who came to the sport because they were highly competitive, they don't recognize or really accept the--what I call the social movement side of the sport.

GENG: Despite the opposition to that social movement side of the sport, some charities are counting on its expansion. Funds raised from endurance events are expected to bring in $95 million for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society this year, a third of its total annual income. But the overhead cost of these intensive training programs are also substantial. Sustained fund-raising success for charities depends on continuously attracting new participants or convincing alumni to come back for another event like Monique Farrell did.

Ms. FARRELL: I did a half marathon last year, and I decided I had such a fabulous time last year and I recognize the value of that organization that I decided to come back this year and really push myself to do a full marathon.

GENG: For many new marathoners, one race is enough, but there are an increasing number of other challenges to stretch one's physical and charitable limits. Other charities are offering raft adventures and mountain climbing, but the fund-raising commitment rises along with the view. You can climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, for example, with the charity CARE after raising at least $5,000 for their humanitarian projects in Africa.

Diane Geng, NPR News, Washington.

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