marathon runners

Running in both directions

By Jessica Nicholls 19 April 2013 3 minute read

As Boston investigators comb the bomb scene in the quest for answers, we are told the London Marathon will go ahead as planned.

We are in the midst of a distance running boom—in 2010, the Boston marathon reached capacity in 8 hours; last year was the 6th consecutive year that London Marathon entrants broke the Guinness World Record for charity fund raising at a single annual event worldwide. But why do so many normal people all over the world sign up to run such serious distances?

We all receive reams of requests for sponsorship: the email from someone you barely know, the old classmate, the colleague waiting timidly at your desk, form in hand. You can’t shell out for them all, but if a friend is running the marathon, it seems a bit churlish not to give a bob or two. And if a really good friend is doing it—as mine is—you really hope that your contribution helps them to reach their target.

This particular friend was a very unlikely participant—and the transformation was slow, as her fundraising page forewarned: ‘Sign up in haste, repent at leisure.’ As an asthma sufferer, she decided to run for Asthma UK, a charity I confess I knew very little about. I started looking around for information, and found that 3 people die from asthma in the UK every day—an enormous 90% of these deaths are preventable. With one in 11 children suffering from asthma, the UK has among the highest prevalence rates of asthma symptoms in children worldwide. And all of this costs the NHS around £1 billion a year.

So, for my friend it is personal. It is also a way to get fit and to fill evenings spent in the new and uninspiring town she has moved to. There are countless other reasons besides: the physical and holistic benefits, the appeal that comes from having control over your own success, crossing it off your ‘bucket list’—perhaps the legend of Pheidippides, the original marathon runner, lends a certain mystique. On Radio 4’s ‘thought for the day’, I heard it likened to a kind of pilgrimage. So, though you might decide to link your endeavour to a charitable cause—even if it’s the original consideration—the benefits run both ways. This is why events such as the London Marathon, Movember and Maggie’s night hikes are so powerful.

The charity haul from these events grows year on year. But as well as generating much-needed funds, they also engage new supporters and donors, and strengthen the idea of giving as being something for everyone. Our recent report, Money for Good UK, highlights a lack of a culture of giving in the UK. The research found that donors most often give in an ad hoc way—through one-off donations, sponsoring someone, fundraising events—but there is also a strong correlation between people giving both time and money to the same organisation. So the challenge for charities is to find a way to continue to engage these runners to support them long after they have finished the race.