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On Wednesday, the (allegedly) final marathon email of the season rolled in from the BAA. I skimmed through the stats about percentage of starters who finished (98.1%) and incredible course records that were set (2:03:06!), paying very little attention since those details had already been publicized; then I caught a glimpse of this note regarding the charity program.

The 24 Boston Marathon Official Charities, through runners in the 115th Boston Marathon, combined to raise more than $10.2 million dollars. Together with principal sponsor John Hancock Financial’s Non-profit bib program, the total amount of funds raised will approach the $15 million mark.

$10.2 million! This is an enormous amount of money being made available to 24 non-profits, who in turn can carry out even more of their invaluable work in our communities. This was a number I was waiting to see, a number I can get excited about and a number that brings my views on the charity program back to the forefront of my thoughts.

Critics will be right in pointing out that I’m a bit biased on this topic, but those close to me will remember that I also had my own hesitations regarding “running for charity” given that I was, of course, running ultimately for myself as well. Post-marathon, I feel these motivations are not mutually exclusive. I’ve spent a good deal of time (including one night in the dark at 4am) scribbling my thoughts on the program and its critics, and I’ve certainly hinted at my views here before.

But first, a bit of background.

The Boston Marathon begins in the town of Hopkinton, MA, population 14,000. The starting line spans Main Street; the Athletes’ Village takes over the entirety of the middle and high school athletic fields.

Ultimately, on one morning each April, the town population swells to more than three times its normal size. There are athletes, families, buses and volunteers, not to mention spectators coming to glimpse the first few miles of the race. The roads are narrow, the space is limited and the scene is organized chaos at best.

On my own trip through Hopkinton this year, I witnessed runners hopping off of buses on their way to Athletes’ Village and knocking on doors of random homes hoping to use the restrooms inside; I witnessed runners climbing over barricades on the walk to the starting line, with police officers and volunteers herding them back into the corral; I witnessed runners urinating in private lawns, shedding layers in private driveways and leaving last-minute snack wrappers in private flowerbeds. (To be clear – I arrived early, and as such cannot make the assumption that these runners whose atrocious behavior I observed were qualified, charity or otherwise. You should not make such assumptions either.)

The point is – there is a limited amount of space along the first few miles of the route, and a limited amount of manpower available to manage runners in that space. Many years ago, to keep field sizes in check, the BAA instituted qualifying times – runners were required to submit a performance beneath a certain threshold at a previous race in order to gain entry. Over time, the presence of qualifying requirements, along with the legend of the Boston course, became a draw in and of itself as runners worldwide began training specifically with a “BQ” (Boston qualifying time) in mind.

For years, Boston has reserved a certain number of spots (currently coming in around 20%, or 5,200) for non-qualified runners. A portion of these go toward the BAA’s charity program, with the remainder being divided between things like sponsors (John Hancock, Adidas, etc.), municipalities (each town along the route) and other discretionary exceptions. (This practice has long been controversial; in 2008, the New York Times even casually mentioned the charity program in a piece discussing ways people try to cheat their way into the Boston field.) Each runner who receives a bib through the BAA charity program is required to raise a minimum of $3,250 for their organization; some charities require more, and certainly all encourage higher goals, but the official BAA minimum is $3,250.

In order to obtain bibs through the BAA’s charity program, non-profits must submit an application. If selected, they are guaranteed a limited number of bibs for the next three years, at which point they are rotated out of the program to make way for new organizations. The Boston Debate League, by way of example, gets 15 bibs each year. This year (my year) was their second in the program; next year (2012) will be their last. From there, the BDL is no longer a part of the BAA’s official charity program, and can either seek out bibs from a sponsor (like John Hancock), or no longer participate.

But I digress; back to the BQ.

Registration for the 2011 Boston Marathon sold out in record time – within one day. This meant that many runners who had run qualifying times were locked out of registration. Undoubtedly, some of these runners turned next to the charity program, which includes a lower fundraising minimum ($750) for qualified runners who get their bib through a non-profit. Qualifiers who did not turn to fundraising, though, were left out in the cold if they missed the one-day window for registration. Busy day at work, no time to register? Too bad. On a flight to Australia, sans internet for a day? Tough luck.

To add insult to injury, a few months later, the BAA announced their decision to lower the qualifying standards in an attempt to mitigate another sellout disaster, as well as to institute “rolling registration,” wherein those who qualified with faster times can access registration earlier. Now, just running a BQ might not be enough – one will have to beat their respective BQ by a wide margin to ensure access to the first round of registration.

Basically, all of this is to say, the BAA has made it more difficult to secure a spot in the Boston field.

With the announcement of the new standards, a fury was unleashed on 2011 charity runners who were already in the midst of training, many of us through one of Boston’s messiest winters. Personally, I found it difficult to remain positive and motivated, when the program for which I was running and fundraising was being lambasted in all of the sources I had previously turned to for inspiration. The Boston Globe ran an editorial suggesting that Boston should hold a second marathon for those who want to run for charity, running forums exploded in a fit of rage at the audacity of charity runners to “take spots” and the long-standing critiques of the charity program intensified.

As a runner, I have the utmost respect for – and awe of – those who are able to qualify, sometimes repeatedly. As a marathoner, I know the time and effort that goes into training, the obsession that the race becomes and the emotional toll it takes. I can certainly understand being frustrated, disappointed and even angry at being blocked from registering for a race you worked so hard to qualify for.

As a charity runner, though, I found myself insulted and hurt time and time again when runners whose blogs I enjoy, whose abilities I admire and whose insights I respect, spoke out angrily, bitterly and in some cases ignorantly against my presence in the Boston Marathon. Many who bristled at the changes did not pause to challenge the BAA, the structure of the charity program or to weigh the pros and cons – they immediately stepped up to the Charity Runner (that’s me!) as the sole being who had taken their rightful spot in the race and had no business being there.

The simple, if unfortunate, fact is that no one – not you or I, not a runner who BQ’ed in 2:30 or a charity runner who finishes in 5:59 – has a right to run the Boston Marathon. Running Boston is not something anyone is entitled to; it is an opportunity, certainly, and a wonderful one! Running a qualifying time does not entitle anyone to toe the line in Hopkinton – it just increases the odds in favor.

Nor is running the Boston Marathon free. There is plenty of criticism floating around about charity runners “buying their way in,” but really, we all must determine what we’re willing to pay to participate. For those who are faster than I, the decision to pay in commitment to training for, registering for and running another marathon ahead of Boston to qualify is a simple and honorable one; these qualified runners buy their way in through their time, their training and their Boston entry fee ($150 in 2012). As a charity runner, I chose to pay through months spent fundraising and advocating for an organization whose work in my community I support; I made the same commitment to training, come hell or high water mountains of snow; I paid a larger entry fee ($300 in 2012).

The Boston Marathon is often referred to as an elite race, and rightly so.

The draw of the BQ brings an international field hell-bent on dominating the legendary course, and rightly so.

Nonetheless, I feel the need to point out (though it seems obvious to me): running is not a zero sum game. My training for, running and finishing the Boston Marathon in twice as much time as it takes some qualifiers does not detract from the accomplishment of those runners – in fact, if anything, I would argue that it augments it. My friends and family, who watched me train and supported both me personally and the Boston Debate League, saw first-hand what goes into a marathon; when they compare my time to that of a qualifier, they are given a context of what that achievement means, and a greater appreciation of those runners. Additionally, due to the BAA’s implementation of a wave start, my slow self is never underfoot – non-qualified charity runners are not slowing down qualifiers. Everyone is free to run their race.

More importantly, the inclusion of the charity program is not solely to blame for some qualifiers being left out; the Hunger For Boston is much greater than the 2,000-odd charity spots that are so maligned, and some worthy runners are bound to miss the cut each year no matter what.

There is of course the suggestion that those looking to run a marathon for charity could run any race anywhere in the country, and leave Boston to the elites. This is true. The difficulty then arises when attempting to raise money for a Boston-based charity, while running a race not connected to the city in any way. Boston is a legendary event for more than those who dream of qualifying; the lore surrounding the race extends beyond runners to every Bostonian, and every resident of the Greater Boston Area. This connection, getting to the core of Bostonianism, is part of what makes the charity program so successful. Fundraising for Boston in Boston is a far more successful prospect than fundraising for New York in Boston – there is a local connection to the race, to the legend and, additionally, to the local charities the program supports. I think the $10.2 million raised by official BAA charity runners this year alone is a not entirely unreasonable argument in favor of keeping the charity bibs as they are.

For me personally, the decision to run for charity was an easy one, though I will not pretend that my Boston bid was a selfless act. At first, I felt guilty soliciting donations under the auspices of completing a physical challenge for the sake of charity. The marathon was my own goal, and the BDL happened to be an organization whose work I could whole-heartedly and enthusiastically support.

I am not a naturally gifted runner. I’ve never run a mile in less than eight minutes, even in high school, and I have short legs and a persistently ample derriere. Though certainly extensive training could bring me closer to a BQ, I am not presently in a position to make such a bold attempt. And yet, there was that opportunity – the chance to run Boston, as a Bostonian, and to raise money for an incredible organization while doing it. I was so impressed with the BDL, and so impressed with Marathon Coalition Coach Rick Muhr; when presented with such a chance, who could say no? Certainly not I.

Now, weeks after race day, I look back on the experience, on the critiques and the bitterness facing me as a slow-and-steady charity runner, and I have to wonder: who cares?

It is true that my marathon ambitions were a motivating factor throughout my fundraising – my desire to run Boston fueled my persistence in organizing events, soliciting raffle donations and writing endless emails and letters. It is also true, though, that being a charity runner provided me with more inspiration to get through the endless winter mileage encompassing the training for my very first marathon than I ever could have imagined. My investment in the BDL and its students kept me climbing out of bed in dark and snow for long runs, when running purely for myself might not have made me so eager to do so. And so, the relationship between marathon ambitions and fundraising goals is mutually beneficial, each supporting the other in turn. Is that such a bad thing?

There is also the argument that slower runners (such as myself) – or heaven forbid, those who occasionally walk (such as myself) – should not even bother with the marathon, and should stick to short jogs around the neighborhood and local 5k races. Certainly, the rate of injury among new runners is higher, and the argument that easing into the marathon distance would be safer is not entirely invalid. Yet, I cannot imagine begrudging someone the experience of setting a seemingly unattainable goal, and training to meet that challenge. The mere presence of a slower runner on the course does not detract from the speed and success of those leading the pack; we are not a marathoning kryptonite, weakening those unfortunate enough to be in our proximity.

Ultimately, I suppose my plea to those who will insist that I have no place in their Boston field is this:

Even if we disagree, at least respect the time and effort that each and every charity runner puts into fundraising; respect the good that can (and does) come from $10.2 million raised by a small group of incredibly motivated runners, regardless of the root of their motivation; respect the time and effort that goes into training, just the same as yours, over a long winter – and by runners for whom running at all is sometimes a challenge; respect the courage that is required to step up to the line of the world’s most famous marathon, in awe of the qualified runners, in awe of the spectacle and in many cases, never having covered the distance before; respect the fact that we respect you.

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11 Responses to “In Defense of Charity Runners”

  1. Sheree says:

    BRILLIANT, Kate. I cannot thank you enough for this equisitely written entry. I can only hope that it spreads like wild fire through the marathon world.

  2. Mutti says:

    Honey, you convinced me long ago, but I hope this convinces others of the appropriate inclusion of the charity runner. Very well said.

  3. Patricia says:

    Well-written, Kate! You are awesome and again, congratulations on all the fundraising and training you have done! :) -Patricia

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  8. Bill from NJ says:

    I really enjoyed your blog. I have been running 2 marathons a year for over 20 years and will probably never be able to ‘qualify’ for Boston. Running this year (2012) as a charity runner is really my only chance to have this once in a lifetime experience. It also provides me with a chance to see what it’s like to have to raise $4000. I tell you that in this economy it’s not easy!

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