Michael Chitwood had one reason to start running marathons, and it had nothing to do with God.
It was "just me trying to not be fat," says Chitwood, a former elementary schoolteacher. "I had never even run a 5K."
At his first training session for the 26.2-mile event, Chitwood weighed in at 265. The weight came off slowly. And as the training miles increased, so did his sense of God's leading.
"Since my dad died two years earlier,
I hadn't felt much like talking to God. And when I did, what did I get? Static," he says.
But as Chitwood ran, the sense of God's presence grew. He turned off his running mix and tried to listen to God in prayer.
"The change was slow, but there was definitely a change. Not just with my fitness, but deep inside me," he says. By race day, Chitwood had lost 41 pounds.
"The race was great. I felt more physical pain than I had ever felt in my life. I got passed by a guy with one leg. But I finished under 5 hours, 30 minutes."
Less than two years after his first marathon, Chitwood was training for his first Ironman triathlon—a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, followed by a marathon run, no breaks allowed. One day while out on an 85-mile training ride, he was praying when God, he says, prompted an idea: What if I dedicated my next race to raising money to help kids in other countries?
"It was the most personal experience with God I had ever had," he says.
Chitwood says he doesn't even remember putting his bike away that day. He spent the rest of the day writing down all of the ideas that had come to him on the ride. "The ideas came fully and freely, effortless. I knew that not only would I dedicate my next race to helping children in poor countries, but that God was telling me to get others to join me. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of others to join me."
On a friend's recommendation, he looked up the best humanitarian organization he could find, and in a stroke of providence, discovered World Vision had also been batting around a similar concept. His timing perfect, the idea ran up the chain of leadership. Within six months, he was heading the first Team World Vision office, based in Chicago.
Team World Vision (TWV) is a fundraising arm of World Vision, the evangelical nonprofit best known for its child sponsorship programs. It recruits runners to enter races of all distances—the longer the better—to raise money for World Vision projects in the nearly 100 countries where it operates. Sponsors commit to a lump sum or so much per mile. TWV joins hundreds of other charity races now used to raise support and awareness for everything from hunger to domestic violence to breast cancer.
In the history of philanthropy, charity running is a relatively new idea. Many credit marathon runner Bruce Cleland for kicking off the trend. In 1988, he formed a team to run the New York Marathon to raise money in honor of his daughter, a leukemia survivor. In 25 years, Team in Training has raised nearly $500 million for the Leukemia Society.
Today approximately one in five marathoners runs on behalf of a charity. And many of them are like the approximately 80 percent of TWV runners who are brand-new to marathons.
Like me a couple of years ago.
Leveraging My Good Health
It started innocently enough. Carrie Schlough, a TWV recruiter, was visiting my church to show a video depicting Kenya's desperate need for clean water. Tears welled as I watched mothers wake before dawn to begin their daily search for water.
In communities like these, people spend up to 40 percent of their day collecting water from distant wells and pools, leaving little time and energy to invest in small businesses and children's education. In other words, their bucket list begins and ends with a bucket.
Sitting in church that Sunday, I realized that the longest I'd ever gone without easy access to tap water was when a microburst knocked out power to our neighborhood for five days, including the well pump. What could I, a comfortable, middle-class American far removed from this issue, do?
Schlough had the answer. "I'll be staying after the service to discuss how you can help end one of the world's most life-threatening, but solvable, problems by running the Chicago Marathon." It seemed like a no-brainer. Why not leverage my good health, run the marathon, and help women like the mother in the video?
It's a good thing I had my health, because in that moment of philanthropic zeal, I had forgotten one critical fact: I wasn't actually a runner. In fact, I hated to run.
Still, I registered for my first Chicago Marathon in 2010 with TWV, the largest charitable organization at the Chicago Marathon. Since its debut in 2005, the team has grown from 95 runners its first year to more than 1,600 this year for the Chicago Marathon alone. They join about 5,000 runners from around the country raising funds for World Vision.
Charity races have been a boon for some nonprofits, but many competitive runners see them as a curse. New hoards of zealous runners mean the field is awash with slowpokes like me. The median finish time for marathons is around five hours. For serious runners, the growing field of walk-runners has devalued what it means to run a marathon.
Josh Cox, the American record-holder for the fastest 50K (31 mile) race, says he doesn't mind the newbies—anymore. "The problem with pros is we put on blinders and stay focused only on the goal before us. Anything else—like raising money for clean water—becomes a distraction." Philanthropy was something he could do after retiring from running.
After Cox's father died of cancer in 2006, "I didn't run for two years," he says. "I thought I'd retire and go into ministry. Spending my life trying to lower my times —what difference was it really making?"
After two years at Biola University, Cox felt God calling him back to running. Cox contacted Chitwood. He sensed that running for TWV would perfectly match his love of running and his desire to make a difference with it.
"My wife and I sponsor three kids through World Vision," says Cox. "Once I met these kids and saw what their lives are like, I realized I could use my running platform to bring attention to the needs.
"It's 2013. If we really believe that all men are created equal, then kids should not still be dying of waterborne diseases. To bring clean water that's going to outlive me and my son—that's generational change."
As my, Chitwood's, and Cox's stories show, people fall into charity running for many reasons. But once we're in it, it's hard to walk away. One reason is the sheer amount of money it generates to alleviate suffering.
Rusty Funk, director of TWV for the Chicago Marathon, says that in the seven years TWV has existed, it has raised more than $10 million. More than $4 million is expected in 2013 alone. That's just a drop in the bucket of World Vision's billion-plus-dollar annual budget. But Chitwood and Funk remain steadfast in their goal of building the team into a steady stream of World Vision's overall funding. Plus, Chitwood says, marathons provide an extra return on investment—a double–bottom line that benefits the runner as much as the people and projects they help to fund.
Training for my first marathon, I launched my TWV fundraising page. I blogged about my training and asked anyone who would listen (even my dentist in between rinse and spits) if they'd support the clean water cause. Asking for money wasn't easy, but compared to training, it was a walk in the park.
Because I was going from couch to finish line, I started training a couple of months before the official season began. Each Saturday a group of TWV runners (many of them like me—pudgy and out of shape, with little or no experience running) met on our local bike path and put in our miles for the day. Every week, we each logged three to four additional runs on our own.
A marathon season requires about 15 weeks of training, assuming, of course, you already have a fit body. I did not. For my first marathon, I logged approximately 40 miles per week over five months.
Some say my time could have been better spent actually being the feet of Jesus instead of training my feet. With the same nine or so hours per week I sank into running, I could have been visiting nursing homes or tutoring children in our community. From a pure cost-benefit analysis, charity running may not seem like good stewardship, given its notorious time commitment.
Yet my experience revealed a different return on investment, one that could only be discovered through the inefficiency of marathon training.
In those first few months, I never enjoyed the runs, but I did enjoy getting to know my teammates as we pounded out mile after mile together, especially as our Saturday runs grew longer. Being a slow runner, I'd ask people about their lives, their work, their families, their ministries—anything to make the time go faster. I started to look forward to our meandering conversations. When else in my life was I just listening to people—sometimes four or five hours at a time?
The running path became a kind of church for me. Part small group, part quiet time, part worship, part memory verse practice time (I wore out the verse "I can do all things for Christ who strengthens me"). I wasn't just developing my muscles. I was growing spiritually.
That made charity racing a triple-bottom line for me.
In late 2012, over lunch with Chitwood, I asked if he could connect the dots for me: Where was the money showing up on my TWV fundraising page actually going?
"Come to Africa, and I'll show you," he said.
It was there that I learned why charity running can be especially addictive—and especially effective. (You can read that story on TodaysChristianWoman.com.)
The following June, I boarded a plane for Durban, South Africa, with a team of 13 TWV runners who were registered to run Comrades, the world's oldest, largest ultramarathon—a daunting 54-mile course going uphill or downhill, depending on the year. This was an up-year, which meant runners would head from Durban toward Pietermaritzburg, climbing through the South African countryside. Each runner had hundreds of sponsors back home giving to the same clean water projects funded by their run in the Chicago Marathon. All together, this band of hardcore runners raised more than $200,000, a record fundraising amount for a single TWV event.
By way of comparison, in my first marathon season, I worked the fundraising as hard as I trained and raised about $9,600. In the course of my three marathons, I've raised approximately $14,000. Each Comrades runner, by comparison, raised an average of over $15,000 in one run.
Anthony Halpin registered to run Comrades after seeing the work World Vision was doing in Kenya two years earlier. "The more extreme an event you do, the more you can get people involved," Halpin says. He joined fundraising forces with teammate Wendy Ploegstra. Together they brought in about $100,000, at least 20 times more than the highest fundraising level either one of them had achieved raising money for a normal marathon.
The bigger the story, the more people want to be part of it. Try raising $100,000 for a 5K. It's a tougher sell.
Chad Dykstra decided to run Comrades after he and his wife adopted two boys from Ethiopia. "After our boys came home," he says, "I went for a run with one of them. We stopped by a local river, and my son said, 'This looks just like the river we used to walk to for water.' "
The week prior to his Comrades race, Dykstra and his wife returned to Ethiopia to visit their sons' family. They learned that they now have access to clean water, but they still have to walk six hours a day and wait in line for it. "There's still so much work to do," says Dykstra.
Steve Spear, a former pastor, ran across America this year to raise $1.5 million for clean water projects. "If I can run some miles to take away some miles, it's worth it."
All Hands on Deck
Each of these ultramarathoners' reasons for running for water was similar to what motivated me to run the Chicago Marathon. But they had upped the ante, pushing their bodies to the limit for the sake of people they didn't even know. Why endure so much to raise money? Why not just ask people to write a check and stay home on race day?
Ploegstra says it's about the process. "Being broken down brings you closer to Christ. There were days in my training when I was hurting so much, and I'd think of how much Christ suffered for me. There's so much value in this process, which you don't get to experience when you write a check."
My last "ask" before running a marathon is always to solicit prayer requests from everyone on my fundraising e-mail list. When the miles during the marathon start to punish my body, my running mate, Anne Weirich, and I do a prayer volley. One of us says a person's first name and their request. We either pray aloud for the person, or if we're too exhausted to talk, we pray silently. It's a simple thing that takes my mind off the pain, but the practice also has made Romans 8:26 come alive: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans."
This tradition has carried us many miles. Whatever the results of the prayers, I know this much: in presenting people's requests to God when I myself am in a weakened state—literally begging from my own poverty on behalf of others—I sense a communion and a camaraderie with God that typically eludes me in my comfy chair at home.
When you register for a marathon, you symbolically sign a release that says, "I acknowledge that what I'm about to do will hurt. But for the sake of others who suffer daily for lack of clean water, I will suffer in this small way if it can bring relief and blessing to them." Despite the seeming lack of stewardship logic, training for marathons has become the most transformative spiritual discipline I've ever practiced.
Spear calls this "life change on both sides of the running shoe."
"On the runner's side, something happens inside the person. I call it convergence—emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually, all aspects of a person's life are affected in the process of pushing one's body to accomplish this goal," he says. "I've seen marriages restored; I've baptized dozens of people who have joined our team; the stories go on and on.
"On the other side of the running shoe is what the money does for children who finally get access to clean water. Their lives are changed forever."
According to Spear, 98 percent of people can run a marathon and find this type of life change. "They just don't know it yet," he says.
There's an African proverb that runners love to quote: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
As Spear embarked on his transcontinental run from the Santa Monica Pier in California to New York City, he ran most of the miles alone. Occasionally, family, friends, and sometimes complete strangers would run with him for a stretch.
"I felt bad because it felt like was I offloading my suffering on them," says Spear. "But I noticed I felt lighter. Our loads lighten when we include others in our suffering. It's a lesson I needed to relearn."
At the Comrades's finish line, I watched for hours as racers from around the world came down the final shoot, often arm in arm and practically in lock step. You'd think they were running a potato-sack race. Granted, after running 11 or 12 hours, most probably needed the other runner to prop them up just to make it to the end.
The longer I watched, the more I connected the dots: Providing access to clean water in the most remote areas on the planet isn't a job for individualists. It's a job for collaborators. It's an all-hands-on-deck endeavor. Every means, all people. Even those stuck in the middle of suburbia with just a pair of running shoes.
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