Running for something other than yourself is the greatest gift of our sport.

In the fall of 1966, a very good friend of mine was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Over the next couple of years, her family and friends watched helplessly as both the disease and its treatment took a toll on her body. The outcome was never in doubt. It wasn’t a matter of if she would lose her battle with Hodgkin’s; it was simply a matter of when. And in the spring of 1970, the battle was over.

Thinking about my friend’s death nearly 40 years later still makes me sad. That’s why in 2000, when the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society asked me to be a national spokesperson for Team in Training, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. In a small way, perhaps I could help others avoid the same pain I had experienced.

Team in Training (also known as TNT) got its start in 1988 when a group of athletes from the New York area hired a coach to help them train for the New York City Marathon while they raised money for blood-cancer research. Their inspiration was a leukemia patient, Georgia Cleland, the daughter of the team’s organizer, Bruce Cleland. From this humble beginning, TNT has grown to a national program that’s helped at least 380,000 purple-shirted runners, triathletes, and cyclists cross the finish line while raising more than $900 million for blood-cancer research and patient services. TNT hopes to reach the $1 billion mark by the end of this 20th anniversary celebration year.

Despite these feats, I’ve heard some people speak negatively about so-called charity runners. I’ve heard people say that they aren’t really runners, they’re dumbing down the sport, and they’re taking spots that should go to “legitimate” competitors. But I’ve never heard those complaints from the parent of a child who is alive today because of a new treatment paid for with funds raised by a charity.

I’ve run the Flora London Marathon seven times and can tell you that if you’re not a charity runner in that race, you are in the minority. In London, nearly everyone is running for someone else. Most often it isn’t for some large charity but for a smaller, more personal reason. They run for the child in their neighborhood who requires dialysis, or the son of a friend who needs surgery. They run for the planet. They run for the rhinos. They run for those who can’t. And their joy is in knowing that their efforts will be rewarded in measures beyond medals or PRs.

So many of us have changed our own lives through running that it makes sense we would want to change the lives of others the same way. We can take the drive, ambition, and dedication we used to transform ourselves from coach potatoes to athletes and channel that into making a difference for someone else.

When that happens, we’ll truly understand the words of the renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

To charity runners past, present, and future: Waddle on!

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