Even before last Monday’s tragedy, the Boston Marathon meant more to Cary Gemmer than a grueling 26.2-mile run and a free jacket.
A member of the Dana Farber Marathon challenge team, Ms. Gemmer has run for the past three years to raise funds for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a cancer treatment and research center in Boston. “I couldn’t imagine running the marathon without being connected to the cause,” she says. “Everyone has a different story and reason for why they run, but we all have the same goal in mind.”
Gemmer isn’t alone. The terrorists who targeted the Boston Marathon with two bombs last Monday struck not only America’s most iconic footrace, but also the infrastructure of charities that has become increasingly intertwined with the event. This year, 144 teams totaling more than 2,000 runners were expected to raise more than $18 million for Boston-area charitable organizations ranging from cancer clinics to charter schools.
In the wake of the tragedy, these groups of charity runners are rallying around one another, their fundraising causes, and the larger Boston community. Many are already making plans for how, next year, their participation in the marathon will be stronger than ever.
Marathon fundraising: a popular trend
Running for charities has become an increasing feature of marathons nationwide over the past 25 years. The four largest US marathons – the New York City, Chicago, Boston, and Marine Corps (in Washington, D.C.) marathons – all have official charity programs. But the Boston Marathon, as the oldest and perhaps most prestigious American marathon, has led the way with the oldest charity program and the most money raised.
Charity runners and fundraising have been part of the essential fabric of the Boston marathon for 25 of its 117 years. Since the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) began a partnership with the American Liver Foundation in 1989, the Boston Marathon Official Charity Program partners have raised more than $133 million for local charities.
Outside the United States, the London Marathon, which was just held on Sunday, has raised more than £500 million for charity since 1981. The race also holds the Guinness world record for largest annual fundraising event in the world, a title it has held since 2007.
Though several other US marathons include a higher percentage of charity runners, few rival Boston’s fundraising power – or its local connection. The BAA’s 35 official charity groups range from medical research foundations to youth organizations, and all are based in and benefit the greater Boston area. In total, they are expected to raise more than $11.5 million this year.
John Hancock, the Boston-based financial firm that sponsors the race, is working with Internet fundraising site Crowdrise to support its 109 nonprofit partners this year, which are expected to raise $7 million.
These partnerships with the BAA and John Hancock are coveted slots. Each year, hundreds of local charities apply to be part of those official fundraising programs. Barbara Sicuso, director of the BAA’s registration services and charity program, describes a rigorous evaluation process in which each charity’s impact and status as a partner is reviewed annually.
Some have complained about the advantage given to charity runners and others slots gifted by the BAA to nonqualifying competitors. Others say allowing nonqualifying runners into the race has weakened the “elite” status of the marathon – although these runners make up a small share of participants.
Qualifying runners also participate on BAA/John Hancock charity teams. And charity fundraising surrounding the marathon is not limited to those official partners. Many qualifying runners work individually or in teams to raise money for other causes and organizations. This year, for example, a team of nine runners from Newtown, Conn., ran to raise money for local charities. Some estimate that including unaffiliated charity fundraising puts the total fundraising figure throughout the marathon’s history closer to $200 million.
‘Something bigger than ourselves’
Gemmer says being part of the team running to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is about much more than fundraising goals and race times. She and other charity team runners cite a strong sense of camaraderie and commitment to a larger cause. This year especially, Gemmer and her teammates have leaned on that bond, gathering in a local bar last Tuesday to support one another and take stock of events.
A runner with the American Liver Foundation team spoke of the community of volunteers supporting the runners during months of team training. During Saturday morning team-training runs, these volunteers waited outside for hours, she said, even during the cold winter months, to pass runners water or take their clothing layers from them.
This year, however, many of those runners were not able to finish the race because of the bombing. Of the more than 23,000 runners who ran this year's marathon, more than 5,700 were unable to complete the race. The BAA does not yet have any official count on how many of those runners were part of charity teams, but because the bombs went off at a popular race finish time, many charity runners and their families were in vicinity of the finish line at the time. Those family members and friends are among the more than 170 injured in the blasts.
Several runners who were turned back within a mile of the finish spoke of confusion – but also an overriding sense of disappointment at not being able to finish the race. As events became clear, this disappointment was put in perspective, and for many, has turned into resolve.
“Many people were very sad that they weren’t able to finish race,” Gemmer says. But “the overall sense that I’ve heard from my friends [is that] we’ll be back next year and we’ll have a lot to celebrate,” she adds.
Lauren Gainor, campaign manager for the New England division of the American Liver Foundation, says she reached out Tuesday to reassure her team of runners – many of whom also did not finish the race. “We run for something bigger than ourselves,” she told them. "The point why we run is about our mission, about hope.”
Ms. Gainor says that spirit of service came to the forefront on marathon day, recounting stories of team members giving clothes to other runners who were cold and caring for those in need.
Bombing’s impact on charities – and their response
Last Monday’s events have spurred not just this desire to serve the Boston community, but also a recommitment by charity runners to their fundraising causes – and next year’s marathon.
Fundraising deadlines for most groups are roughly a month away from the race date. While some participants have met their goals, many have not. Gemmer, who met her fundraising goal of $6,425, is still planning to hold another fundraising event and says she’s seen in the past week a lot of social media activity to support her cause.
One runner who ran for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind has not yet met her fundraising goal. She had reached mile 25.5 when the explosions hit, and she and other runners were forced to turn back. On Tuesday, she said a friend posted a note on Facebook encouraging people to donate to her campaign in light of events.
Ms. Sicuso of the BAA expects many of the charity runners “will feel very motivated” now. Gainor, of the American Liver Foundation, reports seeing “consistent momentum” in donations since last Monday, as do other charities. She’s also seen an “overwhelming response” from people interested in running for the team next year – everyone from alumni and older participants to new runners looking to join.
“People want to do something beyond themselves. They want to help. They want to make a comeback,” Gainor says. “One way to do that is running with a charity.”
Many charity teams plan to be involved, both collectively and individually, with events to benefit those affected by the bombing. As Gemmer says, “While people are thinking about their charities, they’re also thinking about how they can be helpful to the Boston community and those affected by the tragedy.”
Gemmer says her team, too, is already looking ahead to next year’s run. “The sense of community and kindness people feel on Patriots Day and Marathon Monday … that will continue,” she says.