Here I was, feeling mighty proud and proudly mighty for all my great goodness in training for the LA marathon with AIDS Project Los Angeles. I would run a marathon (as in one, and one only), raise a few bucks and be done with it.
But that was before I started talking to my fellow trainees.
Within my running group of ten or so the cup of goodness overflows. Gaby is on her second marathon with APLA and her tenth year of fundraising for the group (she's done the walkathon every year). Andrea volunteers at a homeless shelter teaching writing. She also donates time to School on Wheels, which brings tutors to kids living in LA’s homeless shelters. Sarah, who is a documentary film producer, volunteers at Streetlights, which promotes the inclusion of ethnic minorities and at-risk kids in the entertainment industry. She walks every year for the Alzheimer’s Association and has volunteered for the AIDS Research Alliance, contributing to their monthly magazine as well as producing and directing a nationwide public service announcement.
Monica is studying to become a nurse with the hope of going on missions with Doctors Without Borders. Rachel, who works as a labor and delivery nurse and is about to be married, is planning to spend her honeymoon in South America volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. Amy works at a non-profit that develops affordable housing and serves on the board at the Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting. Steve, who is on his fourth marathon, first trained with APLA in 2000 and was so inspired by the experience that he decided to devote himself to non-profit work. He took a job with Covenant House California, a Hollywood-based agency helping homeless kids, where he is the web and publications coordinator.
It’s an impressive group, one in which everybody but me could up and quit the marathon training tomorrow and no one would think they were shirking their do-gooder duties. But raising money – and consciousness – through marathon running holds a particularly elevated spot within the realm of good works, and in particular within the realm of physical exertion for a cause. The extreme nature of the feat, the fact that it requires a degree of risk and pain most people are unwilling or unable to commit, makes those same folks sit up, take notice, and, often, donate.
In one particularly compelling instance from the annals of twentieth century world history, Stylianos Kyriakides, a bill collector from Athens, Greece, was heartbroken over the plight of his country, which had been ravaged by World War II and by civil war, with thousands still dying of hunger in the streets. A champion runner, he persuaded his boss to buy him a plane ticket to Boston in 1946. Though he was living on rations and faced starvation himself (he was 5’7” and weighed 130 pounds) he trained relentlessly.
Kyriakides vowed to win the marathon or die trying, and win he did, coming in at 2:29:47, a world record. More important to him, though, were the boatloads of food, clothing and medical supplies his victory inspired Americans to send back to his ailing nation. According Running With Pheidippides by Nick Tsiotos and Andy Dabilis, one reporter for the Boston Herald wrote, “There’s seldom been more drama behind any single human being’s athletic effort and none probably felt himself so truly obligated to give better than his best in an attempt to do something for others.”
Kyriakides managed to extract much-needed donations at a time when most Americans were themselves feeling the post-war pinch. Likewise, the generosity of my co-runners is particularly inspiring to me given the economic moment we’re in now, when most of us are making do with less and the natural inclination is invest every ounce of one’s energy in keeping one’s own head above water. Instead, Gaby gathers five-dollar donations toward her pledge goal from anyone who can spare it, Andrea foregoes fancy running wear, and everyone keeps running.
In helping others, as in running, I have some catching up to do.