Week 17: keeping the faith

“Forgive me Coach, for I have sinned. Having failed to reach my minimum fundraising goal, I am not worthy to continue my training…

“What’s that you say? You take American Express?”

This week hundreds of runners training for the LA Marathon with AIDS Project Los Angeles received letters of “recommitment” that they are required to sign if they want to continue training. The vaguely religious terminology is in keeping with a program that is entirely secular and yet impressive in its functional mimicry of organized religion.

There are the weekly gatherings, kicked off with an inspirational message from our fundraising coach, Linda Francisco: “Lookin’ good, AIDS marathoners! Lookin’ good!” There are by-the-book (Jeff Galloway’s Marathon, You Can Do it!) pointers from running coach Scott Boliver: “If you pour water on your head, make sure to bend over, otherwise that water will slide down your back, into your butt crack and all the way into your shoes. Blisters waiting to happen.”

There are the group runs, where the Good Word on training is passed from runner to runner: “Try these shot blocks – they rock!” We suffer together, we pray together (especially on steep-up hills), and we rejoice together (most vociferously at the sight of the blessed yellow fire hydrant that signals the finish line). There’s the taking of the special food at the mid-point water station (wafer-esque pickles are my personal favorite), and a righteous cause at the center (AIDS, bad. Fighting AIDS, good.).

And there’s the tithe, known as recommitment.

Signing the APLA recommitment letter means that within a couple of weeks, if participants have not raised a minimum of $500, their personal credit card will be charged for that amount. Six weeks after that, if they haven’t collected the full $1,600 minimum required of each trainee, the shortfall goes on their credit card too.

Next week Coach Scott and the other organizers will take roll. Those who have signed the recommitment letter will be rewarded with a bracelet indicating their approved status. (Kind of like the nifty wooden cross I received after reconciliaton.) Those who haven’t signed get squat.

Scott isn’t going to excommunicate anyone, but peer pressure eventually causes the slackers to flee. Scott has run 17 marathons and raised tens of thousands of dollars for AIDS relief, so he knows of what he speaks: “If everyone in the group has signed the form, meaning they’re footing the bill until they can raise the money, they’re not going to look too kindly on the one guy who’s getting a free ride.”

How to look at this? On the one hand, we all signed up for the APLA training agreeing to raise the money. It’s a big boost to the organization’s coffers and helps them provide medical care, food, clothing and shelter for thousands of people living with AIDS and HIV in LA County, home to one of the nation’s largest HIV-positive populations. Some 90 percent of APLA clients live on less than $20,000 a year, and half have no health insurance of any kind. More than a third of the agency’s $17 million annual budget in 2007 came from fundraising, and the marathon played a big part.

On the other hand, since we started training the economy has taken dive after dive. What in late September looked merely difficult now appears exponentially more daunting. It’s a bad time to be asking for money. Lots of people don’t have it, and those who do are hanging on to it for fear they may soon join the ranks of those without. Even those who are willing to give are giving less -- $10 or $25 instead of $50 or $100.

For selfish reasons I want everyone to stick around. I look forward to the weekly updates on Mae’s ice skating lessons, Monica’s wedding plans, Andrea’s neuroma, Steve’s search for the perfect dog, Dwayne’s film-making exploits, Eun’s acupuncture studies, Sandy’s sporting events and Amy’s travel adventures. It helps pass the time. Sometimes it’s a very long time, so the more people and the more stories, the better. I don’t want to lose anyone.

But even before recommitment, the number of runners in training has dropped. As Coach Scott predicted early on, only about half the original group of 200-plus is still around. It’s no small thing to have made it this far. Four months of early rising on Saturday mornings and slow slogs through the streets of Burbank after foregoing a well-deserved Friday night cocktail for fear that it would become the Saturday morning running disaster.

Those of us who have come this far have made a serious personal investment. To throw it all away now, because of a measly $1,600, seems so very wrong. The problem is, $1,600 isn’t measly, especially when it’s going on your personal credit card, and the money isn’t going to drop from the sky, no matter how many Hail Marys are on offer.

I’m fortunate to be blogging about the training. Donors can see and track my progress, and the fundraising wasn’t hard for me (my family was incredibly generous). Most people don’t have that kind of platform, so here goes: If you want to make a donation to help my co-runners get to the finish line in May, drop me an email and I’ll put you in touch.

9:19 AM Wednesday, January 21 2009 • Link •  
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