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Bruce Cleland: The First Charity Runner

In Cleland's mind, part of what made the idea of a marathon fundraiser unique was that people like him didn’t run marathons.

In Cleland’s mind, part of what made the idea of a marathon fundraiser unique was that people like him didn’t run marathons.

It was 1986, when Bruce Cleland got the news that his 2-year-old daughter, Georgia, was diagnosed with Leukemia. He reacted as any parent would.

“I was devastated,” he recalls. “Cancer, in my mind, meant that she was going to die.”

The long-term survival rate for childhood Leukemia, as Cleland would soon learn, was 55 percent—a flip of the coin.

Cleland and his wife, Izzi, were quickly immersed into the world of childhood blood cancer, with chemotherapy, radiation and all the other procedures that try to kill the disease without destroying the patient. The Clelands became involved with the Leukemia Society of America (now known as The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society), which offered the support of other parents going through the same ordeal. After two years, Georgia was thankfully in remission. And her father had an idea.

“We had done the traditional fundraisers, the dinners and what-not,” Cleland recalls. “I was 40 years old, and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do a marathon, once in my life?”

He didn’t know it then, but that’s when Team in Training was born.

It was 1981, and Rod Dixon was on the road in the U.S. The New Zealand runner was a fixture on the U.S. road-racing scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He had first come to prominence with a bronze medal in the 1,500 meters at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, but he’d excelled in just about every distance from the 1,500 meters to the marathon.

He happened to be in Rye, N.Y., to visit the offices of Pepsi, one of his sponsors, and the title sponsor of a popular 10,000-meter race series.

“I looked down at the phone and saw that I was in the 714 area code,” Dixon recalls. “A friend of mine from New Zealand said that when I was in New York, I needed to meet Bruce Cleland. Bruce came from a very famous New Zealand rugby family, and he thought the two of us would get along. I found Bruce’s number, and it was a 714 number, too.

“I give him a buzz and said, ‘I’m at Pepsi headquarters would you like to meet sometime?’” Dixon says. “And he asked me, ‘Which side of the building?’ Turns out I could poke my head out the window and see his house. I walked down the street, and that’s where a great friendship started.”

Cleland, now 65, began playing rugby at the age of 5 and retains his New Zealand accent, despite living in the U.S. since 1978.

“I was one of those these middle-age people who could remember the thrill of being part of a team,” Cleland says. “I don’t think you ever forget, it’s such a special part of your life. You knock the stuffing out of the guy or whatever it is you’re supposed to do. Those are the stories you remember and the people you remember. You move past it, but you remember that feeling.”

The two had become close friends by 1983, when Dixon won the New York City Marathon in one of the most memorable races in history. He passed Geoff Smith at the 26-mile mark to win an epic show- down by nine seconds. It was the crowning achievement of Dixon’s career, and the two New Zealand friends celebrated into the night.

“I think we finally finished at about 5 a.m., when I went to bed and Bruce went to work,” Dixon says with a laugh.

So when Cleland had the idea of running a marathon for charity, Dixon was one of his first calls.

“You have to remember what it was like then,” Cleland says. “Running a marathon today is a ubiquitous type of activity, an ordinary activity. Back then it was regarded as a bit extreme. Thin, slightly strange people did it. You’re average man on the street could never run a marathon.”

“Bruce, you can’t even run,” Dixon recalls telling him at the time. “You’ve been at the bottom of a scrum too long. You’ve got 600 rugby injuries and you want to do a marathon?”

Of course, in Cleland’s mind, that was part of what made the fundraiser unique. People like him didn’t run marathons.

“If we had non-runners doing this, it would create much more human interest than a team of gazelles that had each run 10 marathons before,” Cleland says. “I didn’t know how many people we could convince to do it, this was before the Internet and e-mail or cell phones.”

He started talking to friends in the Leukemia Society, and eventually 38 had committed to run for the cause. Since many worked in finance, the fundraising efforts initially focused at the corporate level.

“Let’s go to a big bank like Goldman Sachs or Bank of America and have them select a 40-ish guy who’s working too hard and is out of shape,” Cleland says of the initial plan. “Maybe he had a bit of an athletic background that could be rekindled. Here’s his chance to lose 40 pounds and run the marathon. They’d donate $5,000 and get their logo on our T-shirt.”

They had some success with that strategy, and about 20 corporate sponsors signed on. But much of the fundraising success came at the individual level.

“A lot took the form of bets,” Cleland says. “I’ll pay you $10 a mile as long as you finish. Some people put time caps on the donations—finish under five hours or you get nothing. But the point was disbelief that a normal person would be able to finish a marathon.”

Once the group was assembled, Dixon suggested that they get “in training” shirts that were popular at the time.

“You know, it would say, ‘In Training for the 1988 marathon’ or whatever,” Dixon says. “So I told Bruce, you need to get shirts that say “in training” for the race. And he said, no, we’re a team in training. And that’s where the name was born.”

Flying Blind

By the winter of 1988, there was only detail to work out—the race.

“I asked Bruce, what race are you going to do,” Dixon says. “And he says, oh, the New York City Marathon, of course.

“How are you going to get 38 entries to the New York City Marathon?” Dixon asked.

“You’re going to get them for me,” Cleland said.

As a former winner, Dixon certainly had some pull with the New York Road Runners. But entries to the race, much like today, were subject to a lottery.

“I told him, I couldn’t get those entries,” Dixon says. “Fred Lebow (the NYC Marathon founder) was very understanding, but he had rules with the city. He just couldn’t give them away like that.”

“I told Fred about what Bruce was doing, and I asked him to meet with Bruce to tell him why they couldn’t get so many entries. And Fred agreed to meet with him,” Dixon says. “I know he’d planned to go to the meeting to tell him no. But somehow, after hearing the story, Bruce ended up getting his entries.”

Team assembled, race entries in place, fundraising on track and an elite runner to offer training advice—now the Team in Training had to make sure they lived up to their end of the deal.

“We were a tight group,” Cleland says. “We’d meet once a month in a restaurant or bar, and everyone would come. I remember being impressed at how dedicated people were to making this happen.”

In addition to Dixon’s own advice, he brought other sponsored athletes in town to meet with the team and offer support. They turned to Jeff Galloway’s marathon training book for guidance and started eating properly and drinking less.

“We really were flying blind,” Cleland says. “We didn’t know what would happen at the end. All of these elite runners were telling us what to do—and it seemed to be working—but we didn’t know what would happen when it actually came to the marathon.”

The training and advice did pay off. All 38 members of the team finished.

“It wasn’t necessarily pretty,” says Cleland, who finished in 5:20. “But everyone crossed the line—and every bet was paid off.” In the process, the first Team in Training raised an astounding $320,000 for the Leukemia Society of America.

“It was humbling, to raise that amount of money,” Cleland says.

“That’s an extraordinary amount of money for someone to raise,” says George Omiros, executive vice president, chief campaign and field development officer for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Omiros was with the organization in 1988, and realized that Cleland was on to something.

“Bruce had done this for the Westchester chapter, and it was obvious that this was a phenomenal concept he had put together,” Omiros says. “Within a year, chapters had started around the country. He had created this new niche.”

Since the 1988 New York City Marathon, the numbers are staggering—more than 570,000 people have competed in a marathon, half-marathon, century ride or hiking adventure to raise money for Team in Training. They’ve raised $1.32 billion to fund blood cancer research and patient support.

“You want to know the legacy of Team in Training?” Dixon asks.

“In the ’90s, I was back in New Zealand, and I had a good friend who was diagnosed with Leukemia and given three months to live,” he says. “There was a new drug that New Zealand hadn’t approved yet called Gleevec. He was able to go to the United States and get that Gleevec, and he survived. My friend is still alive today because of a drug was discovered through the grants of Leukemia Team in Training.”

And Georgia Cleland? She’s now 28, cancer-free, and completed her first half-marathon in 2012 to raise funds for Team in Training.

“I went down to the (Disney Half Marathon) to watch her finish,” Cleland says. “How the marathon has changed just amazes me.

“You see any shape and body type that you can imagine,” he says. “You don’t have to be built like a marathoner. But most important is the human effect. The sense of accomplishment and the way that it changes people’s lives. That’s available to so many people now.”

Perhaps the greatest legacy from Team in Training? The survival rate for a 2-year-old diagnosed with Leukemia today is 95 percent.

Cleland, who now lives in Maryland, hopes that the attention Team in Training has garnered continues to open up running to a wider population.

“You learn how good it feels to be healthy,” he says. “You really appreciate the camaraderie that comes from doing a race like a marathon. It’s a life-changing thing.”

Dixon now spends most his time working on the Kids Marathon Foundation, a charity he founded to help fight childhood obesity. He credits Cleland with creating the template for people to make a difference while committing to a healthy lifestyle.

“He will never take the credit,” Dixon says. “He’ll say it was this person or that person, but we know the truth: It was Bruce. He empowered us all.”

This piece first appeared in the January 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.


About The Author: 

Jeff Banowetz is Competitor’s Midwest Regional Editor.