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Charity Running: Follow The Rule Of Thirds To The Finish Line

Caitlyn Pilkington writes about what charity running has brought to her life.

Caitlyn Pilkington writes about what charity running has brought to her life.

Four years ago, I toed the line at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon to benefit the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America — and ran to my still-standing half-marathon PR. I clocked 1:40:39, a time I’ve flirted with only twice since that race. [Ed. note: Pilkington ran 1:36:16 at this year’s Carlsbad Half Marathon.] After crossing the line and teetering through the secure zone, my run bud and Team Challenge mentor John Majocha looked me dead in my tired eyes and said, “Never in my life have I seen anyone run with as much determination and conviction as you just did.”

Those words dug their way into my runner psyche and sparked a reflection on my performance: Why was this race so powerful?

Just 13.1 miles earlier, Majocha had explained, “You have to break the race into thirds — run the first with your head, the middle miles with your personality and the final ones with your heart. Remember why you’re out there when it hurts” — infamous advice that has manifested itself in a variety of forms for me since then. But on that particular day, those words oozed with a charitable cause and unexpected discovery of what running means to me — while supporting my “family” of 1.4 million Americans with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), I ran, hurt and PRed for Team Challenge.

A team dedicated to raising funds and awareness for Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis, two debilitating versions of IBD, Team Challenge has expanded exponentially since 2009, now serving as the title charity for Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas, Women’s Half Marathon Nashville and Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon, as well as bringing teams to both national and international events around the world. Since its first team at Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose in 2007, Team Challenge has raised more than $15 million in the Vegas market alone and $49 million total. Spanning more than 30 chapters nationwide, the army in orange has made bigger strides toward this “closet” disease than any other IBD movement I’ve witnessed.

“Team Challenge has done a tremendous thing for [IBD] awareness by just being out there,” says Craig Comins, Team Challenge national director. “At an event such as Vegas, you can’t get away from the cause — it’s everywhere. It’s just elevated us to the point where races come to us, asking for a partnership. That exposure in the endurance industry has given us more exposure to the public, raising more awareness than ever before.”

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After six seasons of training, fundraising and racing (and post-race partying) with the team, it’s become clear to me the role of charity running has transformed into something more than a simple training plan meant to get novice runners across a finish line. While the current boom of untimed theme fun runs and flash mob workout groups focuses on pure enjoyment and a bit of zany camaraderie, it’s the charity running movement that has been preaching fun for years: Grab a bud, sign up for a destination race through a charity program and meet some great people with a similar goal — to fight the good fight. Over the past 15 years, charity running has grown into one of the largest platforms for community building, networking and awareness in the U.S.

While the social factor has definitely been a blessing in my continued mission toward self-advocacy and understanding, most days I travel back to that rule of thirds and the moment I realized what each third is really meant to portray.

Run With Your Head

Charity translation: Remember the training plan.

The first third of any race is about reeling in jitters and trusting your training. For those out there in charity garb, nothing fuels this control better than the 16-week training plan that most have followed religiously since day one. Complete with a written plan, experienced coaches and well-placed “rest days,” the program trumped my naive (and somewhat cocky) formula for training and, instead, worked with me to be a smarter runner. For someone who has led the pack since sixth grade in many competitive arenas, following a plan delivered by a there-is-something-for-everyone program was nearly laughable — at first.

However, as I blasted by the mile 3 marker, I nodded toward Majocha, acknowledging the fact that I would run the race he knew I could run — without an early bonk. I remembered my hesitation to listen and all of those days I forced myself to sit still instead of lacing up, and I realized that each mile I logged and successful run I completed was because of my coach, because of my teammates, because of those strategically placed off days. The coaches who had worked against my competitive spirit and initial unwillingness to follow the rules for 16 long weeks were suddenly front and center — both in my mind and on the sidelines as I cruised by mile 4. “I told you so” dripped from the corners of their grins and screams of encouragement.

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“Our training programs are designed by our head coach, Dave McGovern, but our local coaches have the ability to customize those programs,” Comins says. “Thirty-four percent of our participants do not consider themselves athletes. They are here because of the cause, and they want to challenge themselves and need the program.”

Designed around the “three weeks of build, one week of recovery” method, the plan speaks to runners of any level. It was the training program that ultimately captured my abilities as a smart racer and squished my thoughts of self-doubt. If you can follow the plan, you can run your race — I guess he was right, because I still follow the same plan.

Run With Your Personality

Charity translation: Remember the camaraderie and fundraising dollars

The middle miles are always the most fun — the calm before the storm, if you will. I love to front-run and pass people, and it took Mojacha’s persistence to even get me to grab water at every stop (a habit I’ve kept for every race since then). I tend to channel my inner “Pre” attitude and get a bit cocky around mile 6. However, while striding down Las Vegas Boulevard, I remembered a different person: the version of myself who timidly asked my closest friends and family for money to support my $5,000 journey to Las Vegas. I had overcome my darkest days with ulcerative colitis, and the flood of support I received was humbling. So, instead of the traditional “You got chick’d” mentality that usually swallows me whole as I’m passing others toward the middle of a PR pursuit, I simply smiled. I smiled for all of the fundraising events I attended, the dollars I brought in to fund my own cause and the people I recruited to do their own fundraising that same year.

For those living with IBD, it’s not immediately comfortable to announce that you use the restroom more than if you had a bad case of food poisoning. But after meeting hundreds of other IBDers, telling my story, and accepting my body for all of its limits and capabilities, I wanted to scream with joy and race with gratitude. I wanted the world to know that, yes, I have a disgusting disease, but it does not have me. And that was more powerful, more fulfilling than kicking dust toward my fellow competitors. It is the bravery of the patient that gets noticed, but it’s the spunk of the person that spreads awareness.

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Run With Your Heart

Charity translation: Remember your honored hero.

After buzzing by mile 11, I knew I was entering Suckville. This mile was my Everest — close enough to create excitement but far enough to fuel self-doubt. Majocha looked at me and told me it was time to go — it was time to dig deep and make the move if I wanted to cross the line in under 1:41. I remember cringing and muttering, “I can’t. I’m done.” It was only my second half marathon ever, and my inexperienced legs were feeling the heat.

So I dug — I reflected on all those people who suffer with the worst-case scenario of IBD. I remembered my darkest hours, those days where I thought I’d never run again, let alone walk. I remembered the little moments at team practice, when just one more person would step up and say, “I have Crohn’s, and I’m better for it.” And I remembered now-11-year-old Trevor, San Diego’s own honored hero and Crohn’s patient.

“Team Challenge has changed Trevor’s perspective from feeling isolated by Crohn’s to being a crusader against it,” explains Tavish Margers, Trevor’s father and recipient of the 2013 McCready-Adams award, the highest honor given to a Team Challenge participant for above-and-beyond support for the cause. “Not only does he openly talk about his disease, but he is also an inspiration to others with IBD. He realizes now, the more willing he is to talk about his own IBD, the better chance he has to ‘punch Crohn’s in the face.’”

Three years prior to race day, my Everest was walking 50 meters without running to the bathroom for the 40th time — literally — in one day. As I turned it up and blasted through mile 11, arms in full swing, tunnel vision initiated and white noise tuned out, my legs followed, and that mental mountain shriveled behind me. And on that memorable day in December, I crossed the line 21 seconds under my goal — a wicked right hook to IBD’s disheveled face. No rest stops required.

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Conclusions about how and why I raced the way I did that day and throughout my last 10 half marathons have varied, but one constant remains — my time with Team Challenge is the thread that holds my own mission together. I pull inspiration from all six races that I’ve done with the team — always crossing the line with a renewed sense of purpose. Team Challenge has provided me with an opportunity to heal and forgive my body for everything it’s put me through since my diagnosis in 2001. It’s taught me how to run with gratitude, embrace life’s lemons and inspire other patients to grab life by the intestines and pack a few extra rolls of toilet paper for the ride.

5 Tips To Fundraising $5,000 For The Cause

1. Embrace social media.
Facebook is not just for stalking your ex. Post a few creative words to your page, and someone will notice. An added bonus? Don’t underestimate the effect of a powerful photo. People want to see the vulnerable side of your journey — it’s the most inspiring part about it.

2. Love The Bars
Seriously, nothing attracts dollars more than guaranteed alcohol and raffle tickets. Bars love to help out a local cause, so plan a pub crawl, set a price and see who is willing to throw in a few free brews with the entry fee.

3. Go Old School
Write a letter to your favorite peeps. People secretly love snail mail — the more personal, the better.

4. Set Realistic Milestones
Don’t announce the total you need to raise in the next six months. Announce you want to raise a tenth of that amount by the end of the week. People will rally and make it rain.

5. Get Corporate
I bet you didn’t know your best friend’s company does matching donations. What’s better than turning $500 into $1,000?

Added Bonus
Donate to yourself — it will get the ball rolling and set an “average donation” standard.

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So You Want To Be A Charity Runner?

Let me convince you with these five reasons.

1. The pre-race inspiration dinner: Celebrate charity-style with hundreds of your closest teammates, but be ready to reach for the tissue when that keynote speaker grabs the mic.

2. The costumes: Every good chapter needs a theme. Case and point: the rock-star vibe Team Challenge San Diego brought to the table during the dinner.

3. The social aspect: Those who train, fundraise and embrace the cause together, party together.

4. The impact: Digest the fact that you’re making a difference for all of the honored heroes who face the challenges placed in front of them. Nothing is more gratifying than shaking the hand of a survivor and accepting a simple “Thank you.”

5. And, of course, the destination: People join for the race and stay for the cause. What better way to cruise the Las Vegas Strip, the streets of San Francisco, the roads of Dublin or practically any race worldwide than with a team following the same mission as you?

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Charities Who Train Together, Finish Together

Check out the perks of donning the colors of your chosen charity:

— A 16-week training program — with options for beginners, intermediate and advanced athletes.

— Group training runs twice a week — generally one on a weekday and one on the weekend for longer runs.

— Fundraising and training clinics — if you have a question or an answer, your team has answers and questions.

— Weekly coach emails — never do coaches leave you high and dry during the week.

— Cup tips — if you’re worried about snagging a water station treat, learn from the best.

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