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Why I Run

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The unvarnished truth behind participating in philanthropic events.

By Clay Nichols, Photo by Christina Harding

My motives are often a mystery to me, but I lie about them convincingly. In 2011, after just crossing the finish line of the Austin Livestrong Half Marathon, I was approached by a Statesman videographer. I think the cameraman picked me because he thought he was either going to get a useable comment or compelling footage of an acute infarction.

He asked the obvious question, “Why do you run?” I answered, “To set a good example for my kids,” a reply that lands on the truthiness scale somewhere between equivocation and total bullshit. A more honest response might have been something like, “With all the kids I got, I need some time to myself, and I was kind of tired of being a complete fat ass.”

This October, I ran in the Baltimore Marathon, and in Austin, I frequently got the question, “Why Baltimore?” My stock reply went something like this: “I have this buddy Kevin and he has a daughter with an autoimmune disease called juvenile myositis. He started a foundation called CureJM to support research for a cure, and one of his biggest fundraisers is his marathon team. He asked me to join, and I was honored to run.”

What a prince I am. While probably not rising to the level of perjury, this answer was not much more honest than the “for my kids” nonsense. I signed on for Baltimore because I love racing in different cities. I wanted to run a marathon this fall. The CureJM affiliation lent a nice halo to the long hours training out of the house, and made it easier to get permission from my wife to go. As I was setting up my fundraising page, my prerunning mind wondered, “When did we create this cultural linkage between running marathons and giving to charity? Some dude does something ill-advised and everybody else is supposed to open their wallets? How does that work, exactly?”

The fitter parts of my mind shouldered that thought aside and initiated a weeks-long siege of my Facebook friends. I set a goal of $1,000 because raising less than it cost to travel to the race seemed a little pathetic. As the first donations from soft-hearted relatives began to come in, the thought occurred to me that we undersell philanthropy to our kids. Parents and teachers generally pitch it as an abstract good that is an obligation or as something that gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach. And young kids, in all their innocent generosity, eat that up.

When it comes to giving and teaching our kids about giving, should we also mention that we sometimes do it for mixed motives? That there is more to donating than pure philanthropy? I’d be willing to bet that more deals in Austin find genesis at silent auctions and galas than on the golf course. There’s no better place than a benefit concert to hang out with like-minded friends and to grow your network. Many a quality buzz has been had in the name of a good cause. Charity can be a ball. Why keep that a secret from the kids?

I think it may actually be more honest to tell our kids that we get something from philanthropy. Not just warm, fuzzy feelings. That too. But more than that. The night before the marathon in Baltimore, I dropped in on the CureJM convention being held in conjunction with the race. I had hoped to scoop up some kudos for surpassing my fundraising goals. Instead, I was introduced to a number of the kids dealing with the disease, including my friend Kevin’s daughter.

Megan was a sandy-haired, shy tween, not thrilled to be forced in to conversation with some goofy graybeard babbling about running around with her name stenciled on his back. Kevin casually mentioned that he and Megan would be hitting the road as soon as he crossed the finish, headed back to Connecticut so she could receive the transfusions that were a regular part of her treatment for JM. That one got me. And then my act of charity started giving back to me. A short, sharp sensation. It wasn’t warm and fuzzy one bit. It was a mix of grief and gratitude. A step back to think about me and mine before heading forward a few miles, at least in some small part, for Megan.

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