The Selfishness Of The Long Distance Runner

Long distance running is a solitary pursuit - just you against the road. So why do people insist on attributing charity to the endeavour?
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This post originally appeared in 2012

I started running recently. After a stay a hotel with a full length mirror, I could no longer kid myself that I was still in relatively good shape. As someone who thrives on targets and deadlines, I put in an entry for a half marathon in May 2012 and set myself a time to aim for.

As the sight of me lumbering around the suburban sidewalks became a regular thing, friends and neighbours started asking me about my new fitness regime. All were supportive, until they posed the question, always a variation on the theme of: “So which charity are you running for?” When I told them that I wasn’t going to be raising any money, the mood changed. Some merely lost their smiles and mumbled. Others were more outspoken, saying that it’s “a shame” and suggesting that competing in a half marathon without sponsorship is “a waste of time”. The most extreme reaction was the accusation that I was being “greedy” as I was “stealing a place from somebody who could be earning money for a good cause”.

To me, taking part in an individual sporting event is a selfish activity by definition. I will be making the sacrifices and hopefully reaping the benefits of improved health. If I reach my personal goal- fantastic, but why the hell should it have any bearing on whether or not other people make charitable donations?

The first time I ever came into contact with the concept was in the 70s. Help the Aged rolled up at school assembly and dished out a load of forms for a sponsored walk. Even then, I was bemused. So we walk round the football pitch 20 times and they chip in for someone to go to the shops for the old people, but if we don’t they’ll leave them to freeze, thaw, rot then dissolve in their own wee- it didn’t add up.

Why would you want to give to a cause simply because some acquaintance is doing a bit of running?

It was the growth of the London Marathon that made this state of affairs the norm but, as My Family and Cadburys Crème Eggs have taught us, mainstream acceptance does not prove that an idea is necessarily right. The most puzzling aspect is the role of the donor; what precisely are they supposed get out of the deal? Why would you want to give to a cause simply because some acquaintance is doing a bit of running? If you are of a philanthropic bent, surely it would make more sense to do a bit of research and give to the cause that fits in with your world view rather than follow the random steer of some jogger. And how important is the athletic element to the sponsor? In any endurance event, a decent proportion of the starters fail to finish. Tragically, a number die in the attempt. Do these heroic failures get paid out or do the benefactors withhold the cash? Scratch the surface and this familiar transaction is truly a moral maze.


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The motivation of the participant is far easier to understand. They get to do something for themselves and get the added bonus of being acclaimed as a humanitarian. Wouldn’t it be more impressive if they did something more taxing and worthwhile in exchange for a donation- the kind of thing that Louis Walsh would describe as out of their comfort zone? If a guy told me he was going to volunteer at a cancer hospice for a year and was looking to bring in some money for said establishment - I may well be inspired to put my hand in my pocket. If the same bloke asks me to kick in a few quid just because he’s going to continue doing his hobby, the response would be different. Sadly, the Lycra clad show offs get splashed all over the local rags brandishing oversized cheques while the true heroes who get their hands dirty in the hope of making their community a better place remain unsung.

In other words, pricks who make a big deal of giving to charity deserve zero credit.

Not content with soliciting cash for indulging in a leisure pursuit, increasing numbers of people are now after a free holiday as well. Two weeks cycling in Cuba and a trip round Northern France on vintage motorcycles are among the punishing feats of endurance I’ve been approached to bankroll. Last year, a friend of a friend tried to put the arm on me for a contribution towards her jaunt to one of the big American city marathons- I can’t remember which one as I always seemed to be in a hurry to be somewhere else whenever I saw her. Such avoidance tactics are getting increasingly difficult thanks to that most unwelcome of emails- the link to the JustGiving page. This will take you to a half-baked mission statement outlining the freeloader’s passionate but hitherto well hidden commitment to their chosen cause followed by a list of donors- each accompanied by a heartfelt call to stand tall and keep pushing on more suited to a warrior going into battle than a reasonably healthy lad who is about to tackle a 10 k fun run.

In Matthew 6:1, the King James Bible warns: “take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” In other words, pricks who make a big deal of giving to charity deserve zero credit. By this measure, those who massage their own egos by using emotional blackmail to cajole their friends and colleagues into parting with their hard earned wages are clearly heading for eternal damnation.

In comparison, the Brent-ian, baked beans in the Jap’s eye frolics of Children in Need have a refreshing honesty. Here, the LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME factor is front and centre, there is no suggestion of any noble suffering and no one pretends to have the foggiest what happens to the dough once Pudsey gets his paws on it. A feller dressed as Tony the Tiger shakes a bucket; you either toss in or tell him to bollocks- end of story. A one day deal: no repeat business, no training updates, no having to pretend you care about the finishing time and you don’t have to keep looking at the knobhead wearing the commemorative T-shirt and being reminded of the more productive uses your dosh could have been put to.

In six months, when I cross the finish line- the only person it will matter to is me and that’s exactly how it should be.