Guest Blogger Charlie Johnston

It’s about 6 p.m. on a Friday and Boston’s famed Union Oyster House is standing-room only with a three-hour wait. A friendly bar manager named Jimmy Sullivan is in the process of asking my mother if she would like a seat while we wait when he notices my hot pink hair. He, like dozens before him, is compelled to ask, “What’s with the hair?” I tell him I’m running the Boston Marathon the following Monday on behalf of the American Cancer Society, and since my mother is a 17-year breast cancer survivor (19 years as I write this), I’m going pink—hair, fingernails, singlet, and an arm full of rubber wristbands to toss out to spectators along the course—in her honor. I tell him I’ve raised close to $1,000 for the ACS. Without hesitation, Jimmy, a stranger until three minutes prior, reaches into his wallet and extracts four $5 bills, hands them to me, and wishes me good luck.

The 2010 Boston Marathon was the first race I ran on behalf of and while raising moneyand awareness for a charity. In my bio on the ACS’s DetermiNation donation website, in emails to family, friends, and coworkers, and in countless facebook posts and messages I wrote that running had given me so much and the time had come for my running to help others, too. I didn’t realize when I wrote those words how much I also had to gain from making my running make a difference. The generosity of people like Jimmy and countless others gave me strength during the race that year. The tearful “thank-you’s” of cancer survivors who hugged me tightly upon learning what my ostentatious hair color symbolized helped me to keep pushing through difficult miles. And the realization that running for a cause is so much more than just running has stayed with me every day since.

I returned to Boston in 2011 as a DetermiNation athlete and reunited with the friends I made as a charity runner the previous year. Fellow Ambassador Nancy Cook is part of this tight-knit circle of friends; we call ourselves The Boston Dream Team and are running on behalf of the ACS again at the 2012 Boston Marathon. Through this group of people I have gained camaraderie in running and perspective on life, friends that I hold dear across thousands of miles and much-too-infrequent visits, even love. Together we have helped ourselves, loved ones, and people we will never meet in their respective fights against cancer, but we have also helped each other to grow in ways we may never be able to fully grasp.

In August 2011, the opportunity to run and raise money for Mountain Circle Family Services—a Northern California-based organization that supports foster children and their families—during the inaugural Running With The Bears Marathon was too good to pass up. Like my experience with DetermiNation, I walked away with lifelong friends and the pride that comes with knowing that my sore legs had just made a difference for other people. But unlike my experiences in Boston, I actually won the tiny rural California race—save your applause, among the nearly 100 runners, only three of us ran the marathon.

Like any good charity runner, I would be remiss not to include a shameless plug to donate to the efforts of The Boston Dream Team here and sign up to Run With The Bears (and me) in August (a perfect return to running after the San Francisco Marathon in July) here.

I would venture to say that there isn’t a race in existence that is not in some way affiliated with at least one charity. Runners are kind and charitable people; it is only natural that we would want the sport we love to make a difference for our families, friends, neighbors, and complete strangers. And the benefits of running for a charity don’t end at the amazing Karma points and good feelings. Many charities offer discounted and complimentary race entry in exchange for raising donations, professionally designed training plans and training support, running gear emblazoned with their logos, pre- and post-race tents with food, refreshments, and other perks, and even private transportation to the start line.

At last count, nearly a dozen charities are partners with July’s San Francisco Marathon. Many more will surely join the ranks in the coming months. If the only thing holding you back from committing to a charity is concern that you will have trouble raising donations, fear not, the kind folks at the San Francisco Marathon have compiled tried-and-true tips for successful fundraising. If that’s not enough support, you can always find me on facebook, email me at [email protected], or swing by Reno, Nevada in early April to chat about fundraising and chop off a piece of my hair to donate to cancer victims (more details on that later).

Perhaps the best thing about charity running is the opportunity it provides to see the kindness and generosity of everyone around us. When Jimmy at Union Oyster House gave me that $20, I struggled to express my gratitude and apologized for not being able to provide a receipt or any guarantee that his donation was indeed going to cancer research and patient care. He chuckled and assured me he didn’t question my sincerity or the validity of the fundraiser. “I believe you,” he said. “You’ve got pink hair.”