Sam Webster had just finished a game of squash at a Toronto racquet club when he went into cardiac arrest. He might have died that day in 2006 if it weren't for a defibrillator provided by the Mikey Network, an organization that aims to get the devices in as many public places as possible.
So when the 40-year-old learned that the Mikey Network would be putting together a team to raise money at the Walk of Life event in Toronto this year, there was no question he would sign up.
"It's recognizing what I went through and trying to raise awareness," Mr. Webster says.
Most races have some philanthropic component, whether it's fielding charity teams or asking individuals to raise money for a given cause. And the chance to support charities has contributed to the growing number of race participants over the years, with many runners saying they are primarily motivated to enter events as a way to give back.
"People have embraced it as a way to give their purpose of running that marathon an extra jolt," says Dave Watt, executive director of the American Running Association. "People do select races because it [fundraising money] goes to worthy causes."
Indeed, if it weren't for the chance to help a cause that is close to him, Mr. Webster might not be participating in the Walk for Life.
"Personally, running is not my favourite form of exercise," he says.
Kirsten Jessiman stopped running seven years ago when she was pregnant with her first child. Between the lack of sleep and caring for her son George, who is autistic, there was just not enough time to run.
But last year, Ms. Jessiman received an e-mail from the Geneva Centre for Autism, saying the organization was entering a team in the half-marathon portion of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
"It turned out that all I needed was the right motivation, and that was it," says the 40-year-old, who works in information technology project management.
She probably would not have returned to running if it weren't for the chance to raise money for autism research, Ms. Jessiman says.
"I honestly don't think I would have gotten back into it if it weren't for this."
Being focused on a cause also pushes her to train and reach the finish line. "When I'm either on a race or out on those long runs and I just feel like I cannot run another step, all I do is think about why I'm doing it and that gives me the energy boost that I need," she says.
Last year, Ms. Jessiman raised $400. This year, she expects to raise more than $500.
Some of the largest races in Canada raise millions for various charities.
Last year's CIBC Run for the Cure, for example, raised $26.5-million for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. The event, which takes place in October in 60 communities across the country, attracts roughly 170,000 participants.
Most if not all are drawn to the event because of the cause, rather than simply getting in shape or just doing a run.
"Breast cancer affects so many Canadian families that unfortunately there are many people with a personal connection, whether it be themselves, friends, loved ones," says Joanne Simons, vice-president of development at the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.
The 15,000 people running in this Sunday's Sporting Life 10K in Toronto are expected to help raise close to $1-million for Camp Oochigeas, a camp in Muskoka for children with cancer.
"It's really inspiring," says Rob Drynan, executive director of the camp.
The roughly 38,000 people expected to participate in this year's Ottawa Race Weekend, which includes the Ottawa Marathon, will raise between $1.5-million and $2-million for several charitable organizations, says Jim Robinson, general manager of Run Ottawa, which organizes the event.
"People in general, I think, care about helping out these days, and they use the race as a means to achieve that," Mr. Robinson says.
Amazing as it may seem, the charitable aspect of races was a source of controversy as recently as the mid-1990s.
As events began partnering with charities on condition that the organization in question field a certain number of runners, some in the running community complained that charities were taking spots away from other competitors.
"That debate got fairly loud from some of the old-school people who said, 'Marathoning is a sports competition, it's not a charity walk,' " Mr. Watt says. "Now, what had been kind of a fractious relationship has become more of a partnership."
Race organizers have realized they can attract more runners, and more sponsors, by having a charitable component while still appealing to elite runners, Mr. Watt adds.
Nicole Girardin is not an elite runner, but that didn't stop her from running a half-marathon in 2008. The 28-year-old found just the push she needed in agreeing to raise money for the Toronto East General Hospital.
The cause, and the fact she had asked friends for donations, was just the motivation she required to complete the daunting run.
"It was just one of those things where I had it in my mind that I might like to run a half but I didn't think I would do it on my own," she says. "Agreeing to raise money for a charity makes me feel less likely to bail on something that seems a little unreachable."
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