After bombs ripped apart the Boston Marathon in April, thousands and thousands of people had the same idea: Next year, I’m running it for charity.
So many aspiring runners have applied to the 2014 race’s 138 official charities that winning a bib may be harder than running the race. Dream Big! , a nonprofit that helps low-income girls play sports, has 200 applications for 15 bibs— up from 50 for the 2013 race. Inquiries about joining Team Red Cross started the day of the attack and applications for 35 slots hit 190, compared with last year’s 75. At Massachusetts General Hospital, the doctor who captains the team jokes that he needs to walk the wards incognito.
“I’m frequently stopped by people saying ‘I’d love to run,’ or ‘A good friend of mine wants to raise money, do you have a number? ” said Howard Weinstein, chief of MGH’s pediatric hematology/oncology unit. Most years he can help people out, he said. But with 600 applicants for 100 bibs this year, he said, “I need a disguise.”
The heightened interest has prompted many charities to ask runners to raise more than the $4,000 and $5,000 fund-raising minimums set by the Boston Athletic Association and sponsor John Hancock , respectively.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital raised its minimum to $6,500, from $5,000 last year. The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary is considering only people who commit to raising $7,500 or more, up from $5,000. Special Olympics Massachusetts is asking runners to raise $10,000, and will hold them to a $7,500 commitment — up from $5,000 for the 2013 race. “There’s so much interest, and so many qualified runners,” said Nicholas Savarese, the group’s director of advancement.
The intense desire to be part of the 2014 race — which the BAA’s executive director, Tom Grilk, calls “inspiring” — is upping the pressure on applicants. Grown adults are finding themselves thrust back into college-application mode. They’re applying to multiple charities; they’re trying to outshine the competition by pledging to raise more than the required minimum — a promise that must be backed up with a credit card; they’re sending in photos and heartfelt “pick-me” essays.
“I had a man write on the outside of the envelope, ‘Please pick my wife. She is a beautiful strong woman and a great mom to our five children,’ ” said Susan Hurley, the founder of CharityTeams , a North Andover-based firm that helps charities select and train runners. “Someone else took a screen shot of the scene on TV when the bombs went off and circled a picture of herself right there and wrote ‘Me.’ Someone sent in a picture of a black collie mix with a sign in its mouth: ‘Mom wants to run.’ ”
The majority of the 16 teams Hurley is helping for the 2014 Marathon have filled their rosters, but as recently as last week a few, including Gronk Nation Youth Foundation and the Shawn Thornton Foundation, which raises money to fight Parkinson’s disease and cancer, each still had one slot left.
Filling that final position is a challenge, Hurley said, because there are almost too many “remarkable” candidates. They’re people with a commitment to the mission; a strong fund-raising goal and plan; and long-distance running experience. The choice is a crucial one for the charity, as a strong candidate can revitalize what might be an exhausted donor base.
“A lot of the applicants are people in their early 30s or late 20s and they may not have philanthropic ties yet,” Hurley said. “We have the chance to create ambassadors to the cause.”
And not just a few ambassadors, but thousands of them. In the 2013 race, 2,000 people ran for official charities of either the BAA or John Hancock, and together they raised $20.8 million. In 2014, an expanded field of 36,000 entrants will include 3,000 charity runners. The additional 1,000 come from slots the BAA recently made available to hospitals, The One Fund , and the first responder community.
The raised bar is putting some aspiring runners in a bind. They’re eager to contribute to a good cause and run the famous course — and also aware that fund-raising while training for a 26.2-mile race, working, and taking care of a family is a well-known stressor.
“I’m torn,” said Kevin Sweeney, a senior vice president of finance at DigitasLBi, a marketing and technology agency in Boston. “At this point it’s fake money, but I can’t pledge to raise $8,000. My wife wouldn’t talk to me for who knows how long.”
Sweeney’s application was rejected by Massachusetts General Hospital, and now he’s riding the wait list at Mass. Eye and Ear. He has called the hospital to show interest, but considering that he pledged $5,000 — $2,500 below its desired amount — he’s pessimistic. “Supposedly they’re going to give me a call back,” he said, sort of wishing he had pledged more, sort of relieved he hadn’t.
Another aspiring charity runner, Chelmsford native Kari Olsen, said she felt as if she was back in high school, waiting for a boy to call. Rejected by Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Mass. General, she then had a “very positive” 20-minute phone interview with the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress. “They said they’d call early in the week,” she said later, sounding nervous. “Do they really like me or not?” Olsen was one of the lucky few: The organization offered her a slot.
The good will is running so high aspiring runner Eric Dutton says that without a personal connection to a charity’s mission, it’s hard to get a bib. He said he has applied without luck to MGH, Brigham and Women’s, The Children’s Room , and Cops for Kids with Cancer , among others.
“I’m thankful I don’t have a backstory — that my family’s all been healthy,” said Dutton, a senior benefits analyst at Bruker Corp., in Billerica. On the other hand, he’s been enamored with the Marathon since he was a kid growing up in Nashua, and after last year’s attack, he was moved to try to do his part. “I’m just a 35-year-old father who wants to help,” he said.