eric's blog

Thoughts on Marathon Fundraising and Request for Pledges

As many of you know, I'm running this year's NYC Marathon.

At first, I was thinking of running as part of the Alzheimer's Association's Team Run to Remember.

Last year, when my mom passed away, I decide that I was going to complete the marathon as a way of honoring her and her struggle.

Over the final year or two of her life, conversation became more and more difficult. Having taken up running again gave me not only a way to vent the stress of watching her whither but also gave me something to talk to her about when she was unable to really hold a conversation.

Since I ran competitively when I was young, and older memories hold on for longer, I think she was able to understand as I babbled at her about my most recent race -- and once I started running again, there were a lot of races.

My first thought when she passed was to run last year's marathon with the Alzheimer's Association, but when I discussed this with the team coordinator I began to feel uncomfortable about it.

Since I had not qualified for a spot on my own and did not get one via the lottery, I could get one of the handful of spots that they had, but to do so I'd have to make a commitment to raise over $3,000 -- and if I could not raise that much I would be personally responsible for the difference between what I raised and the minimum requirement.

It felt like I was asking friends and family to pay my way into the race and I was pretty certain that I was not up to the task of raising that amount of money, so I decided to finish qualifying for this year's race via the New York Road Runner's 9+1 program. You run 9 races and volunteer to help at 1 and you get a guaranteed spot in the next year's marathon.

Having made my way into this year on my own felt great. Again, I thought about running as part of Team Run to Remember. Having my own spot meant that I would only have to commit to raise $1,500 to participate.

As I started to learn more about how NYRR handles charity spots in the marathon, I became less and less interested in participating in that particular scam.

In 2010, NYRR claims that via the charity spots in the marathon that they helped raise over $35 million for charity. If NYRR gave those charities the spots it would be one thing, but the charities are forced to pay top dollar for those spots. NYRR's propaganda talks a big game about supporting charities, but the reality is that charity runners are a giant source of profit for them. Given the fee that the charities pay per runner, plus the fee the runner pays for entry, plus the probable kickback from crowdrise (the for-profit donation system that NYRR forces charity runners to use for fundraising), my guess is that 5-7 million of that 35 was profit for NYRR, another 5-10% was profit for crowdrise. Hardly an act of charity in my opinion.

I decided to train on my own. However, I still want to make this partly about Pearl and raising some money for Alzheimer's research. I think about her often when I run; sometimes those thoughts are the only thing that gets me across the finish line.

I have also been thinking about the difference between how we used to do events like walkathons when I was young and how they are done now. We used to get pledges -- people would commit to pay a certain amount per mile and you'd collect the funds after the event and their donation was tied to how far you actually went. Now, people pay a set fee and give that, in full, before you even start. They donate no matter what amount of effort or dedication you put in. That model really bothers me.

So, this brings me to what I'm writing this to ask. I would like you to pledge any amount by filling out this form. Tell me how much you are willing to donate to the Alzheimer's Association if, and only if, I finish the marathon.

I'll keep a running tally on my blog, and will be starting to post weekly updates about my training progress and what the Alzheimer's Association is doing to try to end this terrible disease.

After the marathon, I'll send you a reminder and ask you to send your payment directly to the Alzheimer's Association. Please send them a check, do not donate online. I want every penny of your donation to go towards their work and not into the pocket of paypal, Visa or any other intermediary.

Thanks in advance for your support. It means more to me than I can possibly tell you.

Nelson Mandela, long may his spirit live and motivate us all in struggle.

you know, there are very few days that one can look back at and say "I remember that day, I know exactly where I was when that happened"

For me, one of those days was 23 years and almost 4 months ago -- The day Nelson Mandela stepped out of prison and addressed the world. The cliche "the whole world is watching" has rarely been more true.

News of his release came a little more than a week earlier, and that afternoon I sat with a group of friends, glued to the radio, listening to the words of a man we had all grown to admire; a man that captured my generation's imagination and spurred so many of us into political action.

Apartheid could not hold on much longer, you could feel the winds of change. Together, we had all changed the world.

Today, as news is spreading around the world that Mandela's health is failing, I'm filled with a sorrow that is as heavy as the joy of Feb 11th 1990 was light and joyful. But, I'm also filled with awe. It's amazing that he did not die in prison; it's amazing that he lived this long, that he was able to play such an important role in defining a new future for South Africa. A lesson that is so relevant to other struggles today.

To quote some of his speech from that day:

"I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.

I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.

On this day of my release, I extend my sincere and warmest gratitude to the millions of my compatriots and those in every corner of the globe who have campaigned tirelessly for my release.

I send special greetings to the people of Cape Town, this city which has been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle have served as a constant source of strength to all political prisoners....

Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960 with the formation of the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement will be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle...

We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts.

It is only through disciplined mass action that our victory can be assured. We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you too. We call on the international community to continue the campaign to isolate the apartheid regime. To lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process towards the complete eradication of apartheid.

Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way. Universal suffrage on a common voters' role in a united democratic and non-racial South Africa is the only way to peace and racial harmony.

In conclusion I wish to quote my own words during my trial in 1964. They are true today as they were then:

'I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.'"

Janji: redesigned shirts on the way soon

Of all the companies I've criticized over the years on my blog, Janji stands alone in their willingness to engage me in dialog. They took my critique seriously and have really impressed me.
The original title of this post was "Janji displays ignorance of Haiti but still would love to make money off your desire to help Haitians"
[[UPDATE Feb 10th
The comment I posted below received a reply within 10 minutes by one of the owners of Janji, Dave Spandorfer.
The way he addressed my concerns has changed my opinion of their company.
First off, it turns out that Runners World was not correct, they donate a percentage of sales, not profit (currently approximately 22.8% of sales).
Additionally, even though they were unaware of the issue I raised, they had already redesigned the shirt to be less generic. He sent me an image of the new shirts but asked that I not post that online.
Dave told me that he was going to forward my message to the entire staff and ask them to keep this in mind so they can make sure they do not make similar mistakes in the future.
He also said that they were going to get in touch with all the other groups they work with in other countries to ensure that they are not making the same mistake in other cultures.
Once the new line is available, I might just run a race in a Run for Haiti shirt.

My criticism was, in my opinion, correct. I still am not a big fan of consumerist activism. However my assumptions about the folks involved was off base. It is nice to be wrong sometimes.

Original text of the post is below.

In general, I have a lot of problems with consumerist activism. Purchasing goods that generate a lot of profit for a company and a tiny donation to a cause might make someone feel good, but it does little to really impact anyone's life.

Also, it does little to connect someone with the cause they are trying to support. It is based on a distanced idea of charity and not a closer idea of solidarity.

Having just returned from my second trip to Haiti, where I participated in the first ever Hackathon aimed at improving the situation in Haiti that actually happened in Haiti, I was completely blown away by the article on a company named Janji in the March issue of Runners World that was waiting for me when I got home.

Janji is a for-profit company that sells technical running shirts in the colors of countries that Janji's owners have decided to support with a small percentage of their profit. Janji's owners keep 80% of the profit and claim to send the rest to help the poor of those poverty stricken lands far away. They sell charity.

I also tend to be suspicious of companies that donate a percentage of profit and not of sales. Most small companies make 0 profit in their first few years (and Janji is a small company in its first years). Also, profit is a variable that can be, and frequently is, manipulated. Increase the pay of the top executives, and profit goes down; give better health insurance to your workers and profit goes down. Profit goes down; taxes go down. Simple accounting.

Normally my criticism would end there, but the photo of the founders of the company shows one of them wearing their "Run for Haiti" shirt.

From the design of the shirt it is very clear that they have no connection to Haiti, no one that knows anything about Haiti or Haitian history reviewed the design, and from that I can only assume that the tiny percentage of the profits that they say are being donated are most likely not going to a group that is seriously connected on the ground to communities that need the help. It is the worst possible example of the failure of this model of charity. [Correction: it turns out that the tiny percentage of profit are being donated to a group that produces a medication that is used to confront malnutrition in Haitian children, which is certainly not the worst possible place to put some funding -- although it is still an effort organized by Americans on behalf of Haitians and has not real direct connection to people on the ground and is not going to do anything to address the core and systemic issues at the heart of the problem]

If you know the Haitian flag, it has one dark blue stripe and one dark red stripe. The first thing that seems off about the design is the pale red and blue used. It can be compared to making an American flag inspired design that uses baby blue and pink. But the most glaring problem is that between those two colors is a white stripe with "Run for Haiti" written in it.

While that stripe might have made sense to the designer (hey, I need a spot to put this text, how else will people know that the person purchasing it loves Haiti), in context of Haitian history it is very wrong and somewhat offensive.

To quote from the wikipedia page about the Haitian flag: "Haitian lore holds that the newly-appointed revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines created the flag by taking a French tricolor and ripping out the white center, which he discarded."

The white stripe of the French flag was removed to symbolize the expulsion of the French colonialists; to symbolize the end of slavery and the freedom of the Haitian people.

To add that white stripe back in as part of this act of for-profit pseudo charity speaks volumes about the people that are selling this shirt and the idea of consumerist charity itself.

The Haitian flag (left) and the shirt being sold by Jinji (right)

I am a runner. I love Haiti. On my most recent trip I managed to find the time to run a short but seriously hilly 2.5 miles in Haiti through the Pacot neighborhood of downtown Port-au-Prince. I would love to combine my passion for running and solidarity with the Haitian people. I would not be caught dead in the Run for Haiti shirt being peddled by these well intentioned but completely clueless charlatans and I hope I'm not alone in that feeling.

Running Goals for 2013

As this year winds down, I seem to be winding up -- putting in more miles, feeling better after long runs, really getting into being a runner again. So, here is my motivational wish list for the coming year:

1: log 1000 miles (training runs and races combined)
This year, the first full year I've been tracking my runs, I'll end up coming in between 700 and 750 miles. With my plan to run fewer but longer races this year I think I'll be able to hit 1000.

2: complete at least 2 half marathons
Manhattan Half in January and the Brooklyn Half in May (or whenever they end up schdule ing it for, it's silly but I see so many people out on training runs with their nice Brooklyn Half t-shirts I think one of the reasons I want to do this race is because I want one of those shirts).
I might find another half marathon hit as a an excuse to travel somewhere interesting.
I registered for the Manhattan Half last week, let's hope there's not a snow storm the day before like there was for last year's race.

Running in Parque Carolina, 12,000 ft elevation: Quito Ecuador

3: hit 60% age grade percentage in a race longer than 3 miles
I managed to hit 64.6% in the 5th Ave Mile, but for longer races I'm stuck in the mid to high 50s. I got close on my 4mile PR in April with an age grade percentage of 59.6%. This year, I'm going to break that threshold. 60% is the line that defines what they call "local class" which is supposed to mean that you are good enough to place (be one of the first 3 finishers) in your age group at local races (but my local races are full of local, regional, national and world class runners).

4: run some smaller non-NYRR races
I love the races that the NYRR puts on, but as an organization they leave so much be desired. They have the worst communications staff and so little respect for the membership, I need to find other races to run in order to keep from giving them too much of my money and implied support.

5: finish top 10% for my age group in at least 1 race (and if possible place in my age group)
This goes hand in hand with the 60% age grade goal and the run races not in NYC run by NYRR. The races in the City are so full of world class runners that I don't stand a chance of seeing the front of the pack, but if I run a smaller race the odds are better.
I've registered for an 8k in April in New Brunswick NJ, based on last year's results I have a good chance of placing in my age group if I train for it and push myself.

6: finish the New York City Marathon in under 5.5 hours.
Yes, I know it's insane but I want to try. I finished Grete's Great Gallop (1/2 Marathon) in just under 2 hours, so in theory I should be able to complete a full marathon somewhere between 4 and 4.5 hours -- But, I want to make sure I set a realistic goal on this one.

Mismanagement Mary must step down

The cancellation of the NY Marathon has become a huge story and a giant pile of shit. Runners in NYC have been damaged by how this was handled. Once again NYRR steps in a mess of their own making.

The problem was not the decision but the timing and lack of ability to communicate; the problem was not what they did but how they did it; the problem is the lack of any sense of connection to the community.

When I showed up at the expo on Thursday, having walked there from the blackout zone, to find not one outlet available for blacked out New Yorkers to charge their phones, it was clear that NYRR had not given any thought to the storm's impact on us, the members/New Yorkers. The continued statements that the marathon would not have diverted any resources or in any way hampered relief efforts underscores that disconnect.

Now that the race has been cancelled (and it should have been cancelled that's the only thing they did right in this entire mess), NYRR should be taking an active role in organizing runners to assist those in need instead of just saying "come to the expo, buy crap and donate it." Instead, other than badly worded emails that further dig them into a hole, there is radio silence from the NYRR leadership. (if you are looking for ways to help, there is a rather comprehensive list of grassroots groups that need help online at )

Once again, there is a failure of leadership and communication. Mary Wittenberg is not a leader or organizer, she might be in charge but she is not a leader.

An effective leader would have told everyone before the storm that she would do everything possible to make sure the race happened but also given clear warning that there was a good chance it would not, not build unrealistic expectations that it would for certain happen.

Then as soon as the magnitude of destruction was known, an effective leader would have stated clearly and in a timely way that there was no way for the race to continue, allowing out of town travelers to change their plans.

An effective leader would have seen that it was a no win situation and taken the lead and communicated effectively to minimize the damage to the organization, not waited for the last minute when there was already a large public outcry.

At that moment, NYRR should have taken an active role in connecting runners with local organizations in need of volunteers. That would have left fewer people upset and would have raised the image of runners in the eyes of all New Yorkers.

When the race was finally cancelled, the communication should have contained some level of apology for not acting faster. It should have taken responsibility, not shifted blame to "the media."

Instead she took a path that has everyone upset and has made runners look like a bunch of self-important privileged whiners.

I hope it has become clear to all that it is time for a change at NYRR. Mismanagement Mary needs to step down for the good of the New York City running community.

slightly redundant update, Nov 9
I posted this to the NYRR facebook page and a few people contacted me privately and suggested I add it to this rant, so here you go.


It seems to me that the NYRR has lost its way. Under Mary's leadership it has forgotten what it is to be a membership organization. It has become more centralized; members and running clubs that used to have a voice are now just paying money for a discount on races.

Part of this is reflected in the focus on the marathon. The NYRR propaganda now states that "everything else is just a warmup for the marathon."

That's insulting to us middle distance runners. That's insulting to the folks that run the other races because we love them. It shows that the entire focus of the organization has become the Marathon, the one big money maker and high profile race.

Once, sponsors were sought for races to facilitate the mission of the organization: to enhance the lives of runners in NYC. Now membership is sought so it can be sold to the sponsors (and sponsors are being sought not for individual races, but on a more large scale and generic way). It's like the NYRR has become facebook, we the members are the value that is sold to the sponsors for profit.

The NYRR is no longer for the runners; it's no longer a membership organization; it's now more of like a sporting goods store that has a discount club that you join to get a discount. A membership organization makes it decisions based on what's best for the membership as a whole; a membership organization gives members a voice. NYRR is a corporation hiding behind the tax breaks of its non-profit status.

Mary should have been thinking about the image of the NYRR as a whole and not just making the marathon happen.

She should have given consideration to the NYRR members and other New Yorkers that were impacted by the storm, and thought about how they would be negatively impacted by thousands of people traveling to town for a race that was not going to happen. She should have understood the media image of tens of thousands of runners moving through blacked out areas, closing streets that could have been used by relief efforts, even if the Mayor was not. That's her job. She failed.

The race should have been cancelled much earlier. The idea that the NYRR keeps putting out there, that somehow the Post had whipped New Yorkers into a frenzy and that we were going to be attacked by hordes of angry thugs is just not in touch with reality.

Mismanagement Mary should have acted with the larger picture in mind, she did not. She should have been a leader in a time of crisis, she was not. She should do what's right and step down (since the dissenting members of the Board have been pushed out since she took over, there's no chance of her being fired by the Board, our only hope is appealing to her sense of what is right for the long term health of the organization as a whole.

The NYRR's lack of ability to communicate, and get ahead of this story and come out looking good is her fault. For that, and her other mismanagement moments in the past year, she should step down for the good of the organization.

Anyone know if Kathrine Switzer is looking for a job? I'd love to see her drafted to take over the helm at NYRR.