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Does Race for Life have a Shelf Life?

24 July 2012

I’ve run (okay, jogged and sometimes walked) the Race for Life on numerous occasions.

Cancer Research UK, in collaboration with Tesco, has made it to the grand status of the UK’s largest women-only fundraising event. Not bad for an event that started out with a few hundred people in Battersea Park in 1994. Undoubtedly you have been asked to sponsor one of the six million women who have taken part over the years, or seen the inflatable start and finish lines at one of the 240 events which now take place annually throughout the UK.

My sister and I first took part ten years ago following the devastating loss of our Auntie Rene to breast cancer in her forties, in an attempt to relieve our helplessness and show support to our four young cousins who were left without a mother. This became a bit of a tradition, and year on year there were more people to add to our pink panels to run ‘in memory of’ or ‘in celebration of’ as other relatives and friends’ parents went through the ordeal of facing cancer.

More recently our mother and my sister’s mother-in-law have joined our team to help them stay active and ensure that they are fit and able to walk the 5km as the years pass and the aches and pains increase. It’s turned into an annual family event with my dad, brother-in-law and nephew cheering from the sidelines as the four of us try to achieve or maintain different personal goals.

The festival atmosphere, pink wigs and fairy wings, and tannoy-happy local radio DJs do a great job in boosting participants’ sense of involvement and ‘feel good’ factor. Nonetheless, the minute’s silence to remind everyone of the reason behind the day never fails to induce throat lumps and tear-filled eyes.

But how much bigger and broader can it get? With sponsorship fatigue on the increase, people are expected to ramp up the challenge level: one particularly sporty colleague openly laughed in my face for requesting a few quid for doing what is essentially a reasonable Sunday morning run. Has it reached a tipping point where it becomes meaningless for repeat participants, and impossible to see the difference the fundraising is going to make, aside from being able to organise bigger and more frequent runs?

I think that can’t be the case just yet. Growing year on year over the past two decades, Race for Life has hit on a winning combination of accessibility, and personal resonance. It’s a channel for the desire to do something in the face of feeling helpless, without being a self-flagellating feat of endurance. And for many it can be the gateway into reassessing their fitness and improving activity levels more broadly, which is of course in line with cancer prevention advice. I shall be making sure that those dear to me continue to use this as an annual health benchmark, with any sponsorship money we raise as an added bonus.


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