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Fundraising's long, lonely roads

I'm running a marathon! I'm climbing a mountain! I'm raising awareness! It's for a good cause! Hey -- is this thing on?

September 17, 2007|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Earlier this month, Tim Borland set out to run the equivalent of 63 marathons in 63 days, consecutively, to raise money and awareness for a rare degenerative disease.

About the same time, a group of fathers began cycling across the country to help combat a rare form of children's cancer.

A New York man is in the midst of a decade-long goal to scale 10 mountains in as many years for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's research.

And a local gym owner recently spent 24 hours on an elliptical trainer to raise money for Lou Gehrig's disease.

All hope for copious dollars and national media attention for their gee-whiz exploits, but most people will never hear of their endeavors or make donations to their cause. News organizations are beset with pitches to cover such Herculean events, and many of these well-meaning men and women, most of whom have zero background in publicity, have no idea that their grueling physical feats are paltry compared to what it takes to get the "Today" show to call back.

In this realm of personal marketing, as it's called, few reap big-time national attention, says Rich Honack, adjunct professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "Most of these people are getting pledges from family, friends and colleagues -- it's really a close niche, and it's rare that someone breaks out of that."

Compelling a total stranger to give money is tough, he adds, especially if that stranger hasn't been touched by the cause or has no connection to it. There's a trust factor, Honack says: "People want to make sure their money is truly going to help people, not to overhead."

But onward these do-gooders run, cycle, climb, swim -- and stumble, most of them footing the bill for the exploits themselves.

"Americans tend to be optimistic people," says Jerry Swerling, director of public relations studies at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "If you do the right thing, good things will follow."

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'We had to do something'

MoNDay will be Borland's 15th day on his 63-day cross-country tour. The idea came about after the 31-year-old endurance coach from Los Gatos, Calif., befriended Jim Achilles, his church pastor, then started training him for a marathon. The pastor's 16-year-old daughter Cathryn has ataxia-telangiectasia (a progressive disease that causes degeneration of the cerebellum, gradually leading to poor muscle control). An ultra-distance runner, triathlete and adventure racer, Borland wanted to do something to help.

Doing one marathon to draw some attention didn't seem like enough. The idea snowballed into two months' worth of marathons, culminating with the New York City Marathon on Nov. 4. He also decided to run while pushing a stroller, sometimes carrying a child who has the disease, sometimes with only a sign listing names of afflicted children.

Borland began working with the A-T Children's Project (a nonprofit dedicated to raising money for research) and its public relations firm, and word of his undertaking began to spread. The tour's main sponsor, Swiss-based Octapharma, which develops and sells plasma products, is helping with trip expenses.

The logistics of traveling, setting up running routes and coordinating with local media hasn't been easy, even with a small crew helping him. That hasn't daunted Borland, whose wife and two young children are also along for the ride.

It's the poignant stories of the children and families coping with A-T that will motivate people to give, he believes: "The disease is just horrible, and it grips people. Our hope is that in the end, we'll see the amount of funds coming in increase, and that will allow us to do more clinical trials and research."

Vincent Simone decided to scale 10 mountains around the world in 10 years, to raise funds and awareness for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, afflictions that have struck his mother and father-in-law. The 40-year-old architect's apprentice from Amawalk, N.Y., says it's been a "tough sell" so far. "People have a hard time understanding the scope, and the reason you're trying to do something like this."

Of his extended time frame, Simone says, "Each mountain is a point to look back and see if any strides have been made in Parkinson's or Alzheimer's research, and a chance to look ahead to the coming year, what governments will do, what people will do to step up the game."

To date, according to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, Simone has raised $1,350 and generated some press coverage in local papers. Last year's attempt at reaching the summit of Mont Blanc in the Alps was cut short by bad weather conditions, and when Simone, who has nearly a decade of mountaineering experience, asked his nine-member team to come back two days later to try again, no one showed up. He did it alone, coming within 500 feet of the top.

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