Bruce Cleland: The First Charity Runner

Bruce ran for his daughter Georgia in 1988. Now she's running to help others. Photo: Mike Buscher

Flying Blind

By the winter of 1988, there was only detail to work out—the race.

“I asked Bruce, what race are you going to do,” Dixon says. “And he says, oh, the New York City Marathon, of course.

“How are you going to get 38 entries to the New York City Marathon?” Dixon asked.

“You’re going to get them for me,” Cleland said.

As a former winner, Dixon certainly had some pull with the New York Road Runners. But entries to the race, much like today, were subject to a lottery.

“I told him, I couldn’t get those entries,” Dixon says. “Fred Lebow (the NYC Marathon founder) was very understanding, but he had rules with the city. He just couldn’t give them away like that.”

“I told Fred about what Bruce was doing, and I asked him to meet with Bruce to tell him why they couldn’t get so many entries. And Fred agreed to meet with him,” Dixon says. “I know he’d planned to go to the meeting to tell him no. But somehow, after hearing the story, Bruce ended up getting his entries.”

Team assembled, race entries in place, fundraising on track and an elite runner to offer training advice—now the Team in Training had to make sure they lived up to their end of the deal.

“We were a tight group,” Cleland says. “We’d meet once a month in a restaurant or bar, and everyone would come. I remember being impressed at how dedicated people were to making this happen.”

In addition to Dixon’s own advice, he brought other sponsored athletes in town to meet with the team and offer support. They turned to Jeff Galloway’s marathon training book for guidance and started eating properly and drinking less.

“We really were flying blind,” Cleland says. “We didn’t know what would happen at the end. All of these elite runners were telling us what to do—and it seemed to be working—but we didn’t know what would happen when it actually came to the marathon.”

The training and advice did pay off. All 38 members of the team finished.

“It wasn’t necessarily pretty,” says Cleland, who finished in 5:20. “But everyone crossed the line—and every bet was paid off.” In the process, the first Team in Training raised an astounding $320,000 for the Leukemia Society of America.

“It was humbling, to raise that amount of money,” Cleland says.

“That’s an extraordinary amount of money for someone to raise,” says George Omiros, executive vice president, chief campaign and field development officer for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Omiros was with the organization in 1988, and realized that Cleland was on to something.

“Bruce had done this for the Westchester chapter, and it was obvious that this was a phenomenal concept he had put together,” Omiros says. “Within a year, chapters had started around the country. He had created this new niche.”

Since the 1988 New York City Marathon, the numbers are staggering—more than 570,000 people have competed in a marathon, half-marathon, century ride or hiking adventure to raise money for Team in Training. They’ve raised $1.32 billion to fund blood cancer research and patient support.

“You want to know the legacy of Team in Training?” Dixon asks.

“In the ’90s, I was back in New Zealand, and I had a good friend who was diagnosed with Leukemia and given three months to live,” he says. “There was a new drug that New Zealand hadn’t approved yet called Gleevec. He was able to go to the United States and get that Gleevec, and he survived. My friend is still alive today because of a drug was discovered through the grants of Leukemia Team in Training.”

And Georgia Cleland? She’s now 28, cancer-free, and completed her first half-marathon in 2012 to raise funds for Team in Training.

“I went down to the (Disney Half Marathon) to watch her finish,” Cleland says. “How the marathon has changed just amazes me.

“You see any shape and body type that you can imagine,” he says. “You don’t have to be built like a marathoner. But most important is the human effect. The sense of accomplishment and the way that it changes people’s lives. That’s available to so many people now.”

Perhaps the greatest legacy from Team in Training? The survival rate for a 2-year-old diagnosed with Leukemia today is 95 percent.

Cleland, who now lives in Maryland, hopes that the attention Team in Training has garnered continues to open up running to a wider population.

“You learn how good it feels to be healthy,” he says. “You really appreciate the camaraderie that comes from doing a race like a marathon. It’s a life-changing thing.”

Dixon now spends most his time working on the Kids Marathon Foundation, a charity he founded to help fight childhood obesity. He credits Cleland with creating the template for people to make a difference while committing to a healthy lifestyle.

“He will never take the credit,” Dixon says. “He’ll say it was this person or that person, but we know the truth: It was Bruce. He empowered us all.”

This piece first appeared in the January 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.


About The Author: 

Jeff Banowetz is Competitor’s Midwest Regional Editor.

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