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Some people contributed to Japanese disaster relief by writing a check, others by gathering items to donate. Seigo Masubuchi chose to help by running 26.2 miles -- in a pig costume.
Masubuchi, director of international development for the St. Paul Saints, ran the Twin Cities Marathon in October dressed as Mudonna, the baseball team's fuzzy, pink, porcine mascot. The St. Paul resident, a native of Tokyo, raised more than $4,500 to help his home country recover from March's devastating earthquake and tsunami.
Oh, and while he was at it, he also happened to set a world record.
An experienced runner and triathelete, Masubuchi finished the 26.2-mile course in 4:05:23, about 10 minutes faster than the previous record for running a marathon in a mascot costume. Masubuchi had read about that achievement, by a Toronto man dressed as a character called Jefferson the Dog, in Runner's World magazine.
"One day I was running by myself and just connected the dots," said Masubuchi, 39, who lives in St. Paul. "I thought, 'Why don't I run as Mudonna to raise money for Japan, and at the same time break a world record?'"
It sounds so simple when he puts it that way, but of course the feat wasn't easy. He trained in the cumbersome costume for months in advance, running in smaller races, including a sweltering half marathon on the Fourth of July. The Mudonna suit weighs nearly 20 pounds at the beginning of a race -- and much more than that at the end, when it's drenched in sweat, Masubuchi said. Bystanders who saw Masubuchi running as Mudonna kept asking him whether he had lost a bet. So he started wearing a vest printed with donation information (saintsbaseball.com/funisgood/runforrecovery/).
"People wonder why this pink pig is running," he said.
You don't necessarily need to don a pig costume to raise money for a nonprofit cause. But these days more and more people are making contributions by lacing up their own running shoes.
The number of local races, runs, walks, bike rides and so on has soared over the past decade, said Shane Stenzel, manager of special events for the Minneapolis Park Board. Last year, the Park Board issued 200 permits for local events, double the number in 1999. Although these permits covered all sorts of activities, from art fairs to golf tournaments, Stenzel said about 130 went to runs, walks and other events involving public participation. All raised money for charities, usually through pledges or race entry fees. (Fees for the permits themselves constitute another form of giving back; the money -- which last year was more than $1 million -- goes toward youth park programs, such as development of the Neiman Sports Complex.)
"More nonprofits and charities are getting involved in this sort of thing," said K.J. Leinberger, a spokesperson for Life Time Fitness Inc., which holds a number of fundraising races locally, including a Turkey Day 5K that last year collected 10,000 pounds of donated food. "Now I think everyone from breast cancer to the Humane Society to the March of Dimes is seeing that people are trying to be more active. They can give something back while they're working on their fitness."
All the new races and runs aren't luring participants away from older events; on the contrary, established events are also seeing a boom in participation. The seven-year-old Team Ortho in Minneapolis sponsors races with the twin goals of promoting an active lifestyle and raising money for orthopedic research, said race director Mike Swanson. Four years ago, Team Ortho held just one race, the Halloween-themed Monster Dash, with about 5,000 participants. This year, they'll have more than 40,000 runners in eight races, and they split the Monster Dash into a 5K in Minneapolis and a 10-miler and half marathon on the St. Paul side of the river, with about 11,000 runners altogether.
"We've become quite successful with this," Swanson said. "Registrations are going great. We're close to full, which is a good problem to have."
Although Minnesotans are famously interested in both fitness and giving, the growth of fundraising races isn't just a local trend. Nationally, running events generated $1.1 billion for charitable causes last year, according to Ryan Lamppa of Running USA. That's nearly twice the amount they raised in 2002.
The recession is probably a factor, Stenzel said. He noted that events increase as the economy nosedived and charities had a harder time getting people to part with their ever scarcer disposable income.
"So instead of mass mailing saying, 'Give to charity', they're looking for other ways to do it," Stenzel said. "People are more inclined to go and do something fun than they are just to open up their wallet and hand you money."
Nonprofits use races and runs to build public awareness in an upbeat way, which especially helps when their mission is a serious or somber one. And the fitness aspect is a bonus if the organization's efforts are health-related.
For example, Bloomington-based Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), holds dozens of events locally and around the country. "Suicide is a tragedy," said Dan Reidenberg, SAVE's executive director. "If people can come out together and feel supported, they don't feel so alone. They can do something fun, it gives back, and they can feel good about it."
For participants, committing to a race is one way to stay accountable, Leinberger said. If you sign up but don't follow through, "it's not only yourself that you're letting down. You're letting down a charity."
The proliferation of races has encouraged more people to be active and get in shape, said Virginia Brophy-Achman, executive director of St. Paul-based Twin Cities in Motion, which organizes the Twin Cities Marathon and other events. Marathons have been made more accessible by raising cut-off times from the once-typical four hours to six hours or more, enabling less experienced runners to participate -- and ultimately fueling more interest in the sport.
"It was really hard-core in the '80s, if you couldn't run [a marathon in] under 4 [hours] you couldn't run," Brophy-Achman said. "I'm assuming that for a lot of those people they get hooked, and they keep running."
Katy Read • 612-673-4583