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The Philadelphia Inquirer

A couple of years and 130 pounds ago, Andy Aubin had reached his tipping point. The 36-year-old Hatboro resident, known to friends as "Big Andy" for his 330-pound heft, knew he had to make a drastic lifestyle change. He decided to document his progress in that most public of venues: the Internet.

He picked up two hobbies - running and blogging - and found a new, virtual fitness community along the way.

"It played a huge part in keeping me motivated and on track," he said.

So, when he wanted to raise money for the American Cancer Society - he was running the Broad Street Run for the nonprofit's DetermiNation program, which requires a minimum of $500 in pledges - it made sense to reach out to that community for support.

His solution: the Sweet Cheeks Virtual 5K, a fund-raising run to be held Feb. 14, 15, and 16.

The location? Anywhere participants choose.

A virtual race might, at first, appear to contradict the ethos of charity runs, which often purport to be as much about awareness and community-building as about fund-raising. But as social media expand notions of community - and as donors become more conscious of nonprofits' overhead - virtual events are piquing wider interest, from independent fund-raisers such as Aubin to established foundations such as Wynnewood's Alex's Lemonade Stand.

Last year, Aubin's 5K attracted 150 runners at $25 apiece; he cleared $2,500 for the American Cancer Society. (Register at

On a larger scale, in September, Alex's Lemonade Stand debuted its first all-virtual fund-raiser, the Million-Mile Run - challenging participants to raise money for childhood-cancer research and to run a collective million miles over the course of the month.

The nonprofit's co-executive director, Jay Scott, came up with the idea after he and a group of fellow distance-running enthusiasts scattered from Connecticut to Philadelphia engaged in a friendly 40-day race, using an app to track their total mileage between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

"We were having a great time," he said, "and I thought a lot of other people would enjoy doing this, too."

The outcome - though shy of a million miles - was extraordinary.

"We had 5,000 participants in the first year, and that's more participants than we've had in any other event," he said. Runners and walkers logged 250,000 miles and raised $500,000. In its second year, Scott expects, the event could become the organization's biggest fund-raiser.

It's also less costly to operate than a traditional 5K, such as the organization's annual Lemon Run.

"You don't have to rent space, you don't have to arrange for parking, you don't have to have the timing company there," Scott said. "We don't even offer them T-shirts."

The virtual event also opened up fresh opportunities for publicity: Instead of merely drawing Philadelphia-area media, there were news stories about local Million-Mile Run teams around the world.

In recent years, Alex's Lemonade Stand has added a virtual option to its 5-kilometer Lemon Run as well. Scott thinks more nonprofits will follow suit, because it's a way to expand an organization's footprint with minimal investment.

It also makes events more inclusive.

"We have supporters all over the country and around the world, so we wanted to give them a way to do something in unison with what we were doing here in Philly," he said.

Among them is Cpl. Tim Sullivan, 31, who was introduced to the nonprofit through his sister, Jennifer Kelly, a foundation employee. Sullivan and Kelly ran the Lemon Run together a few times - but during the 2012 run, the Marine Corps reservist and Havertown resident was deployed to Afghanistan.

So while the Lemon Runners enjoyed a crisp fall morning on Kelly Drive, Sullivan ran in Camp Leatherneck, a base in Helmand, Afghanistan - under desert conditions, in a Marine jogging uniform and, as was required, carrying his rifle.

Since Sullivan was out on a mission on the date of the actual event (and, with the time difference, it would have been a 2 a.m. jog) he did the run when he had free time and was back at the base.

That flexibility is part of the appeal - though it's also a hurdle, since distances and times are often logged on an honor system. Some events utilize mileage-tracking apps to make things more official.

Interest in virtual races has lately spawned a small industry.

In return for a cut of the proceeds, companies host race registrations, coordinate social media efforts and send out medals and even bibs. (Race "bling" is critically important in the virtual-running community. "I've discovered that you don't get any response whatsoever until you post a picture of what the medal looks like," Aubin said. "They'll make the decision of what races to run based on the medals.")

Courtney Klein, of New York City, and her mother, Cynthia Elder, of Maryland, are partners in a 7-month-old virtual-race start-up called Jost Running Co., which organizes monthly races benefiting various charities.

"A lot of people using us on a monthly basis are people who live in isolated places where there aren't a ton of local races," Klein said. "Or, there are people on a serious weight-loss journey. They want to do a 5K with less intensity, or they want to do a half-marathon but they're not sure they can do it all in one day."

In January, a Philadelphia-based wellness start-up called City Fit Girls, run by Keira Smalls, 24, held a virtual race in partnership with Jost. They offered a four-week virtual training program leading up to the virtual race.

Of course, running alone may not hold the same thrill as racing a crowd.

But for those who want to show off their speed - or even just the fact that they finished - well, that's what Facebook's for.

"An important part of running a big race is having those strangers cheer for you, when you're running on empty, and exhausted and kind of want to quit. It gives you the motivation to push yourself," Klein said. "The Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is sort of our version of a cheering crowd."






February 13, 2014


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