JUNE 2014: It’s the 17th May 2014 and it’s shaping up to be the hottest day of the year so far.
On Hove sea front promenade and spilling out onto the adjacent lawns, I’m surrounded by Supermen, Spidermen, Wonder Women, escaped convicts, vagabonds and a plethora of other heroes and villains.
They’re all on the verge of tackling either a 5km or 10km run, those in full body suits looking most uncomfortable even before their race in the ascending heat begins. The battle is between the heroes and the villains, the winning team being the first to get 100 finishers across the line.
British Military Fitness put the entrants through a heroes-themed warm-up prior to the start. The kids have already finished their races – a 500m dash and a mile race, also in splendid costume – many now encouraging their mums and dads from the side lines.
This is the 10th anniversary of the race.
Heroes Run began in 2005 with a turn-out of just 241, but has grown at a remarkable rate over the decade, and in 2014 just shy of 1500 crossed the finish line. The victors in this year’s 5k and 10k races were the Heroes, the Villains a bitter second!!
But the Heroes Run, albeit heaps of fun and one of the most wonderful spectacles on Brighton’s calendar of seaside events, is about so much more!
I caught up with event co-founder and Fundraising Manager, James Macdonald, to find out about his Pass It On Africa charity. How did it all begin? What have the event proceeds funded? And what plans and aspirations does he have for the Heroes Run going forward?
So James, behind the spectacle that is the Heroes Run, what’s it all about?
Heroes Run is the main fund raising event for our Pass It On Africa charity. It’s all about raising money to build schools in some of the most poverty stricken parts of Africa.
And what prompted you to get involved back in 2005?
It actually all began back in October 2004 when myself and a friend, Matt Lambert, ran the Dublin Marathon. Matt and I were both fitness instructors at Riptide Gym. A mutual friend had just returned from a trip to Nairobi, Kenya. He told us about a half-built primary school there called Tenderfoot, which was looking for financial help to the tune of £1500 to provide a pair of shoes for each child. Our friend suspected that Matt and I might be good candidates to run a marathon to raise the money!
I think it was just after the marathon, over a couple of Guinnesses in a Dublin pub, that Matt and I discussed how we might take the fundraising to another level. We came up with the crazy idea to try and put on an event on Brighton sea front, involving people wearing ‘super hero’ costume for a run along the promenade.
I managed to gather enough pennies together to afford a flight to Nairobi in the December so that I could see the school for myself and be assured it was all legitimate.
A further £5000 was needed to complete the construction of the school.
Heroes Run (or the Super Heroes Challenge, as it was back then) was born! The event was staged in March 2005. We were hoping we could get 50 runners to turn out. We got 241. And the event raised £3500.
Had you previously been involved with anything like this? Any experience of organising running events? What was your background before setting up the charity and the Heroes Run?
Neither of us had any prior experience of organising an event. I’d had a number of different jobs. Apart from my Fitness Instructor roles, I’d worked in a ski-resort chalet in Courchevel, France, and also been a Teaching Assistant. Matt, when not being a Fitness Instructor, is an awesome artist.
How much have you managed to raise so far? And what have the funds been spent on?
To date, Heroes Run has helped Pass It On Africa raise over £500,000, as well as raising over £100,000 for other charities.
Apart from funding the completion of the Tenderfoot infant school, we’ve also raised enough to pay for the full construction of the subsequent Tenderfoot junior school.
Away from Nairobi, we’ve gone on to fund the building of a school in Ghana and another two in The Gambia.
Sometimes, prior to funding the construction, we have first had to purchase the land. And, in addition, we’ve also been able to pay for school resources as well as sponsoring some children.
Do you keep in touch with the schools, post-construction, to see the fruits of all your hard work?
Matt and I have both been to visit some of the schools. We’d love to visit more often, but it’s simply not affordable. Any trips there are funded out of our own pockets. We each have our own personal financial commitments at home. I have a wife and an 18-month-old daughter and a new baby on the way in October. So unfortunately I’ve not been to Africa since 2010.
We do make a point of keeping in touch though, and it’s incredibly rewarding to hear that the kids are now passing their school exams. When we formed the charity in 2005, the school kids at Tenderfoot were aged 3 and 4. Of course, they’re now in their early teens, so it’s great to hear how they’re progressing. These are children who a decade ago had little or no prospect of an education.
Aside from the funding, we’re delighted to see some local Brighton teachers getting involved, as a number of them have gone out to the schools, during UK holiday time, to do some voluntary teaching stints.
What would you say has been the highlight of the last 10 years?
There have been so many. The first event was particularly special, having almost five times as many runners as we’d expected. But now, simply the fact that the event is still going after 10 years is pretty amazing.
There must have been some huge challenges along the way? What has been the hardest part? Have you thought of giving it all up at any point?
Always, the toughest part is that neither Matt nor I are wealthy. We started it all at an age when most people are concentrating on their own careers. We’ve always had to try and fit the charity stuff into our spare time. I got a job as a postman for a few years so that I could finish my paid job early in the day to allow time to concentrate on the fundraising. But no, we’re not giving up.
I imagine you have a good team around you, to put on such a successful event?
Yes, we have a great team of volunteers. The event and the fundraising just wouldn’t function without the generosity of their time.
So what’s next for Pass It On Africa?
The projects in the three separate countries have come to a natural end now. Whilst the Heroes Run will continue each year, I think the structure of the fund distribution will need to change going forward. To immerse ourselves in new projects would involve us making periodic visits to Africa, which we can’t afford to do. For that reason, it probably makes more sense for us to use the Heroes Run proceeds to fund other charities which have similar objectives to ours.
In another 10 years some of those children at Tenderfoot School, who we first met at age 3 and 4 with little hope for their future, could well be getting professional qualifications. That would be just fantastic to witness.
And, on a personal note, I would love it if the event could continue for many years into the future, with my children eventually getting involved and taking it forward.
And if anyone would like to make a donation now, what do they need to do?
Any donation would be much appreciated. Please go to http://www.heroesrun.org.uk/content/donatenow
James, huge congratulations to you and all the team for all your hard work and dedication to such a fantastic cause! Keep up the great work!
To view more photos from this year’s Heroes Run, please see http://riptide.co.uk/heroes-run-2014
By Mike Bannister
Photo: Matt Bartsch, Riptide Fit Camp