Sonia O’Sullivan: What’s the motivation behind a charity run?

People come together to raise much-needed funds and awareness around an issue

My motivation for running has changed a lot over the years, and has certainly come a long way from the annual Milk Run in Cobh. That was my first experience of a charity run, and the truth is I didn’t know or care much about what we raising the money for.

The run took place around the Great Island. When I was still in primary school it was always a bit of an adventure to get the chance to go to the back of the island – an even greater adventure to do it on foot.

Back then I was just mad to run anywhere. All I can remember about the charity part is that each runner was given a sponsorship card, which had about 10 lines that you had to fill in. The idea was to go around knocking on the neighbours’ doors, looking for them to sponsor you 10p a mile. The lap of the Great Island was 10 miles, so once complete you might collect £1 in sponsorship. Even up to £5 if you were lucky to get 50p per mile.

There were no big sponsors, although it was supported by the local dairy. You would run the first five miles, then have a rest and a glass of milk straight from churns in a farmer’s field out the back of the island. When you had regrouped with your friends you would set off again, full of energy for the remaining five miles.


Even at age 11 I gave no real thought to the distance or the effort, just loved the excitement and energy delivered in the build-up to the Milk Run. It was definitely a run though, never a race.

Very generous

As my competitive running career began to wind down I was asked to get involved in runs to help promote and raise the profile of different charities, and straight away found Irish people very generous with their time and sponsorship.

There is a realisation that a run raises funds for charitable causes that otherwise would struggle to be financially viable. Ultimately, it’s about improving the lives of people who are impaired by an illness or condition that leaves them unable to live what we often view as a normal healthy lifestyle.

And there’s no better way of raising funds than by doing something healthy such as running.

It has reached the stage now where events such as the London Marathon raise millions of pounds each year for charity. The London Marathon is so big now that people get in through the back door by signing up for charities.

Numerous marathons around the world have followed suit, and this further fuels the charity element of these races.

It also operates on a much smaller scale, where a local run might be set up to fund a person or project in a town or village. The purpose is still the same: to normalise the illness and conditions that people suffer, help them to be better included in society, share their story and fulfil their purpose in life. Often the charity is close to a person’s heart, and is the driving force to get them off the couch and maybe suffer a bit themselves.

It also helps that a charity run often makes you part of a team: there can be organised training, fund-raising non-running activities, and a sense of belonging and a purpose to the physical challenge you have set yourself.

This is very much the other side of the elite running scene, although not many races would survive with just a few fast runners racing down the road – it’s only when backed up by thousands of charity participants, all running to raise awareness of a cause or badly needed cash, that they survive.

In 2008 I ran the Boston Marathon in aid of Irish Guide Dogs. By then I wasn’t thinking about winning as I might once have, but I still needed a purpose: I had managed to secure €1,000 from Paddy Power for every minute I was able to run under three hours. This was the motivation I needed when my fast start came back to bite me after struggling up Heartbreak Hill (at about 21 miles). My head and my heart were still full of energy, but my legs were not so willing to play along, and I was reduced to walking.

Yet knowing I had set myself up to raise funds kept me going to reach the finish eight minutes under the target time. I could cash in for Irish Guide Dogs, which needs to raise a 80 per cent of its funds each year from private and corporate donations.

In 2013 I was asked to come on board for the Great Pink Run, a new 5km and 10km run in aid of Breast Cancer Ireland. In the beginning it was looking for some athletic expertise to help drive the run forward, and initially I came on board as race leader, still chasing times and writing a training blog each week.

Now in its ninth year in Ireland, I’ve come to realise the Great Pink Run is about so much more than fast times and winning prizes. Just like the Milk Run back in Cobh, it’s a sort of adventure and coming together of people, raising much-needed funds for breast cancer treatment and research, while also raising awareness around the issue.

It takes a lot of money to work on a cure, to research a solution, and this would not be possible without events such as the Great Pink Run.


This year the Great Pink Run branches out to Chicago, the event exploring new territory in a US city known for its Irish links. There is a 5km and a 10km run set for Diversey Harbor on October 5th, women, men and children running together to highlight the cause while raising funds.

One hundred per cent of the funds raised will go straight back to breast cancer research and treatment.

All that has come a long way from the Milk Run in Cobh, yet the Great Pink Run is also about sharing positive energy that the event brings and gives back.

When you see or hear about the benefits from the funds raised and the lives touched, it should be all the motivation you need to keep on running.