Training for an endurance event like the Pittsburgh half or full marathon is tough.
The miles you have to put in the bank to make sure you're properly prepared not only wreak havoc on the body but also can rattle the psyche. Especially if you try to go solo.
At least that's what Sarah Hauer, 35, discovered when she signed up for the 13.1-mile footrace in 2010.
Although the Monroeville administrative assistant registered early enough, she never really got into the training because there was no one to push and motivate her. Big mistake.
"When I woke up at 3 a.m. on race morning, I decided I wasn't ready. So I skipped it."
Clearly, she needed a better plan if she was going to try this again.
That blueprint for success came two years later, in the form of running and raising money for an organization she'd been volunteering for.
When Ms. Hauer went on the website to register for the 2012 Pittsburgh half-marathon, she noticed a link for the Run for a Reason charity program. Designed to help the marathon give back to the community that supports it, it allows local and national charitable organizations to use the run to raise money for their coffers. Runners receive free race entry, but in turn have to raise a set amount for a charity they sign up with
A lot of altruistic people are out there. A raging success that's grown to include 41 official charities, Run for a Reason has helped raise more than $5 million since 2009.
Animal Rescue League's Paws Over Pittsburgh program is what caught Ms. Hauer's eye. Started in 2010 with just 43 runners, it's raised tens of thousands of dollars for the East Liberty shelter's medical expenses, spay/neuter programs and additional community outreach.
"I thought, 'If I'm going to give my money for something, why not this?' " said Ms. Hauer, who had adopted a dog from the shelter the year before. Just as important, "I knew if I was running for charity, I wouldn't back out."
Not only did she finish the 2012 half marathon in under 2 hours, but she was so inspired by her success that she signed up for (and completed) the full marathon in 2013. She'll do the full again this year, as well as one leg of the marathon relay.
"I'm proud of it," she said.
Ms. Hauer is far from the only one doggin' it. This year, Paws Over Pittsburgh has registered close to 350 runners, earning the nonprofit the distinction of being the marathon group with the most runners running for charity.
Much of its success lies in getting the word out: Volunteers actively recruit at races both small and large such as North Park's Spring Thaw and March Mad Dash. But they've also been able to tap into America's love affair with their pets -- and compassion for dogs and cats that are homeless.
"People do love their animals," said marketing director Ann Yeager.
Run for a Reason is a win-win for both parties: The marathon doesn't have to recruit for those race participants while the charities gain exposure through the Pittsburgh Marathon's vigorous communications program, which includes an e-newsletter and e-blasts that reach some 90,000 people and a strong social media presence.
Part of Paws Over Pittsburgh's appeal, said some of its runners, is that unlike many charity running groups, there is not a rigorous training schedule that must be followed: other than a one-day program through the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill that touches on stretching, nutrition and necessary mileage, runners are free to train on their own (although group members often get together for long runs). In addition, fundraising goals aren't too ambitious for those who hate to ask others for money ($500 for the marathon, $350 for the half and $750 for a marathon relay team). The marathon sets up a designated website via Crowdrise.com that makes it easy for friends and family to donate.
Individual fundraisers run the usual gamut from bake sales and candy sales, raffles and skating parties to hosting wine tastings and guest bartending at a local watering hole. Other runners, such as Pete Doel of South Park, a veteran marathoner who's a certified coach with Road Runners Club of America, simply take to Facebook and try to "guilt" people into donating.
"I've always been an animal lover, and think it's important to adopt out of shelters. This is my way of helping," he said.
The popular fundraiser this year is a $10 raffle playing off the Pennsylvania Lottery Big 4 number on April 5 for a pair of tickets to the final Penguins game on April 13.
But runners also get creative -- and personal. This year, local author Barbara Ford will donate a portion of the proceeds of the sale of her book about a rescue dog, "I Wonder What He's Thinking," to the cause. Last year, executive director Dan Rossi raised $10,000 by promising to get the shelter's logo tattooed on his calf. He's hoping to raise another $10,000 this year by pledging to get the marathon logo tattooed on the other leg.
In addition to asking her classmates for donations, 6-year-old Claire Conti of Indiana Township will hold a seven-hour Spinathon April 13 at Alexander's Athletic Club in Harmar, where her mother, Cassie, works as a Spin instructor. While dressed as Wonder Woman, no less.
Last year, the Hartwood Elementary kindergartner raised more than $2,500 for Paws Over Pittsburgh after Ms. Yeager asked if she might be interested in running the one-mile Kids Fun Run held the day before the marathon. She'd been to the Animal Rescue League to drop off the $1,600 in donated goods she'd collected for the shelter via an Amazon wish list and, well, everyone was impressed.
"She's always been a caring spirit," said Mrs. Conti. "So she took it and ran."
With so many runners, organizers hope they'll be able to beat the $150,000 they raised last year for this, the league's 105th year in the business. The need for donations is as big as ever, in that the shelter does more adoptions than any other free shelter locally, noted Ms. Yeager. In all, 24,561 animals received services in 2013, including 5,512 animals that were either adopted or reunited with family.
In addition, its wildlife center in Verona treated 2,746 wild animals native to Pennsylvania -- squirrels, groundhogs, raccoons and a lot of birds -- that arrived injured and had to be rehabilitated, with a 62.9 percent success rate. The national average is just 33 percent.
"When you're asking people for money, and it's not for you, but for a greater good and greater cause, it's easy," said Janice Gatt, who is fundraising for this year's half marathon for Paws Over Pittsburgh. No more than three months into it, the Shaler accountant already has surpassed her goal by $200.
"It's about reminding people that every little bit counts," she said, "and showing them what can be done with the money." A $30 donation, for instance, covers the cost of micro-chipping a cat or dog.
That, and giving yourself one more reason to get out there and run.
Interested in running for charity in the sold-out Pittsburgh half or full marathon? There's still time to sign up with one of the 41 official groups that make up the Run for a Reason charity program. Deadline is April 1; for more info, www.pittsburghmarathon.com/ charities.