Community Sports

Bellingham man raises $130,000 for South Africa town in 56-mile run

Bob Marvel nearing the finish line of the Comrades Marathon on Sunday, May 31. At this point he had completed 55 miles in just over 10 hours,30 minutes.
Bob Marvel nearing the finish line of the Comrades Marathon on Sunday, May 31. At this point he had completed 55 miles in just over 10 hours,30 minutes. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Running 56 miles exhausts body, mind and spirit. It was passion for helping the people of South Africa that strengthened Bellingham’s Bob Marvel as he pushed through the pain and completed the Comrades Marathon in 10 hours, 48 minutes and 27 seconds.

With a goal of raising $2,000 per mile, donations rolled in. The end result was $130,000 going directly to the township of Khayelitsha, South Africa for building and sustaining a community center.

The center will feed, shelter and teach children to develop the skills necessary to better their lives, Marvel said.

In conjunction with an already-existing leadership development program in Africa — Teach One to Lead One — the funding from Marvel’s race donations will allow them to translate the program into local languages and hopefully begin a ripple effect that extends into future generations, he said.

Marvel’s dream is for Khayelitsha children to become educated and then incite radical change in their community, which currently has over 70 percent unemployment, thousands of orphans or abandoned children and rampant crime.

The Comrades Marathon is the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world, alternating directions between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. 2015 was an “up” year, beginning in Durban and gaining more than 2,100 feet of elevation overall, but more than three times that when the hilly terrain is accounted for. There is a strict cut-off time of 12 hours and multiple checkpoints a runner must have reached by a certain time to be able to continue the race.

Marvel finished 6,578th out of the 16,588 who started and completed the run.

Marvel’s journey to South Africa began three years ago when a friend suggested they run the Comrades by the time they turn 50.

Once the idea was planted, it could not be ignored, and about two years ago he committed to achieving this goal and began planning ways to make the race more than just a race. He founded the non-profit corporation Beyond Our Borders to encourage people to participate in something bigger than themselves by using their passions to positively impact the needs of the world, he said.

“I didn’t want to just go run this and check it off my bucket list,” Marvel said. “I wanted to leverage it for something more significant, more meaningful, beyond just me.”

Marvel began by thinking a goal of $1,000 per mile would be impressive but the support he received when he presented the idea before the board members at his church, pushed him to more than double that effort.

As the lead pastor of Cornwall Church, Marvel has done many fundraisers, outreach efforts and service projects associated with the church, but this race was something he wanted to do as a person, not a pastor, he said.

Through Beyond Our Borders, Marvel encouraged his race supporters to “own a mile” and donate the whole $2,000 as an individual, family or group. The first to do so were he and his wife, because he would never ask someone else to do something he was not willing to do himself, Marvel said.

Individual donations ranged from 3 cents to $10,000.

Running was not something Marvel enjoyed until later in life. He ran the Portland Marathon when he turned 35 to check “race” off his bucket list, fully expecting it to be his only big race.

He has since completed 30 full marathons. He ran the Boston Marathon six times and was two blocks away from the bombing in 2013.

To train for the Comrades, he ran the 2015 Chuckanut 50k and a few 40-mile practice runs or back-to-back 20-mile days.

Marvel said he was more nervous for the Comrades than he had ever been for a race before. He was in 50-degree weather back home but it was 83 degrees in South Africa the day of the race and he had to calm down the flood of “what if” questions running through his mind.

A team of nine people went with Marvel to South Africa to support him in his race, providing him with electrolyte gels and nutrients at checkpoints, but after the first dozen miles he ran out and road closures prevented his group from meeting him until mile 31.

He had gone 13 miles with only water and was depleted of energy. His wife and sister were among those there to support him and to see him so exhausted, with 25 miles to go, discouraged them to the point of tears, he said.

With a new store of energy supplements things improved and by mile 40 Marvel was motivated anew, knowing that every step he took was a distance farther than he had ever run before.

“People have asked me if I ever felt like quitting, and of course I felt like quitting, but I never considered quitting,” he said. “I thought, short of me passing out or my legs just totally knotting up with cramps, I am not going to quit. I’ll run as slow as I have to, I’ll walk if I have to, but I never considered quitting. I knew that if I gave myself that out, it would be too easy to take it.”

The atmosphere of the Comrades Marathon is, of course, camaraderie.

Marvel tells the story of how near the beginning of the race, he was in a sea of people and could not get to a water station on the sidelines. Because of the numbers and color on his race bib, anyone could see he was an international runner and had never done this race before. Suddenly, he hears someone call his name and he turns to a Zulu man named Patrick offering him water, as he had grabbed two from the water station. Marvel thanked Patrick for his generosity and the other runner returned his smile with the words, “It’s no problem, we are all running this together.”

Every penny raised will be go to developing the community center in Khayelitsha because the poverty Marvel witnessed in the township of 2.5 million people astounded him.

The first morning he drove through the area, he was floored by feelings of inadequacy and doubt. The thousands of dollars he raised were hardly a drop in the bucket for the people living back to back in shacks with no running water, which extended out as far as he could see, Marvel said. And yet, he could not let the dire situation stop him from planting seeds of hope.

“My $130,000 that I raised can’t fix this whole situation, but it can change some lives, and those people can change other lives,” he said.

The fire behind pushing himself to complete this race was a desire to motivate others to see the problems in this world and actively work to better things. Marvel has been asked to come back next year to view for himself the progress of his donations and perhaps to run the race again, this time running downhill from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

He is considering it.