2017-04-06 / Around Town

Combining Passion with Helping Others

By Betsy Sherman Walker

The April 17 Boston Marathon will be Julie LaFleur's fourth marathon, but she sees running in Boston as the "opportunity of a lifetime." (Photo Contributed) The April 17 Boston Marathon will be Julie LaFleur's fourth marathon, but she sees running in Boston as the "opportunity of a lifetime." (Photo Contributed) A seasoned runner with a trio of marathons under her belt, Julie LaFleur, a student at the Naval War College in Newport, says she did not know a spot in the Boston Marathon was a possibility until she was approached about joining a charity team. In LaFleur’s eyes, the chance to run Boston while helping an organization she believed in, was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

There are many reasons, beyond the 26.2-mile obvious ones, that motivate a runner to take on the Boston Marathon. Some are universal, like the challenge, the excitement, and the lifelong dream. For first-timers, it can be wanting to know if Heartbreak Hill lives up to its reputation as a spirit-crusher. But other reasons are more personal. Some run to honor loved ones, some to honor a cause, and some to combine their passion for running with their passion for a cause.

LaFleur, 34, will be doing just that on Monday, April 17, as a member of a six-person team raising money for Playworks New England, a Boston-based branch of a national non-profit whose mission is to bring “safe and healthy play” to the elementary-school playground.

According to an online article posted last fall on competitor.com, a running and triathlon website, the number of official entrants enrolled in this year’s Boston Marathon is capped at 30,000. More than 80 percent of the field has met the qualifying standards, while the balance consists of invitational entrants, many of whom run for local charitable organizations. According to the story, more than $264 million has been raised for charity since 1989.

In that mix is Playworks, one of the charities under the umbrella of the John Hancock Non-Profit Partner Boston Marathon Program. In the past four years, Playworks’ teams have raised $350,000 to support its youth development programs.

To join a John Hancock Boston Marathon team, one must raise $5,000. But (no surprise here) marathons tend to attract overachievers, and LaFleur found herself on a team of them.

“[Playworks] set the bar higher,” she says, “so everyone on the team had to agree to raise $7,500 apiece.” Therefore, just by showing up, her group will be making a $45,000 donation in support of the organization. “It is the only organization in the country that sends trained program coordinators into low-income schools to focus on play as a learning opportunity,” LaFleur writes on her crowdrise.com fundraising page.

This is a team-oriented pursuit. “Recess” runners train together and share their progress. On a bitterly cold March 12, LaFleur announced, “We knocked out a frigid 15 miles in an adventure run… in 15-degree weather today!”

Two days earlier, the group hosted a fundraiser at the Harpoon Brewery in Boston. Back on her home turf, LaFleur went solo, hosting her own successful event at the end of February at Busker’s on Thames St., raising $3,500 with a silent auction and raffle. “Tons of local people came,” she said. “It far exceeded my expectations.”

A native of Ohio, LaFleur spent eight years in the U.S. Navy, serving on cruisers and aircraft carriers, and as an ROTC instructor. After leaving active duty as a lieutenant commander (she is now a reservist), she earned a Master’s degree in sustainable international development from Brandeis University. She arrived in Newport late last summer to begin working towards a Master of Arts in defense and strategic studies at the War College.

LaFleur divides her training time and energy between Boston and Newport. Twelve-mile runs are routine, and 20-mile loops at scheduled weekly intervals are necessary. But with each hour spent and each mile covered, the terrain and scenery of Newport and Middletown has become increasingly familiar. “I've been to Newport a handful of times,” she says, “all for some type of Navy training. I'd never lived here before, though.”

And that seems to have made a difference.

“Now I've been able to see a lot of Newport, thanks to my training runs,” she says. “I actually looked up the Newport Marathon route and used that to plan out my runs, which took me all along Ocean Drive and then also down past the beaches to Sachuest Point. [They are] places that I wouldn't have necessarily gone to otherwise.”

Nor would she have held a fundraiser. She gives the crew at Buskers “huge thanks for their support, and to all of the local businesses that donated items.”

People were also impressed with her presentation about Playworks, she said. “They kept saying, ‘We should bring this to Newport!’”

On its website, Playworks is described as a “national non-profit organization that improves school climate, reduces bullying, and increases student engagement through play.” If LaFleur and her teammates can alchemize the endorphins of a runner’s high into real money for a program that has the potential to change children’s lives, every step will be worth it.

As April 17 approaches and LaFleur gets closer to the starting line in Hopkinton, she is well on her way to her fundraising goal. She will also carry with her the memories of the training runs, grueling or otherwise, on Newport’s spectacular ocean roads, from Brenton Point to Sachuest Point, and along the beaches in between.

A runner never forgets the training runs, or the “finish moment,” when he or she exuberantly realizes that it’s a done deal. That will help when it’s time for LaFleur to get back on the road again and train, perhaps for another good cause.

To find out how to support LaFleur in her “Run For Recess” campaign, go to crowdrise.com/PlayworksBoston2017.

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