Jogging is in. Millions now run for the joy of it. City streets and sidewalks, parks, in door tracks, country lanes, mountain paths—all are dotted with runners. Each year hundreds of long-distance races and marathons at tract thousands of joggers and runners. There's money in jogging—running shoes, pants, jackets, stopwatches, books. But there is also fun and fellow ship.
Some churches are beginning to reach out to their community through jogging. If you are looking for an effective health evangelism community outreach, why not consider an exercise-related activity such as a walking/running club in your church? You could sponsor a Walk to Work Day or a Walk to Church Day, giving members who walk to church on a given Sabbath a special flower. You could start a 500- or 1,000-mile club that people can join if they run or walk that distance during a year.
The Loma Linda Abundant Living Health Series has some very fine training programs. Volume 5 is called Physical Fitness, and volume 2, Weight Management. You could conduct these two programs in your church prior to organizing a walking/running club. Or you could sponsor an annual fun run as the Spencerville, Maryland, church does. The following interview reveals what they do and how they do it.
Williams: Can you tell me something about your annual race?
Varmer: This year was our fourth annual Healthy Choices Race. We had three distances to choose from—the 10K, which is approximately 6.2 miles; the 5K, which is 3.1 miles; and the 1-mile race. Entrants could either walk or run, depending on their level of fitness. This year we had a man in a wheelchair who participated in the 10K and actually placed among the runners in his age category.
We had an objective of registering 900 to 1,000 runners; we ended up with 964 registrants, out of which 835 actually participated. One problem was finding a place for everyone to park. We used every possible inch of space. At one point, just 15 minutes before the scheduled start of the race, cars were backed up a mile down New Hampshire Avenue, waiting to get into the parking lot. They finally did, and we were only a few minutes off schedule starting the race.
Williams: Out of the 835 runners, what percentage were Adventist?
Varmer: Less than 3 percent. Our objective was to attract mainly non-Adventist runners from our community. We targeted that population by distributing flyers and entry forms at local area road races. Pathfinders and young adults helped in that project every Sunday for four months prior to our race. We distributed about 10,000 entry forms in that way, and sent another 5,000 through the mail. But remember, it's taken us four years to build up to this level of interest.
Williams: How can you ever handle the parking situation?
Varmer: It's the kind of problem I love to have. We've decided to limit the participants next year to 1,000.
The feedback that we have received from the runners is that ours is a well organized and enjoyable event. We offer a lot of benefits for the fee that we charge. Other races charge more and deliver much less.
Williams: What are some of those benefits?
Varmer: The registration fee is $10. Every person receives a T-shirt. The runners are offered a health screening that includes height and weight, blood pressure, skin fold, foot screening, and a computerized "health age analysis." After the race a vegetarian brunch awaits them, offering entree, soup and sandwich, fruit, drink, and yogurt. In the awards ceremony, numerous prizes are presented to top overall and age-group winners. We also give merchandise and gift certificates from local businesses as random prizes.
Williams: How many of your church members are involved?
Varmer: With registration, course marshal, water stop, mile timing, finish line, results, brunch, health screening, ham radio, and other support personnel, we had about 150 volunteers this year.
Williams: What did the ham radio operators do?
Varmer: They provided a network of communication. From their base station, set up near the start/finish line, they relayed the starting signal to timers on the course. Then the hams fed information concerning the location of lead runners to the announcer, to keep the audience aware of what was happening. With a computer printout, the announcer would look up names and welcome runners to the finish line. The hams were also there in case of medical emergency. So far we have not had to use them in that capacity.
Williams: Is this something that you start preparing for three weeks in advance, or just how much time do you need?
Varmer: The first year we did all our preparation in four months. We still do the bulk of the work in that time frame, but now we begin planning for the next year the day after the race is over. There are county and state permits to be secured; entry forms to be printed, and distributed beginning at the end of January (the race is held in May); sponsors to be lined up; volunteers to be recruited; job descriptions to be updated; etc. To do what we do and do it well requires a lot of time and hard work from a lot of people. It is not simple and it is not easy. But we feel that it is worth it, and we even make money on it.
Williams: You say that you ended up making money?
Varmer: Yes. Last year the profit totaled $3,000. This year we had more than $4,000. Although total expenses this year ran over $6,000, income from registration fees and corporate sponsors came to more than $10,000, and thus a profit.
Williams: Were these Adventist sponsors?
Varmer: Yes. Ann's House of Nuts, a local nut and dried fruit distributor, was our biggest sponsor. They paid for the T-shirts. Other Adventist businesses bought advertising space on the entry form and race numbers. Brooke Grove Foundation sponsored the results mailing. Without these sponsors we would have to charge a much higher registration fee just to break even.
Williams: Do you think conducting this event is health evangelism?
Varmer: Not in the strictest sense. If it is, it's a very low-key approach. I prefer to call it an awareness event, something that acquaints people with who we are, what we do and believe, and where we are. Remember that these runners are already healthy in many respects. They don't smoke, they exercise regularly, they are careful about diet—many of them are vegetarians, and the meat eaters generally prefer poultry and fish. Of the more than 800 health-age analyses that we performed on participants this year, more than 95 percent have a lower health age than chronological age. This means that they have gained in life expectancy by their lifestyle.
What we do is have an event that gets them acquainted with Seventh-day Adventists on a personal level. They come to our church, they meet our people, they run a race, eat our food, and they have a good memory to take home, along with a Listen magazine, Vibrant Life magazine, or Steps to Christ. The event serves as a bridge to other activities that would be more evangelistic in nature.
Williams: The race starts right at the church?
Varner: Yes, right at the church.
Williams: So they have the opportunity to find out where the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church is?
Varmer: That's correct. The race starts and finishes on the church parking lot. The health screening is held in some of our Sabbath school rooms. The brunch is served in our fellowship hall and on the church grounds. We open the entire church so people can walk through and see our beautiful facilities. They meet our church members everywhere they go. Some of them call or write later and tell us how much they appreciated the warmth and caring of our people. And members later tell me how wonderful it was to fellowship with runners who were having a very positive experience.
Williams: So it is a public relations endeavor?
Varmer: Yes. They come to us and en joy themselves and walk away with a good feeling about Seventh-day Adventists. And to tell you the truth, on my own hidden agenda is also the objective of creating an interest in exercise among our own people. It's not enough to have a health message; you have to live it on a consistent basis. These runners and walkers, with their enthusiasm for the race, are a kind of PR to our own members.
Williams: I have always felt bad about the way most races are set up. Usually one or two winners get prizes. The exceptional runners usually hop from one race to another. But the average Joe gets nothing.
Varmer: Our objective is to offer a health event in which people at all levels of fitness can participate. They can run, walk, roll a wheelchair, or hobble on crutches. Some are very fast, running under-five-minute miles. Others are slow, taking more than 20 minutes per mile. Our philosophy, which we emphasize, is that everyone is a winner. To run or to walk is to win. To cross the finish line, whatever your time, is to win. The first one to cross is a winner; the last one to cross is a winner.
Williams: Is your event something you would recommend to other churches?
Varmer: Yes, but with qualification. Some advice Jesus gave is very appropriate here: Count the cost. Realize the time, the work, and the expertise it takes to make it happen. If you know what you want to accomplish, if you have the backing of the church, if you have access to people in the running community who can serve as consultants, if you want to do something out of the ordinary—then go for it.
Anyone who would like more information can write to me at the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, 16325 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring, MD 20904; or call (301) 384-2920.