Scan the crowd at just about any marathon, cycling event, or triathlon across the country, and you’re bound to see them: A horde of athletes proudly wearing the iconic purple-and-white green shirts, emblazoned with the logo “Team in Training.” These runners, walkers, cyclists and swimmers are all part of a massive movement to beat blood cancer, one mile at a time, borne of one father’s crusade to honor his tiny daughter by running a marathon.
Team in Training (TNT), offers training and group support to recreational athletes who complete endurance events nationwide to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). Since its inception in 1988, TNT has raised over $1.4 billion for blood cancer research and patient services.
Now the nation’s largest endurance sports training program with more than 600,000 participating over its 25-year lifespan, the organization was founded in 1986, when Bruce Cleland received the type of news no parent ever wants to hear: He learned that his two-year-old daughter, Georgia, had been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. “In a word, it was terrifying,” Bruce recalls. “At that time, whenever I heard someone had leukemia, it was usually a death sentence. In those days the survival rate was only about 5 percent.”
Beating the odds, little Georgia went into remission after two years of rigorous chemotherapy and radiation treatment. But the experience left Bruce feeling restless—and determined to act. One night, while tossing and turning in bed, Bruce hatched a crazy, ambitious idea: to run the upcoming 1988 New York City marathon in Georgia’s honor.
“It seemed like a really difficult thing to do, but a heroic thing to do,” Bruce, a former rugby player, explains. “I thought if I could get some other people involved and form a team where we all depended on each other and leaned on each other, all had a common goal of raising money for a very worthy cause like leukemia research…it just seemed to me that that might work.”
In today’s world, the concept of running a marathon for charity is commonplace. But back in 1988, Bruce’s notion was something of a novelty—marathons were seen as a lofty feat, reserved for only the most prestigious of athletes. “Some people called me crazy, but pretty quickly a lot of other people started signing on,” Bruce says.
That first year, in 1988, Bruce assembled a team of 38 runners to compete in the New York City Marathon, raising $320,000 for the Westchester, New York chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Within two years, Bruce’s grassroots mission exploded into the flagship fundraising event for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s 60 chapters across the nation.
Not only has Bruce spearheaded a running-for-charity revolution, but TNT’s efforts have supported significant progress in blood cancer research. But there is still a great deal of work that remains to be done, says TNT Vice President Chris Fenton.
“I think the pace at which we see cures and new treatments coming out is only going to accelerate as the science gets better,” Chris says. “We want to make sure that Team in Training continues its legacy of funding the mission the way it has and helps in that acceleration.”
Georgia Cleland, now 29, says that it’s incredibly humbling to think that she is the little girl who spawned this tremendous movement. “Every time I read a story on how TNT started, I’m both amazed and moved,” Georgia says. “I remember looking at a picture of [Bruce] in his fluorescent purple tights and thinking, ‘I hope that’s me someday crossing the finish line.’”
And in 2012, that dream came true: Following in her father’s footsteps, Georgia competed in the Walt Disney World Half Marathon as a TNT volunteer participant. “It was such an amazing experience crossing that finish line for the first time at Disney,” says Georgia, who is gearing up to compete in the Nike Women’s Half-Marathon in San Francisco on October 20th.
Bruce, who is sidelined by a bad knee, won’t be running, but he’ll be there to cheer on his daughter every step of the way. The story, it seems, has come full circle; the torch has been passed to Georgia, and now it’s her chance to shine.