It’s tough to imagine anything more idyllic. Daylight is slowly seeping into the expansive courtyard area of Valencia Town Center, and the sun will be fully up and doing its warming-the-earth thing in a little bit. As far as the eye can see, there are athletes milling about, all adorned with numbered bibs. They cluster in small groups, chattering excitedly while doing their best to absorb some much-needed nourishment.
If you’ve ever taken part in a marathon, triathlon or obstacle course race, you know the scene. But here’s the wrinkle: these athletes, many of whose eyes are just now transitioning from generator-powered klieg lights to the approaching daylight, have already completed their event. In fact, it’s been hours since they arrived on site, checked in, joined the throngs in the starting chute, and surged out onto the course when the starting horn sounded.
Welcome to the biggest running event on the globe, the Wings For Life World Run, where over 90,000 runners toed the starting line simultaneously. The operative word here is “World.” See, these runners didn’t all start at the same place. At the same time, yes. But slightly different locales. Like here in Santa Clarita, California. Or in Sunrise, Florida. Or international cities from “A” (Aarhus, Denmark) to “Z” (Zadar, Croatia).
On this day at precisely the same time in 35 different locations around the world, people took off to run as far as they could before getting caught from behind by a “chaser car” that has been calibrated to drive at the exact same speed, no matter the continent on which it rolls. In essence, it’s a race in which the finish line crosses you, instead of the other way around.
I’d like to think that the race organizers didn’t necessarily set out to punish Americans—and particularly West Coasters. And sure enough, just a little bit of time spent with a world atlas reveals that, in order to maximize the involvement of people around the globe and keep to the “everybody runs on the same calendar day” core objective of the race, starting at 11:00 AM Coordinated Universal Time (what used to be called Greenwich Mean Time) was the only possible option.
This is all well and good if you live in Europe, which pretty much straddles the Coordinated Universal Time line. You’ve had a good night’s sleep and a leisurely trip to the starting line. And it’s not even all that bad if you are running in Takashima, Japan or Melbourne, Australia, where this is a unique night run—something to do instead of going out to a club or a show. In Southern California…not so much.
The Wings For Life World Run has no earlier local starting time than that in Santa Clarita, where 11:00 AM UTC translates to 4:00 AM, Pacific Daylight Time. Actually, strike that “Daylight” part of PDT, because the vast majority of runners saw little of that.
Most people’s lungs are designed to be quite stationary at 4:00 AM, not sucking in oxygen while briskly traversing the countryside. One of the reasons it’s pitch dark out at this hour is to remind folks of this. But when I arrived on-site at 2:45 in the morning (or does that hour qualify as still at night?) there was crackling energy in the air. And 75 minutes later, nearly 3,000 people came streaming out of the runner’s chute, across the starting line, and out into the streets of a community that was unquestionably still fast asleep.
“But, but…why?” you ask.
Well, first things first. There are two words that, all by themselves, should help to get the explanation rolling: Red Bull.
Despite the fact that the Austria-based Red Bull has never appeared compelled to become a household name in the American sports scene, anyone in the U.S. with even a passing interest in extreme sports knows the name and the reputation. BMX, freestyle motocross, windsurfing, snowboarding, skateboarding, kayaking, surfing, skating, Formula 1 racing—and a whole bunch of things that involve being airborne, perhaps the most conventional of which is cliff-diving.
What does all of the above have to do with an innocuous (albeit massive) community running event? The answer to that is philanthropy. While Red Bull picks up the full tab for this enormous global undertaking, 100% of the entry fees go to the Wings For Life Foundation, a cutting-edge research organization dedicated to finding cures for spinal cord injuries. And in 2015, those entry fees added up to more than $4.7 million.
When I first learned of the connection between Red Bull and Wings For Life, my initial impulse, based on absolutely nothing factual, was that the whole thing seemed a bit oxymoronic. Let’s face it—the daredevil pursuits glorified by Red Bull and its brand could be considered likely to lead to the very same spinal cord injuries that the foundation is trying to cure. I decided to do some research myself.
Indeed, the impetus for the creation of the Wings For Life Foundation was a motocross race in which Hannes Kinigadner, the son of two-time motocross world champion Heinz Kinigadner, crashed and wound up a tetraplegic—thus replicating the prior fate of Heinz’ brother, Hansi. The elder Kinigadner is a good friend of Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz and a key player in building Red Bull’s presence in motorsports. Following Hannes’ accident, the two men combined their impressive wills and worldwide relationships and in 2004 the foundation was formed.
So yes, it took an extreme sports injury that hit dreadfully close to home for the mission to be launched. But that mission is now a medical research juggernaut with the potential to change thousands and thousands of lives that have never been remotely connected to hazardous athletic pursuits. And it’s highly unlikely that any other entity other than Red Bull could organize, publicize and produce an event like the Wings For Life World Run. And thus from tragedy, now comes hope.