AFTER losing several friends to AIDS, Gilbert Mixon, 43, of Los Angeles decided he wanted to take action to help those living with HIV. Initially he planned to raise money for the AIDS/LifeCycle without actually riding. But after a friend challenged him, he decided to attempt the 585-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles himself.
There was just one problem: At 310 pounds, Mixon was morbidly obese and thought: “I could never get my fat butt on a bike and ride.”
Everyone from workers at the bike store to friends he asked for donations laughed and “teased me about being big.” But the desire to help others pushed him past the humiliation.
The physical demands were no easier than the mental ones, however.
The first time he got on a bike, Mixon rode two miles and felt “just exhausted.” Slowly adding miles, he was encouraged to keep going after 20 pounds melted away in the first month.
Eight months later, in June 2004, he not only completed the ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, but he also had raised more than $8,000 -- and lost 105 pounds.
For people who can never find the time or energy to exercise, joining a charity walk, run or ride can be a strong incentive to get moving.
“Most participants are not athletes or experienced cyclists. They’re starting from ground zero,” said Jamie Allardice, a paid “cycle buddy” for the AIDS/LifeCycle, who helps new riders prepare. “I rode two years ago and hadn’t been on a bike since high school.”
Charity was Mixon’s primary motivation for getting fit. Focusing on people in need allowed him do what he had never been able to do for himself.
“I wanted to lose the weight because I wanted to do the ride,” Mixon said. “Had that organization not been there, I never would have lost the weight, I would still be morbidly obese. It was the motivating factor.”
Dozens of organizations hold races and noncompetitive walks, runs and bike rides in and around Los Angeles to raise money for charitable causes, frequently related to disease research.
Many provide trainers in exchange for minimum financial pledges, while others have more informal group training sessions. Most also give fundraising tips. It generally takes five months to train for the AIDS/LifeCycle or a marathon.
“We have volunteers that lead training rides every weekend,” Allardice said. “It’s fun to watch people progress.”
Julia Gaynor, 31, of Los Angeles joined Team in Training to run the Los Angeles Marathon and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in March. With a training plan tailored to her fitness level, Gaynor showed up every Saturday morning for 6 a.m. runs with 60 others, preceded by a pep talk about a specific child she was helping.
“They would say, ‘If you think you can’t do 12 miles, remember there’s someone in the hospital now who wishes they could do one mile,’ ” Gaynor said. “If you’re feeling like your legs are hurting, it’s nothing compared to the pain of the people you’re helping.”
Gaynor, who had not worked out vigorously since high school, said the motivation provided by the group, as well as a responsibility to her donors, were the primary reasons she was able to finish the marathon: “Without the fundraising, it would be a lot easier to quit.”
Sometimes training for a charity run or ride can lead to other healthy lifestyle changes. Gaynor quit smoking and drank less alcohol. Mixon became a vegan and joined a gym, where he walked on the treadmill 45 minutes each morning.
“I gave up ice cream, and I gave up eating meat,” Mixon said. “The more I rode and exercised, the better I felt. I got really into it.”
Given his rapid weight loss, Mixon also visited his doctor once a week to monitor his health. All his preparation and training paid off during the event. “It was not hard at all because I trained for it,” he said.
Many people maintain their fitness regimens after the events end and return year after year, often becoming mentors for novices. Gaynor still runs every Saturday morning and plans to start training for next year’s marathon in October. Mixon now lifts weights with a trainer and has added 25 pounds back since his lowest point at the race’s end, but much of it is in muscle mass.
When Mixon returned to the bike store to service his bike, the workers who had teased him didn’t recognize him.
“They were really impressed,” he said. “Now I can go to the beach and take off my shirt.”
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Ready to help out while getting in shape?
For more information on charities that hold fitness fundraisers in and around Los Angeles:
* AIDS/LifeCycle is a 585-mile bike ride that raises money for HIV and AIDS services and education. The organization pairs newcomers with a “Cycle Buddy” to help train for the event. Cyclists must pledge to raise $2,500.
* Team in Training raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society by training people for the Los Angeles Marathon and other events. Participants join a coach, mentors and other newcomers for weekly group training sessions and have a training schedule tailored to their fitness level. The minimum pledge to participate in the L.A. Marathon is $1,800. www.teamintraining.org
* Train to End Stroke helps novice runners train for half marathons and marathons in Orange County and San Diego to raise funds for the American Stroke Assn. For a pledge of $2,000, participants get a coach, hotel and transportation to the events, plus a victory party. www.kintera.org/htmlcontent.aspcid30202
* Avon’s Breast Cancer Walk raises money for breast cancer research, services and education by staging a 26-mile walk over two days. Walkers must pledge to raise $1,800 and are assigned a “walker buddy.” www.avonwalk.org
* Walk to Cure Diabetes raises money for juvenile diabetes research through walkathons ranging in length from one mile to a half marathon. The walks include a 5K walk in Santa Monica. No trainers are provided. No minimum pledge. www.jdrf.org