On being ... a fait accompli

By Ingrid Sapona

Given that I once dropped out of an Alliance Française introductory French course after a particularly humiliating, if humourous (in retrospect), performance on a test, I really have no business using a French expression in the title of this. But it seems so (forgive me) apropos. The idea of a fait accompli has been swirling through my head all week as I’ve mulled over the outcome of a fundraising event I coordinated for the food bank on whose board I sit.

Last spring a board member suggested we field a team in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon (TWM), with runners getting pledges for the food bank. Unlike other runs dedicated to one cause (like the Run for the Cure, which funds breast cancer research), the TWM is open to any charity willing to pay a small entry fee. As incentive, the TWM sponsors a “charity challenge”, offering $5,000 to the charity with the most runners, and to the charities that raise the most per runner and per team.

I was so impressed with how charity-friendly the TWM is, I volunteered to organize our team. I figured signing up runners shouldn’t be hard -- I know some runners and there are lots of running clubs and gyms in the area that I could contact.

Shortly after entering our team, the TWM organizers “selected” us to host one of 10 cheering sections on the day of the race. (I should say on the morning of the race, as runners were expected to pass our section between 7 and 10 a.m.) The clever marathon organizers pitched the “neighborhood cheering challenge” as a “win-win” way of promoting the marathon among runners (imagine how motivating it is to a weary runner on, say, mile 19, to have people cheering you on) and of benefiting community groups by offering $5,000 to the group with the “best” cheering section. I had no ideas about what would make for a successful cheering section, but the enthusiastic race organizers strongly encouraged us to have a band and to serve refreshments to help draw a crowd of cheerers.

Another “feature” of participating in the cheering challenge was the “opportunity” of having a free booth at the two day wellness expo, which is where the over 10,000 runners would be picking up their race kits. While I realized having a booth would be great exposure, all I could think about at the time was the work it would take to create and man.

So, suddenly I found myself organizing both the charity and cheering challenges, as well as an expo booth. Because we’re a small organization we had to decide where to focus our energy. The consensus was we’d get more return for our efforts by concentrating on signing up runners. As well, the unspoken sentiment was we didn’t think we had much of a shot at the $5,000 cheering prize, given how difficult it would be for spectators to get to the location we had been assigned, and given our limited monetary and volunteer resources.

That said, we couldn’t simply pass on participating in the cheering challenge because a city councilor had nominated us for this “opportunity”. But, other than asking the marathon organizers to help find and book us a band, I didn’t really focus on the cheering challenge until about two weeks before the event. And, when I finally did, given that I didn’t think we had much of a chance of winning, my efforts were aimed pretty much at just making a show of it.

Fortunately, once I focused on it, things began falling into place. A law firm offered law students to help at the expo booth and a board member made a display for it. I also had the idea of trying to get people to stop at our booth by offering them FREE INSPIRATION from an jar filled with slips of paper that had quotes about the nature of happiness. (I can’t tell you how much fun it was to urge people to pick a piece of paper and then watch their puzzled reaction give way to smiles as they read the quote.) The expo booth was fun and we collected a few hundred in donations each day.

So, with a renewed sense of spirit and hope, at 6 a.m. on race day I greeted the band while people working for the marathon put up tents, tables and banners, and distributed cheering kits. A friend helped set out muffins and juices we got from Costco and I silently prayed someone would show up to cheer. Soon a dozen people had gathered and the first runners were coming. The band started and I handed out pompoms and cow bells, encouraging everyone to yell like crazy, especially when cheering challenge judges (who would be on motorcycles) came by.

The sea of runners was impressive and seeing them smile at, or sing along with, a song they recognized or nod appreciatively when they heard our cheers was a reward I hadn’t counted on. Looking around me I got the sense I wasn’t the only one having a good time yelling like a school kid at recess. And, when the judges came by everyone kicked it up a few notches in hopes of demonstrating that we were a small, but enthusiastic crowd.

Two hours later the stream of runners had become a trickle and we started packing up. Most of the cheerleaders came to say goodbye and, with rather hoarse voices, many told me how much fun they had. As I drove home I found myself on a natural, cheer-induced, high. But, I was also thinking about how much better it might have been if we’d have actually tried to win the prize, instead of figuring from the outset that we didn’t have a chance.

Later that afternoon I got an e-mail announcing the winner -- and it wasn’t our section. I was disappointed, but I couldn’t help feeling that the outcome was a fait accompli. I don’t mean to imply that the challenge was rigged or in any way unfair. What I mean is that I realized the outcome of our not winning was preordained because of our failure to believe -- until way too late -- that we could pull it off.

Don’t get me wrong -- I do feel we ended up a net winner from the event. We made about $2,500 and we gained exposure, both in the community and among potential future volunteers (like the law students), and we had fun. But perhaps the most valuable thing to come out of this was the real-life example of a very basic principle about success: you won’t succeed if you have a self-defeating attitude. If only we’d have believed (and acted like) we could have won the cheering challenge, the fait accompli I’d be writing about today might have been a bit different.

But, there’s always next year…

© 2006 Ingrid Sapona


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