Dispatch From a Livestrong Rally: Insult Cancer, Ride With Lance Armstrong, Grow a Mo

As I chronicle in our November cover story, much of what Lance Armstrong's foundation does on a daily basis happens behind the scenes: researching the economic burden of cancer, coming up with new services for survivors, prodding policymakers to boost funding. But four times a year, Livestrong hosts a large rally for its supporters. The latest is this weekend in Austin, where the foundation is based. Thousands are gathering for the Livestrong Challenge, which includes a bike ride, a run, and an awards banquet for top local fundraisers.


If the event is anything like the one I attended in Philadelphia in August, it'll be a colorful, and at times poignant, embodiment of Livestrong, which is all about empowering survivors. As Sally Reid, a cancer survivor who handed out yellow roses to riders crossing the finish line, told me, "If I stand here long enough and close my eyes, I can feel a heart to this, an energy."

The ongoing federal investigation into whether or not Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs wasn't mentioned, despite a story about it that day on the front page of the New York Times.

At Montgomery County Community College outside Philadelphia, the foundation erected a makeshift village near the race course. Cyclists registered, shared stories about riding with Armstrong in previous Challenges, listened to a live band, and checked out sponsor exhibits representing Livestrong's striking duality. The latest feather-light cutting-edge bikes from Trek were adjacent to a display on bio-oncology products from Genentech and near the Movember dudes, a charity that promotes growing mustaches ("mo" for short) in November to raise awareness about cancer affecting men.

Livestrong isn't the first non-profit to organize fundraisers around an athletic event, of course. When the foundation was getting started, it modeled itself after Susan G. Komen's breast cancer foundation. But the Challenge captures Livestrong's distinctive personality, a mix of competitiveness, humor and emotion.

A booth in Philadelphia encouraged people to give voice to their cancer experience. Asked to write a message to the disease, people wrote "You suck" and "We're going to kick your ass." Other notecards invoked loved ones who have the disease or who had died because of it. "Grandpa, Nan, Granddad, Grandma, Aunt Maureen (God, when will this list end?)" someone wrote. The display was wallpapered with similar tributes. Some cyclists wore the names pinned to their jerseys in the race.

The Challenges illustrate how hands-off Livestrong is with its supporters. It offers training in fundraising and lobbying but doesn't micromanage. At the awards dinner in Philadelphia, the organization showed videos celebrating supporters' creativity. Two brothers sporting "I hate cancer" t-shirts who used Facebook to network and raise about $22,000. Cyclists known as Team Fatty, many of whom met online and as a group raised more than $140,000.

In that sense, Livestrong does what few companies are willing to do: entrust its brand to its supporters. But as Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman explains, "If the brand is really authentic, it's theirs."

 

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Read the November cover story about Livestrong here, and read all of our Livestrong coverage here.

Don't miss Doug Ulman at Fast Company's Innovation Uncensored 2011 event in April. 

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