Blaine Penny has set several world records for his running. Five, to be exact. And he has helped organize eight others – so far.
The Calgary man, pictured above in photos by Neil Zeller, has run more than 20 marathons and more than 30 ultramarathons. He finished second at the Berlin Marathon last year in the M45 category with a time of 2:28:55, qualifying him for the first ever AbbottWMM Wanda Age Group World Championship, which were supposed to have been in London this year but are now pushed to October 2021.
But the records aren’t for just… well, running. They include Guinness World Records for fastest marathon by a man dressed as a battery (2:59:58), and fastest by a linked team (Penny and nine others tethered together and running as a unit, 2:55:24), a record that has since been broken. In 2017, Penny gathered 112 people to run while linked together (6:24:56), another record that has since been eclipsed.
Penny’s occasional hijinks on the marathon circuit have a much more serious goal than setting goofy records. They’re designed to increase the visibility – and the fundraising ability – of MitoCanada, the charity he created 10 years ago.
MitoCanada raises funds for research and awareness about mitochondrial disease, a group of disorders of the mitochondria, tiny compartments in most cells in the human body that produce the energy needed by the heart, brain and other organs to perform their functions properly. Disrupted mitochondria can cause a range of effects, from mild fatigue and weakness to strokes, cognitive disabilities, organ failure and much more. Mitochondrial diseases can affect people of any age.
Penny’s son, Evan, was diagnosed with it after falling ill at the age of four. What began as a sore stomach led to surgery, a coma and a brain injury.
“We spent many months in the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a neurological disease, which he should have improved from but didn't,” Penny says. “Then things really started going downhill.”
It took a year before doctors made a diagnosis of mitochondrial disease. Now 16, Evan is quadriplegic and non-verbal, and his pain needs to be carefully managed.
“But he’s doing OK,” Penny says. “A lot of kids like Evan don't make it this long, so we're very fortunate. But it is hard when he's in pain.”
Starting the charity seemed like the right response to the tragedy, Penny says.
“You take what you're given and you just say, ‘OK, what's important here? What can we do?’. This work has sort of filled a void, given me a feeling like I'm doing something more.”
When MitoCanada was in its early years, and as a runner himself, Penny was drawn to the Charity Challenge that Scotiabank runs in collaboration with the six race events the Bank sponsors across the country, including in Calgary. The Challenge allows registered charities to have runners raise money on their behalf. When runners register for the marathons, they can choose from among the more than 500 charities that take part in the Challenge. Scotiabank pays for the fundraising platform and handles all the associated fees so that 100% of the money raised goes directly to the charities.
Since the Scotiabank Charity Challenge began in 2003, $80 million has been raised for charities across Canada.
“We're not an event organization, but as a charity you end up doing a lot of events, and they take a lot more time and energy than you think,” Penny said. “With the Scotiabank Charity Challenge, it's like, wow, all we have to do is recruit runners and get them to fundraise.”
The first year MitoCanada took part, in 2012, they raised $25,000. “We said, ‘holy cow, that’s the easiest 25 grand we ever raised.’ ”
The following year, MitoCanada was chosen as a Featured Charity, and Penny wanted to do something special. That was the year of 10 linked runners. They raised $125,000.
“We realized we were on to something and that this was going to be one of our key fundraising programs for the foreseeable future, and it still is today.” (The battery costume, which Penny ran in at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2018, was meant to symbolize the energy that mitochondria produce for the body’s organs.)
With in-person races cancelled this year, Scotiabank wanted to offer a different fundraising option for the many charities that benefit from the Scotiabank Charity Challenge. The result is the Home Stretch, a three-day virtual event with programming that will feature a speaker series; health and fitness workshops; family programming; and a limited screening of the Hot Docs documentary The Mindfulness Movement.
Personalities such as Canadian hockey great Natalie Spooner and Olympian Krista Duchene will be participating. The programming will be available following the Home Stretch weekend via a dedicated Home Stretch YouTube channel.
“Scotiabank’s commitment to supporting communities remains strong and through the Home Stretch presented by the Scotiabank Charity Challenge, we have designed three days of exciting programming for Canadians in an effort to raise awareness and funds for participating charities,” says Mike Tasevski, executive champion of Scotiabank’s six sponsored races and Vice President of Global Sponsorship at the Bank. “Now, more than ever, this is a time for us to unite as one.”
Penny says programs like the Scotiabank Charity Challenge and Home Stretch virtual event provide an extra dimension and purpose for runners.
“It's above and beyond just going to challenge yourself to run,” he says. “Knowing that you’re helping in another higher purpose is really meaningful for people.”