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Running for a cause: one man’s inspiring story of recovery and giving back


John Nichols, 51, has raised more than $100,000 for the Spinal Cord Injury Association of Illinois by running the Chicago Marathon every year since 2009 .

“Sometimes in life we get the opportunity to choose our cause; most of the time, the cause chooses us,” said the Chicago-native.

Twenty years ago, a water-skiing accident left Nichols paralyzed from the neck down and his odds of recovery were slim — in fact, less than one percent of all spinal cord injury patients recover from this type of paralysis. But miraculously, after a few weeks in the hospital, Nichols felt tingling in his toes. That small sensation meant he could begin rehabilitation. Today, Nichols has recovered 70-80 percent of his muscle function.

“It is the invisible disability. It is something I live with on a daily basis,” he said.

While the accident happened in 1993, it wasn’t until Nichols was introduced to Danielle, a friend of his friend’s daughter, that he started running and fundraising. Danielle had broken her neck in a gymnastics accident, leaving her with a similar paralysis to the one Nichols experienced.

“I was dating a marathon runner at the time so I told [Danielle’s] parents, ‘I’ll raise $1,000 for every mile I complete of the Chicago Marathon,'” Nichols said. “It didn’t matter that the furthest I’d run at the time was from my bed to the bathroom.”

To help train, Nichols joined the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA), a local running group.

“I was the last man, in the last group,” he said. “I struggled, that’s for sure. But I raised the money and, against my doctor’s orders, I ran the Chicago Marathon. I crossed the finish line.”

And he’s been unstoppable ever since.

Earlier this month, Nichols received the Mayor Richard M. Daley and Maggie Daley Award, which honors the Chicago Marathon participant who raises the most funds for charity. In 2012, Nichols raised $43,000.

Nichols said receiving the award is a huge honor and he’s proud of the city, the organizations, and all the people involved with the race.

“The marathon is a great collaboration between private enterprises, nonprofits, and the public sector. You have these three aspects of our economy coming together for the benefit of the greater good,” Nichols said. “Think of the impact we are having on people’s lives. Yes, it’s about a race but it’s also bigger than that: We are helping others. We are making a difference.”

The marathon also made a big difference in Nichols’s life.

“When I started running, I was 174 pounds. Today I’m 144,” he said. “The marathon training as well as the cross-training have helped me keep a toned body. I’m not getting fatigued as quickly and I’m eating healthier.”

But the changes are more than physical. Training for — and running marathons — shifted his perspective and improved his mental state.

“Getting to this place of self-acceptance after being a C5/C6 quadriplegic paraplegic took many years. Seeing the physical progress strengthen the mental belief. I can participate in activities like I did before the accident. … I have the physical capability to run a marathon!” Nichols said. “And doing it for a cause is icing on the cake!”

“I got a second chance at life,” he added. “I am humbled, grateful and indebted. Every day is a real blessing.”

Nichols is running the 2013 Chicago Marathon October 13. And while he’s a firm believer of “my race, my pace”, he is aiming for a PR of 4:30.

Fundraising tips from John Nichols

Nichols has raised more than a whopping $100,000 for spinal injury research since 2008. Here are his three tips for fundraising success.

1. Tell a story. Technically you’re running for an organization but the reality is — you’re running for people. Put a face to the cause. Tell a person’s story. Make people connect and see how they’ll be helping an individual.

“Capture people’s hearts and minds. They want to see the charity in action,” Nichols said. “If you’re just running for the organization, people can’t touch and feel that. You have to make it come alive.”

2. Don’t be afraid to ask … everyone and anyone. Put yourself out there through all available channels, social media, emails, etc., and ask anyone you come across — not just your inner circle.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out beyond your family and friends. I will also ask anybody I do business with — from the air condition repair guy to the dry cleaner,” Nichols said. “People always want to help, and no amount is too small … or too big. We’re all here to help each other out.”

3. Get a match or another incentive. Reach out to a large organization and see if they will provide a match for you.

“I had an organization agree to match up to $10,000 in donations. There was no way I was going to miss that opportunity!,” Nichols said.

Or see if a company or an individual would offer some sort of auction prize.

“I happen to know a higher profile individual in Chicago so I auctioned off lunch with that person,” Nichols said.

Related: Running with purpose