Expert Q&A: How do you organize a competitive race-walk to support mental health?

Every September since 2009, Minds in Motion - KW Walking Classic has gained momentum in bringing together the walking community with people with lived experience with mental illness. The event is successful in raising awareness in the walking community about mental health and in raising funds for walking shoes for participants in a diabetes prevention program, called People in Motion at Waterloo Regional Homes for Mental Health as well as other social services agencies in Waterloo Region. We have included insights on this competitive walking event from participant Robert de Boyrie, Chair and co-founder Sue Lewis and her husband Dave Lewis and People in Motion program coordinator, Gayle Parker.

Q: Can you explain what Minds in Motion is?
Robert de Boyrie (participant): Supporters of People in Motion, [a diabetes prevention programme at Waterloo Regional Homes for Mental Health] organized a competitive race-walk in another name called Minds in Motion. It was a fundraiser for purchasing walking shoes for individuals with mental health issues, who were involved in physical activities. There was a competitive 5 km and 10 km race. I entered in the 5 km race and finished 10th overall, fifth out of the men and first in my age group.

Q: Who organizes Minds in Motion?
Dave Lewis (co-organizer): It’s a community-based event. Our committee includes:
• people involved with media and promotions, advertising,
• people who can fundraise, including door-knocking and going to grocery stores to seek food donations for refreshments after the race.
• We have people who are with race experience to plan the race course, timing and who can liaise with police and officials,
• We even have judges who make sure they don’t push too far on their walking style (and disqualify themselves by ‘running’.) That said, it is a welcoming atmosphere – it’s not intimidating.
• An agency / charitable organization to provide administrative support

Q: How did Minds in Motion begin?

Dave Lewis: Basically our involvement came from walking and from mental health. Our son struggles with serious mental health issues and through his challenges, we realized when he wasn’t doing so well. As Sue was helping him, she realized that if she took him out for a walk, and when he was moving toward a crisis. The walk helped him to be more settled and reasonable. He would go if she asked. Walking and talking would de-escalate situations.

Also, for a long period of time, we were not able to do anything together. Someone always had to be in the house. As our son was able to become more able to deal with his issues independently, with support of his doctor and medication, we were able to do more things together. We became struck with the idea that there should be an easier way for this to happen [for other families]. We needed to be more involved with advocacy.

We’ve always been involved with exercise and leading an active lifestyle. For my birthday, Sue gave me a gift certificate for a Running Room Walking Group. We eventually became power walk instructors. Now we are on our own being power walking coaches. Our web site is We have a blog on the KW Walking Classic website:

So, that’s how we came to make the link between with walking and mental health…it was good for our son and for us as well.

Woman speed-walkingWe eventually joined the walking community which is strong and passionate and extends throughout North America. People are realizing the physical and mental strength one can gain from walking is the same as that which you can gain from running -- without the risk of injury. People are interested in being competitive and they are interested in the event.

As we were involved at the Running Room, my wife Sue thought why not have a race just for walkers? There is no recognition for walkers in the midst of runners…

Sue Lewis (chair of organizing committee): : As a walker in a running race, you begin later than runners, but you end up faster than some of the runners by the end. There is little recognition for walkers. In most races there are no winning medals and as such you feel second-class – which resonates with the lack of credit given to a person suffering from mental illness.

Dave Lewis: During the course of that, we came up with the idea for Minds in Motion and it became a reality. The name refers to People in Motion, a local program under the umbrella of Waterloo Regional Homes for Mental Health – refers to all people experiencing serious mental illness can take part – year-long program – Walking is one activity, but there are other components such as cooking classes, nutritional support, yoga, involvement at the Y. It’s a way to get people to change their mindset – and improve physically as well, since the two go hand-in- hand.

We never dreamed it would catch on as it has. We have a strong and passionate committee to help us create a walking race environment which is as athletic as a running event. It has never been something that takes a couple of months – it is a lot of work. We have had already a few meetings before for next year’s race.

The connection to Waterloo Regional Homes for Mental Health was established through our son who with their support has his own apartment now and a support worker. We realized what an incredible organization it was and how it addressed our son’s concerns. We had a meeting with them and were very supportive and it grew from there.

Sue Lewis: It’s a way to make a difference. When we were in the midst of our family’s journey, it was hard to find a positive. This event helps as an anti-stigma initiative and encourages people to talk about mental health.

Q: How do participants get involved?
Sue Lewis: We had participants sign up as teams from hospitals and mental health service providers. We had 34 teams – groups coming together. We had a lot of different groups in mental health that don’t really come together often…and this was a way to bring them together.

We have sponsors from corporate organizations. And there are teams of staff together on teams with consumers. And then people who just want to walk and then when they came and realized it was about mental health they were touched by that. There are not a lot of visible events for mental health fundraising.

Dave and I have powerpoint – we love public speaking. We do this for corporate sponsorship. In 2010 to promote the race, we presented to Grand River Hospital (3000 staff) and inspired an internal walking challenge. We were thinking maybe we’ll get a few hundred people as it is hard to connect departments in hospital. In the end, 1000 (1/3 of the staff) walked for 12 weeks. We had prizes for the fastest team. The hospital’s mental health and addictions department named their team, the Dopamines, and won overall. Subsequently, 55 people walked in our event. Psychiatrists, clinicians, nurses...people in costumes… we really saw something come together.

Q: Do you involve people with lived experience? What is the impact on these volunteers and other participants?
Sue Lewis: Overall, over 200 volunteers were involved.
A mental health nurse, who works on People in Motion and has been working in the field for 20 years, was in tears after the event. She’s been to many functions where people who are in recovery are involved, but she saw how integral they really are in this event.

Gayle Parker (People in Motion program coordinator): There is a huge impact for clients and other participants. For example, I had some volunteers who helped a couple of participants who were visually impaired. The volunteers came to me and said “That was so inspiring”. One woman who was visually impaired and walked with a cane and a companion wrote to me reflecting on her feeling of accomplishment to get a medal at the end. In turn, she had inspired the volunteers who supported her.
Human connections are made and stigma starts to break down. You can’t tell who has a mental illness and who just loves walking.

Q: Is this event one that other communities can replicate?
Dave Lewis: Absolutely. Number one, we would be able and willing to support and give advice. So, we would be supportive of helping out. You need a lot of passion. You need a core group of people that understand that the time has come for community-based events where everyone can come and feel part of event in an exciting atmosphere.

Sue Lewis: We would love to see other communities put this in motion, so that we could see a Minds in Motion in other regions.

People walking togetherWe are developing a good template for other communities. We need an event for mental health…where everyone can participate. Minds in Motion could be this event. Some of the participants are right off the couch and in other cases there were some incredible feats of athleticism such as the woman who walked the half-marathon in 2 hours. What we’ve created is a feeling of belonging: families feeling their doing something positive for mental health and they have a space where they can talk about it.

Q: What support did you receive to set up this fundraiser?
Dave Lewis: We didn’t fundraise much the first time, more out of naivety. Some members of committee were getting concerned. Sue was 100% sure this was going to happen no matter what. We didn’t have a huge amount of money to start …a bit of faith that we would get support. We were getting support from whomever we spoke with and then the registration money came in after.

The Running Room was a great support – they provided free opportunity to post a promotion on their website and to do on-line electronic registration. They charge a percentage of fee (charitable rate) to process the registrations. They provide access to community of people who are actively involved in Running Room programs.”

Sue Lewis: We had no money to start. Why wouldn’t the local bank franchise be our sponsor? We had 5 meetings with them, but it didn’t happen. $10,000 would help…but instead we got lots of little donations. One surprise was the support of a local realtor who gave $250 the first year, $500 the second; and this past year became a platinum sponsor. He said, ‘I think I want to be at the top level $10,000.’ Someone always knows someone else who has connection to mental health. And we all do. Not everyone wants to talk about it. But the walk is a way to do it and to show support.

Q: How do you do advertising and promotion?
Dave Lewis: We use local media: The Waterloo Record (local newspaper), we gave public service announcements to local radio stations. We emailed posters to human resource departments in various companies. We also posted posters in libraries, community centres and fitness facilities.

Q: Were there any surprising results from the race?
Dave Lewis: We were surprised, (but shouldn’t have been) to see all the fundraising support for individuals – families who wanted to support them in the race. They were grateful for an opportunity to see their participating family member so excited about their involvement in the race. We hadn’t recognized the support that would be there in a tangible form.

Q: Does the race course change every year?
Dave Lewis: The course changes every year. This year (thank goodness) it will maintain the same as last year. It’s challenging because you have to go through city and traffic officials and police …so it’s a long and challenging process. The first plan is not always accepted.

Every community is different – for example, in urban areas we must contend with streetlights – we were encouraged to go out in country, but we felt strongly about showing support to the mental health community by staying in the city where they are established…

Q: Any additional thoughts?
People walking and smilingDave Lewis: The really important thing to highlight is that you have to see it and experience it. It’s an electric atmosphere: People are celebrating the fastest walker and the slowest walker…Waterloo Square is jammed with people and the feeling of excitement continues after the race.

Even when you are not participating…you feel a powerful incentive to get moving yourself.

To learn more about the beneficiary program, People in Motion, see the program directory.