Blog Post

Color Runs Are Not What They Appear to Be

color runWe’ve had some questions about the latest rage in fitness/charity events such as The Color Run and Color Me Rad events. Are they really based upon a Hindu tradition and what is their connection to the New Age? And is it true that they only donate a fraction of their proceeds to the charities they are supposed to be fundraising for?

They answer to most of these questions is “yes”. With the exception of a connection to the New Age, which I have been unable to find from any credible source, Color Run/Color Me Rad events are based on the Hindu Holi Festival and have been widely criticized for giving very little of their proceeds to charity.

For those who have never heard of them, Color Run/Color Me Rad events have a few things in common.

First, they are a “race” for joggers, walkers and everyone in between, which is held to benefit a local charity. They all involve being sprayed with colored powders (made from food-grade corn starch) at various stations throughout the race so that everyone finishes the race splashed in color. Night runs involve the tossing of glow-in-the-dark colors so it is also a very colorful event.

The splashing of color is inspired by the Hindu festival of Holi which is celebrated annually in India on the day after the full moon in the Hindu month of Phalguna (early March). The festival is meant to celebrate spring and commemorate various events in Hindu mythology. It’s also a time to disregard social norms and indulge in merrymaking.

Hindu god Vishnu Hindu god Vishnu

The legend upon which Holi was formed revolves around the story of an evil king named Hiranyakashipu, whose son Prahlad was forbidden from worshiping the Hindu god, Vishnu, but continued to do so. Hiranyakashipu then made Prahlad sit on a pyre along with his wicked aunt Holika who was believed to be immune to fire. When the fire was started, it was Prahlad who escaped unharmed while Holika was burned to death. Some accounts say that Holika begged Prahlad for forgiveness before she died and he decreed that she would be remembered every year at a festival named in her honor – Holi.

For this reason, Holi celebrations always start with a bonfire which is lit sometime between 10 p.m. and midnight when the moon rises. Everyone gathers around and the merrymaking begins. During this time, all social class is put aside and people mingle with one another, dancing and partying. The next morning is a carnival where the people play games, and chase each other while throwing either handfuls of colored powder or shooting colored water at each other.

As is the case with yoga, many Hindus are not pleased with how the various Color Run/Color Me Rad & other similar fests are “whitewashing” a precious tradition.

“ . . . (O)ur culture is being co-opted to turn a profit,” writes Nadya Agrawal at Brown Girl Magazine. “I can bemoan the misuse of Holi, the profiting off our culture and the further sexualization of it, but I think worst of all is that it doesn’t give us the chance to share Holi properly. Personally, I love it when I can bring my non-Desi friends to the annual campus Holi function. I can show them a part of my heart and an aspect of my identity as a strong Brown woman. The Color Run™ robs me of that chance because now everyone who participates gets a diluted (and completely wrong) version of desiculture. With this Holi knockoff, they lose the culture and the tradition, but they keep our colors.”

But that’s not the only complaint about Color Run/Color Me Rad events. They also don’t donate very much of the proceeds to the local charities for which they are supposed to be fundraising.

color run nightFor instance, The Color Run LLC is a for-profit company founded by a Mormon couple from Utah named Travis and Heidi Snyder. They created the runs to encourage professional runners and novices to run together just for fun.  Registration starts around $35 and requires everyone to show up in a white tee-shirt which will eventually be sprayed with colors.

The Color Run LLC partners with a national or local charity at each of these runs, such as a local children’s hospital or food pantry, but critics say much of the money gleaned from registrations ends up in the pockets of the organizers rather than the charity. Race attendees generally are not aware that only a fraction of their registration goes to charity – the rest goes to the for-profit LLC.

For instance, as reports, a run in Des Moines involving 30,000 people netted $1 million, of which the charity received a paltry $28,000.

A run in Australia raked in $385,000 of which just $32,000 was split between two charities.

A Color Me Rad festival in Syracuse, New York took in approximately $250,000 in runner registrations and gave just 12 percent ($30,000) to Special Olympics.

Unfortunately, runners are generally not aware of how little of their “donation” (registration fee) is actually going to charity. For example, The Sacramento Bee interviewed 35 people who participated in a race in California and discovered that only two were aware that the race was for-profit. Some were quite upset to learn that most of their hard-earned cash was going into the pockets of the race organizers.

“It’s horrible and sad; I don’t think they should be making money,” said Jessenia Cardenas, 24, when she learned that her race fees were not going entirely to charity.

CBS is also reporting that several of these Color events are outright scams with race organizers cancelling the race at the last minute and refusing to refund registration fees. Those cited as possible scams are the Color 5 Run and Run or Dye.

To be fair to the Color Run/Color Me Rad companies involved, these are for-profit businesses whose owners have every right to turn a profit.

But to be fair to the runners, they should inform participants at the time of registration that only a small portion of their fee will actually go to charity.

Want a more thorough understanding of the New Age - and have fun while you're learning? Read my new book, The Learn to Discern Compendium, which explains 30 of the most prevalent New Age practices along with a chapter full of Discernment Tools to help you "learn to discern" what is New Age and what is Christian.