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Blood, sweat, tears and heart: Running for Save the Rhino

There are few charities more synonymous with the London Marathon than Save the Rhino.

With their iconic costumes, the ‘Rhino Runners’ have been a part of the event since 1992.

Whether you’re a runner in the race, a spectator on the streets of the capital or watching at home, the rhino costumes are one of the enduring images of the event each year.

But what’s it like to run 26.2 miles in one?

“We always say running in the old costumes is like running in a crisp packet: you can’t see anything, it’s really noisy and it’s really sweaty,” says Cathy Dean, Save the Rhino CEO. "You’ve got your own microclimate inside.”

The costumes are cumbersome. They weigh between 8-10kg, depending on their age. The older costumes are heavier, made of plasterzote – a kind of ‘rubberized foam’ – and hung from a sort of hessian sack. The newer outfits have more of a mesh on the inside for increased breathability.

Running in one is like wearing a weighted backpack, only you’re inside it, and there’s a plastic rhino head hanging off your front. Visibility is limited, too – it’s like looking through a letterbox.

“I spend a lot of the marathon looking at my feet, and looking up through the gap between the ears,” says Victoria Rees, one of the runners.

These costumes were not designed for running. And yet there is a band of runners dedicated to rhino conservation, who have clocked up thousands of miles in them in countless marathons and ultramarathons across the world – and a waiting list of people keen to give it a try.

Cathy herself ran her first London Marathon in costume in 2002, the year after joining the charity, having never contemplated running one before. She has since completed Edinburgh, New York City, and the famous Marathon Des Sables in the Sahara Desert.

“When I ran the marathon in the costume I felt like a film star, it was like being on a red carpet the whole day, because you can’t believe all these total strangers are shouting your name, someone you’ve never met,” she says.

Victoria adds: “People are so kind – other runners will try to pass you water and make sure you’re ok, which is really sweet.

“Even when they’re struggling and having a horrid time they’re trying to look out for you, which I think is what the marathon does, it brings out the good in people.”

Berry White, a rhino keeper at the Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent, has completed 526 miles in costume, while Paul Cuddeford will pass the 700-mile mark at the 2019 race. They are the “king and queen” of rhino costume runners, says Cathy.

Victoria first applied to run for Save the Rhino when she turned 18. As a child, she had seen Nick Baker from the BBC’s The Really Wild Show run the Marathon Des Sables in rhino costume on television. She is now set to run her eighth consecutive London Marathon in 2019.

She has only run the race in rhino costume.

“By the time you get to the Start Line, it’s all in your head,” she says. “There’s so much adrenalin right at the start and for the first 10 miles it carries you through.

“But I read a Paula Radcliffe article a few years ago, and she said to get through a marathon she counts her steps, so I started to do that. So when it gets really hard and I’m running and walking and alternating, I’ll count to 100 over and over again and force myself to run for 100 and walk for 100. That’s one of my tactics.

“Normally by mile 22 I feel like it’s done and I can get there (to the Finish Line).”

Save the Rhino runner

Runners like Victoria help Save the Rhino to ensure all five species of rhino have a future, by raising vital funds to send equipment to rangers and making grants to programmes that support the cause of rhino conservation through education and scientific research. Their work not only supports the rhinos, but the people around them.

Save the Rhino became a registered charity in 1994, but its beginnings came three years earlier in 1991, when rhino enthusiasts Dave Stirling and Johnny Roberts embarked on a scramble bike tour – a ‘Rhino Scramble’ – from Nairobi, Kenya, back to London.

Encouraged by Rob Brett, the National Rhino Coordinator for Kenya at the time, and with help from Richard Leakey, then head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, a route was devised that would take Dave and Johnny through areas where the rhino population had heavily diminished or vanished completely. By the time they had returned to London, they had raised an impressive £125,000.

Then came the iconic costumes. Originally designed for the 1989 musical Born Again, itself an adaptation of the Eugene Ionescu play Rhinoceros in which the main character gradually finds himself surrounded by rhino, the costumes were donated by the Sir Peter Hall company to Dave and Johnny under the recommendation of actor William Todd-Jones.

Dave, Johnny and ‘Todd’ ran the London Marathon in costume for the first time in 1992 and so began Save the Rhino’s relationship with the world’s greatest marathon.

Cathy Dean was appointed CEO in 2001 and the charity has gone from strength to strength, celebrating its 25th anniversary in February 2019.

“We were a really lovely little organisation, we were a team of four people most days, but we were a bit sort of ramshackle and disorganised, raising about half a million pounds a year,” she says of the early days.

“I made us a bit more ship shape, the team has grown to nine people, but now we’re raising £2.7 million a year. Per staff member it has really increased.”

By Race Day 2019, fundraising at the London Marathon will have passed the £1 billion mark.

This year, the Virgin Money London Marathon wants to say #ThanksaBillion to all the runners, charities, donators, spectators, volunteers and staff who have made that incredible achievement possible.

Save the Rhino runners

The impact the London Marathon has on Save the Rhino’s fundraising efforts every year is not lost on the charity.

Cathy says: “We wouldn’t be where we are without the London Marathon, because the costumes are so famous. There was a piece in the Metro a few years ago asking which are the best loved costumes at the London Marathon and of course we came in at number one.

“The London Marathon has been fantastic for us. Of course it’s a big fundraiser, it’s the single biggest day in our fundraising calendar, but actually it’s not just about that. It’s about the profile, it’s about the visibility. People have heard our name, and you’ve got half a million people out on the streets cheering you on.

“Running a marathon is hard enough, doing it in rhino costume is just that little bit tougher, and I think that just sums it up. It’s blood, sweat, guts, tears…it’s all heart. I just love what it says about Save The Rhino. It’s a naff cliché but we will go that extra mile.

“It’s the best day of my year, whether I’m running or working, it just sums up everything we’re about.”

To find out more about Save The Rhino, visit