Missoula runners are known for putting in the miles to stay fit.

Nearly every month in and around town, there’s a race or walk hosted by Run Wild Missoula, the local running club – and some months there are multiple events on the same weekend.

But Missoula runners don’t just work up a sweat for themselves – more often than not, they run for a good cause.

In September, for instance, the hundreds of runners who participated in the Missoula Mile event raised a record $6,500 to promote awareness of prostate cancer and treatment.

Health statistics show that nearly one in six men will be diagnosed with the disease, said John O’Connor, an organizer of the event and administrator for Five Valleys Urology.

One hundred percent of the funds raised in the Missoula Mile goes to Partnership Health Center to provide patients free screening and treatment to patients with financial needs, O’Connor said.

The passing of the money, he said, comes with great appreciation for the people who helped make it happen.

“This has been a quiet event that has quietly been growing,” O’Connor said of the Missoula Mile, now in its fourth year. “We are very excited by the support we have received from runners.”

“It speaks to the nature of Missoulians in general, that we are a very giving community and we support each other when people see there is a cause they believe in or want to help with,” he said. “We are very grateful.”

Most recently, the Pumpkin Run in October raised $1,292 and the Turkey Day run collected 504 pounds of food for the Missoula Food Bank, said Eva Dunn-Froebig, executive director of Run Wild Missoula.

On Saturday, Missoula runners will take up a cause again – albeit indoors.

Due to cold weather, the third annual Missoula Jingle Bell Run, which benefits the Arthritis Foundation, is being restructured. The timed run/walk based at Caras Park will not be held, and a personal training event and other festivities will take place at the Runner’s Edge store on North Higgins Avenue.

Last year, participants raised pledges that amounted to nearly $20,000 to help bring awareness to, promote prevention of and find treatment for the chronic disease, which each year affects one in every five adults and 300,000 children, said Carrie Jacobs, program coordinator for the Arthritis Foundation’s Missoula office.

Although pledges and race registration has raised about $10,000 so far, Jacobs held out hope that more money will be donated before the fundraising campaign concludes at the end of the month.

“We are just blown away every year at the runners who come out and support us,” Jacobs said. “Arthritis is not the most well known chronic disease, but it is the leading cause of disability in our country.”

“We’ve come a long ways since we started this race three years ago,” she said. “And it’s great to see everyone come out in their festive costumes.”

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For Denise Graef, the event is personal.

The longtime Missoula athlete and mother of four sons has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was 21 years old.

When fatigue and body pain forced her to see doctors three decades ago, the prognosis was grim.

“I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t feed myself and my parents had to spoon-feed me,” Graef said. “Doctors told me if I lived to see 35 it would be a good day.”

Always an athlete who believed staying fit was the key to good health, Graef ignored the predictions and forced herself to keep moving despite the severe pain.

“I pushed myself, and the more I moved, the more I could move,” she said. “When I moved, it was with great pain, but if I didn’t move the pain got worse.”

As the days, weeks and years unfolded, Graef learned to walk again. Then she tried running, swimming and martial arts, and now can be found in the pack of runners at local 5K races.

Twice a week, she teaches an exercise class at the YMCA for the Arthritis Foundation.

“There are over 100 autoimmune diseases, and there are so many thousands and thousands of people affected by this,” she said. “I believe in fighting that, and I believe if you give people hope they will fight.

“Events like the Jingle Bell Run brings awareness to these issues, which is really important. And it’s all about movement, which is something I really believe in. I have the privilege of working with people who have autoimmune diseases, getting them moving and watching them get better.

“That they are improving is a life fulfillment that is hard to put into words.”

The money raised by the Saturday event will benefit people with arthritis who live in Montana, and in parts of neighboring states, Jacobs said.

Funding supports education programs around the state, evidence-based exercise programs such as the classes Graef teaches and provides a summer camp for children with arthritis.

“We work on helping everybody in our Western region,” Jacobs said.

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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