The little event that became the biggest fun run + walk in Australia.
To describe the Mother’s Day Classic’s co-founder Mavis Robertson as dynamo would be doing her a disservice. A driving force in the establishment and growth of industry super, Mavis was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1994 and, in 1998, Australia’s Human Rights Commission named her among their 50 “Great Australians”.
In 1998 after witnessing a breast cancer walk while on a visit overseas she returned and announced to co-founder Louise Davidson that the Women in Super network should consider launching a fun run/walk to raise money for breast cancer. At the time, industry superannuation funds, especially those with large female memberships, were seeing that breast cancer featured strongly in the highest group of diseases for accessing death and disability benefits.
Mavis galvanised the WIS network with some simple logic, she felt there was no point in advocating for women’s retirement outcomes if they were dying prematurely from breast cancer. Women in Super determined that breast cancer research would be of the greatest assistance for their fund members.
Having lost her mother to breast cancer aged just 52, Louise was on board with the concept almost immediately. It was the logistics of organising such an event that would come later.
This is the history of the Mother’s Day Classic, told by those involved in the growth of the little event that became the biggest fun/run walk in Australia.
Co-founders of the Mother’s Day Classic: Mavis Robertson and Louise Davidson
THE EARLY YEARS
Co-Founder Louise Davidson: We went into organising the first event with lots of enthusiasm and ideas but hardly any experience of a big participation event – most of us had never been to a fun run let alone organised one! The other thing that still stands out is whenever we asked anyone for help, they were on board. So many people had been touched by breast cancer there was a huge reserve of goodwill and support.
The first event in Melbourne, 1998
Louise: I remember watching 1800 people do the warm-up aerobics and being overwhelmed that so many people had come!
MDCF Board Member Lorraine Berends: For the first two or three years the Melbourne and Sydney events were held a week apart. They even had different names, the Sydney event was called “Race Abreast”.
Rosie Blight, 16-years-old, (Louise Davidson’s daughter) : When I was younger the day was really exciting because I knew all my friends would be there and we’d get to do the walk together and get fairy floss and bounce on the bouncy castle. I remember I was also so proud of seeing mum up on stage.
Long time MDC supporter and friend of Mavis, Fiona Reynolds: I remember Mavis coming back from New York with the idea for the Mother’s Day Classic -and me thinking – oh god not another Mavis idea!
Joan O’Halloran, owner of event company Sole Motive who has been involved since year one: I remember running out of race numbers and together with Kerry Howard hand writing numbers on paper.
Sandra Buckley, current Women in Super CEO: I attended my first MDC back in 2009 when a friend and I decided it would be a lovely way to spend the morning on Mother’s Day walking with other mothers to raise funds for a good cause. At the time we knew the breast cancer stats but didn’t know anyone who had been diagnosed. Fast forward, 11 years and we now know so many women who have been through their own breast cancer journey that the event has taken on a whole other meaning for us.
Lorraine: In 1998 I attended both events, the Melbourne event on Mother’s Day and then the Sydney event the following weekend. In some ways I was a bit of a “scout” on behalf of the Sydney organising committee, to see what we could learn from the Melbourne event to apply to the Sydney event a week later. I’m from Melbourne so it was also a great opportunity to catch up with my family.
Fiona: The first year that we had the MDC, it was held on separate weekends in Melbourne and Sydney and I went to both events, but the Sydney one was held first. I attended with Mavis Robertson.
Terry O’Halloran, owner of event company Sole Motive who has been involved since year one: My strongest memory of the event is from year one when I informed Louise after she approached us that I didn’t think the event would work because no one would come out on Mother’s Day. I have been happy to be proven wrong every year since.
Fiona: I remember being worried about whether people would turn up, what the weather would be like and had we done enough to bring it all together. It was very much being pulled together by volunteers with an event company.
MDCF CEO Sharon Morris: My first MDC was in 2007, I attended with friends and I set out to smash my PB. But as I started running with the crowds, I noticed tribute cards on the participants backs, and as I read those tributes that acknowledged and honoured those effected by breast cancer, I realised, this event was much more than a fun run. I slowed my pace and took in the atmosphere, the amazing spirit, comradery, togetherness and love.
It was a moment in time I will never forget and still leaves me with goose bumps today. So a few months after the 2007 MDC, when the opportunity came up to lead the event as national manager, I jumped at the chance and have been privileged and humbled to be part of such an amazing movement, that makes such a difference to women’s lives.
Tribute cards, 2006
Terry: That first year I ended up standing in the middle of Linlithgow Avenue behind Tom’s Block, just off St Kilda Rd, trying to direct runners and walkers. No one anticipated such a great response.
Thomay Gatis, Adelaide Event Chair: Adelaide’s first event at Pinkly Flat, Memorial Drive in 2005 we had 1100 participants – we were over the moon that we had that many turn up for our first ever event!
Lorraine: Getting a new event off the ground requires an enormous marketing effort: we attended countless other running events on many weekends to hand out thousands of leaflets; we wrote so many letters to potential sponsors; and we wrote to/phoned/emailed countless super funds and corporates in the financial services industry encouraging them to enter teams for the event.
Fiona: My strongest memory is spending many hours stuffing show bags in advance of the event and then being really excited to see so many people coming to register on the day.
Rebecca Harwood, Brisbane Event Director: My strongest memory from the 2004 MDC event in Brisbane was the tears at the start line of our very first event with just over 1900 people. Jan Bray was speaking on the stage and everyone’s heart just melted at the words she spoke and how great it was for Brisbane. The sun was shining, and everyone had a momentous day.
THE MDC BECOMES THE LITTLE FUN RUN THAT COULD
Louise: I can’t choose any one year as pivotal! Would it be when we expended to other capital cities aside from Melbourne and Sydney? Or when we became a truly national event? Or when we first started supporting regional events? Or when we passed 100,000 participants nationally? The list of possibilities is long…
Fiona: The event has got bigger and better and more professional – but it still has that same wonderful sense of community and of bringing people together.
In the early years, all my kids would come along and volunteer as well. I was really proud to be part of the superannuation industry at those times, so many people gave up time to ensure the event would be a successful and roped in family and friends as well.
Lily Blight, 16-year-old (Louise Davidson’s daughter)
As I’ve got older I’ve come to have a better understanding of the cause and how it really makes a difference. When I was younger, to me it was sort of just a fun thing I did with my mum on Mother’s Day. Now I realise there is so much more meaning behind it, which makes it feel really special to be part of.
Rebecca: 2013 was our biggest and best year. We had a mammoth amount of people at the event and the volunteers were fabulous. With these numbers we took over the South Bank parklands and really showed Brisbane how fabulous the event was for the community.
Sharon: The growth of the regional events from their beginning in 2007 is another favourite phase for me. Regional events came about because people in regional areas wanted to participate but didn’t want to travel to the capital cities, so we developed a regional manual, the ‘bible’ for organising an event. This allowed volunteers to set up their own MDC in their local community.
Ballarat MDC, 2009
Lorraine: I think when we look back in the future, the decision taken by Women in Super to form the Mother’s Day Classic Foundation to oversee the event will be pivotal. The event is facing challenges including increased competition and “pink fatigue”, and how we navigate these challenges will set the scene for the future of the event.
Joel Knott, Melbourne event director 2003 – 2016: The introduction of the regional events made 2007 the most pivotal year in the event’s history. It allowed the event to expand to all areas of Australia. In 2007 the event also expanded to Perth, Canberra and Parramatta. It also saw the Melbourne event relocate from Gosch’s Paddock to Alexandra Gardens.
Sharon: The growth of regional events have been a great success, a place for regional communities to come together and raise funds and awareness. Because breast cancer doesn’t discriminate, so many communities have been touched by this disease, and the MDC is a great way to have a positive impact on communities.
Louise: I’m not sure that I have a favourite year, but there are two years that do stand out from a personal perspective. The first one is in 2001, which was my first Mother’s Day Classic as a mother myself. The second was in 2015 which is the first time I attended the MDC as a breast cancer survivor.
Thomay: My favourite year in Adelaide was when we had approx. 9300 participants with a few hundred registering that morning – I think this was back in 2013. It was just incredible to see that many people get involved and that all volunteers coped so well with that many on the day registrations.
Adelaide, participant warm-up, 2013
Rebecca: For me the highlights are always the people who attend and their stories. The tribute wall is always a place that creates the most distinctive emotions for me
Lily Blight: There are so many aspects of the day I just love. The warm ups before the walk/run have always been a favourite of mine because it’s so much fun and brings everyone together, but I also really love seeing my mum on the stage talking about her experiences with breast cancer and how the Mother’s Day Classic started
Sandra: I couldn’t pick a favourite year but one of the highlights for me every year is watching the ‘sea of pink’ make it’s way over Princes Bridge into Alexandra Gardens and down to the start line as thousands of participants arrive. It starts early at about 6am and continues well into the morning and it really is a spectacular sight and gives me goose bumps every year! .
Fiona: I have some wonderful memories that include having done my own “MDC’s” once in New York with Mavis when we were travelling and once in London, where I now live. In New York we put our MDC medals on and walked around Central Park.
Lorraine: My highlight was attending the Melbourne event, I think in year five or six, and seeing the very full tribute wall and the number of people wearing tribute placards. One family of a father and two sons had lost their wife and mother just a week or so earlier. They were literally plastered with tribute cards. It reinforced for me the importance of the event in giving an outlet to those most affected by breast cancer.
Joel: Lisa Westlake’s aerobics warm-up (multiple years), 135,000 participants and $5m raised in 2013, the introduction of the tribute wall and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard starting the Melbourne 4km walk (2008). It is hard to single out a favourite year, as I enjoyed every year that I was involved with the event.
Julia Gillard, Melbourne MDC 2008
Lorraine: In the mid-to-late 2000’s, an acquaintance said to me “I’m taking part in the Mother’s Day Classic next weekend, have you ever heard of it?”. I realised then that it was becoming a talked about event!
Fiona: My most vivid memory of the MDC was a small girl who went to the get her tribute card (the I am doing this for….) she was about 8 and she said she was so glad that we had the MDC and that she could do this for her mum. That all her friends were spending the day with their mums and without the MDC she would feel sad and alone on Mother’s Day. It still brings a tear to my eye when I think of this and it was the moment when I said – right that is why I am up early on a Sunday. I thought of that girl every year.
ALL THINGS CHANGE
Joel: The introduction of social media has allowed the event to have a year-round presence and created a digital community. It has connected all the events across Australia.
Lorraine: For the first few years, especially in Sydney, it was more of a corporate event, with most sponsors and many participants coming from the financial services industry. Now it is truly a much loved community event.
Rebecca (Brisbane): As this event has continued to develop as the South Bank precinct continues to change we have managed to negotiate with new challenges. For example, originally, we had this large block of beautiful green grass for warm-ups that now is occupied by the ABC building. We have moved the warm ups from the ABC building through to the Little Stanley Street green.
Joan: The greatest change for me over the years must be online registrations eliminating a lot of opening of envelopes and banking.
MEMORIES OF MAVIS
Louise: My strongest memory of Mavis’ involvement with the MDC is that she always had new and fabulous ideas for ways of growing the event and making it better.
Sharon: Mavis was a wonderful mentor and friend to me; she always had a sparkle in her eye when she spoke about the MDC. She always had lots of ideas and was an incredible visionary in many arenas from superannuation, gender equality, fundraising for research to nuclear disarmament. Mavis wasn’t afraid to move mountains to make things happen, so it is no surprise to me that she co-founded the Mother’s Day Classic to ensure funds were raised for research at a time when breast cancer research was not being funded in Australia. She just didn’t talk about it, she made things happen.
Mavis Robertson, Melbourne MDC, 2008
Louise: Mavis was always clear that this event should be about women taking their health into their own hands – she was an old-style feminist in that regard. She was fierce and warm all at the same time.
Sharon: I have many memories of Mavis, in particular at the MDC and in the office, but one of my fondest memories of Mavis was in the last year of her life, when I joined her at her home for a meal and to keep an eye on her post minor-surgery. It was Brownlow night, and she wasn’t about to retire for the night and be nursed, she was up for a party. She organised meat pies with peas, and we watched the red carpet, with all the fashion, celebrity and gossip. Despite the difference in age, wisdom, life experience and knowing that I was sitting next to a truly extraordinary woman; at that moment we were just two girlfriends enjoying a very Australian night of viewing – and I will treasure that moment for ever.
Fiona: I can’t think of the MDC – without thinking of Mavis, and I really miss her.
THE WAY FORWARD
From the seed of an idea that originated in the mind of an extraordinary women, in its 21-year-history the Mother’s Day Classic has raised $33.2 million for breast cancer research.
The five-year survival rate for breast cancer sat at 74 per cent in 1994 (four years before the advent of the Mother’s Day Classic), today that survival rate sits at more than 90 per cent.
59 research projects have been funded, with over 250 scientists researching thanks to the Mother’s Day Classic.
While much has been achieved, we still have a long way to go, If Mavis was here she’d say: well done, now get to work.