An Open Letter to the Running Shoe Companies (Only Half in Jest)

The recent migration of middle-distance Olympian Nick Symmonds from Nike to Brooks and the saga of where Olympic distance runner Kara Goucher would wind up after leaving Nike (She chose upstart women’s clothing manufacturer Oiselle http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/bodywork/in-stride/Kara-Goucher-Leaves-Nike.html?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=tweet) has gotten me thinking about marketing in the running industry. Here’s the thing: I’m all for companies such as Nike, New Balance, Adidas, Brooks, Oiselle, etc. supporting the livelihoods of professional runners even though when you look closely at the business model it doesn’t appear to make any sense. As a sport, running is like soccer in the United States during the 1970s and early 1980s: everyone was doing it, but nobody was watching it. Running faces a similar problem. Where I live in the capital region of upstate New York on any given weekend starting during early spring, there are multiple races in which to test one’s mettle. The Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club’s fall half-marathon was closed out in half a day (I missed the sign up because I was running…grrrrrr.). There are numerous clubs and many, many, group runs during the week. Only the most cynical or unobservant could possibly conclude that the sport of running is not amazingly vibrant and healthy at the participant level. At the professional level – the level that needs fans and followers – the rhetoric that surrounds the sport is one of crisis. The typical professional runner makes $16,000 a year. There is a labyrinthine bureaucracy supervising competition that makes it difficult for professionals to innovate. Ever notice that a professional runner’s shorts and singlet are almost completely free of advertising? Professionals such as Nick Symmonds would like that to change. What the elite branch of the sport needs is a league that fans could follow and that would have runners representing cities in a series of competitions that would lead up to some type of title match. Author and announcer Toni Reavis has written several times about this proposal, as well as other ways of growing a fanbase. I’m going to tackle some of these issues in subsequent posts (Why, for example, does every athlete sponsored by Nike or Adidas, etc., always wear the same design and color of uniform? It’s bizarre and it makes running even more difficult to follow for the inexperienced fan).

Today, however, I have a proposal that might actually undermine efforts to support professional runners – sorry. It’s more of an appeal to the pragmatic business acumen of the major running shoe companies, although there is really no legitimate reason why my proposal and continued support of professionals should not comfortably co-exist. OK, here it goes: I race more often than Galen Rupp and a lot more often than a professional marathoner such as Ryan Hall. Obviously, the quality is not the same (duh), but this is more about contact. The runners that you are trying to sell shoes to probably don’t even see the elites when they are featured in the same race. Regular, everyday, runners at races have little idea of what shoes the elites are wearing, and have even less information about how those shoes perform. Let me rectify that. I race frequently and would race even more frequently with your support. I often get into conversations at races with fellow runners about shoes, training, etc., and find that I can be quite the brand ambassador without really intending to. Even though Hoka One One has just signed a major sponsorship deal with Leo Manzano earlier this week, I think that I would also be a good fit. I can’t stop endorsing the Bondi 2 – it has allowed me to up my mileage without getting injured. I can go on a long run and then do it all again the next day. This is quite a revelation for the masters runner. I would be happy to talk up Hoka One One at the various races I attend. When I run races, I am not so far out in front that other runners can’t see my shoes or what I am wearing. You’ll get maximum brand exposure, because I spend more time on the course. I am fast enough, however, for some to wonder if “It must be the shoes.” (See what I did there, Nike?) I think this sponsorship deal would be fairly straightforward. I need some free shoes, kit, my entry fees, and travel expenses (Travel, at this point is not going to be too expensive. I am still completely local – I even run to some of my local races. I do, however, have aspirations of traveling to the National Cross Championships someday.). What you get in return is brand exposure that runners at local races will actually see and an enthusiastic advocate of your products. True, Hoka One One is going to have to get a racing flat out pronto, but since Leo joined that is something that is being fast tracked. (I have to admit that I am very excited about the prospect of Hoka One One making spikes. Hoka foam under the spike plate sounds wonderful…) OK, running shoe companies, if you are interested in my proposal, contact me on my blog and I will get right back to you.

Yes, I wore tights -- it was cold.

Yes, I wore tights — it was cold.

After having made the claim that my status as an average masters runner makes me a good candidate for a new model of sponsorship, I went out last weekend and blew my amateur status. I finished second in a local road race and was happy to discover a fifty-dollar Visa gift card in my award bag – sweet. I went out and treated the family to ice cream and there was actually some money left over (I live in New York…).

More On Motivation

I have noticed a recent trend among the fitness blogs that I have been reading. We are all desperately waiting for spring to truly arrive. I think that with the official end of winter, our tolerance for cold, snow, sleet, and wind is at an end. I have further noticed that many of us are just venturing out and pretending that spring has indeed arrived. Last week, I went out in a long-sleeved shirt and wind vest thinking that I might be overdressed, since the thermometer looked like it was approaching the high forties (Fahrenheit). About a quarter mile into my run, I had the realization that I was pushing the season. There was more wind than I had anticipated; the sun, which had been briefly visible, was now behind the clouds and wouldn’t be coming back. It felt like the middle of January.

Around two miles, I was starting to bargain: “This is ridiculous. If I am doing this for fun, why am I still out here – this can hardly be called fun. Hey, I did something today and I’m keeping to the mantra of ‘doing something every day.’ I’ll just finish up with one of my short loops and call it quits.” The bargaining phase lasted for about half a mile and I soon found myself on a steady eleven mile run with a few surges thrown in. After three miles in the wind and cold, I warmed up and actually enjoyed the rest of my run. I’m still looking forward to running in shorts and short-sleeved shirt (sometime in June I imagine…), but my triumph over the elements has gotten me thinking about both the merits of warming up and the nature of training and motivation.

I find that if I can get through the first several miles on a cold and windy day, I’ll be able to finish an eight to ten mile run and actually enjoy most of it. I don’t think it’s a matter of merely warming up, although it does seem like it takes longer these days for my body to fully get into running. My better races are usually preceded by a two-mile jog, regardless of the distance, and when I am using the treadmill, I usually give myself a mile or two at ten minute-per-mile pace before I really start my workout. When I’m running outside in less-than-ideal conditions, I also feel that I need to get my head in the run. There are a lot of competing voices usually urging me to go back inside, even when I know that I will ultimately enjoy at least some part of the workout. I know that I’m not the only runner who loves to run, but also has to talk themselves into doing it – why is that? I remember reading an interview with Canadian masters runner Ed Whitlock – the first seventy-year-old to run a sub three-hour marathon and whose 2:54:48 at age 73 was an age-graded 2:03:57! – in which he admitted that he found his training to be “quite a bit of a drudge.” (http://www.runnersworld.com/elite-runners/interview-with-ed-whitlock)  Whitlock’s typical training day is doing 600-meter loops around a cemetery for three hours at a time, so I found it odd that he would spend all this time and effort merely to race well. He must find it worthwhile, but I get the impression that if he wasn’t racing, he probably wouldn’t be running. This might be almost the opposite approach of runners like George Sheehan and Bill Rodgers, who gave and give the strong impression that they would be out running even if racing had never been invented. I don’t think that this is merely an indication of their relative competitiveness, because both Rodgers and Sheehan were notoriously competitive when they were racing.

What I’m trying to get at here is an exploration of motivation. Would I be running if there wasn’t some future race on my calendar? I have spent years in the past running without training for a race, but I also didn’t improve and I found it easy to skip days. I felt a need to run, but I didn’t think too much about getting faster. I found a route that I liked and ran it day after day – never added too much distance and never ran it all that much faster. I told myself that I would start racing, “as soon as I got in shape,” but I never managed to convince myself that I was ready to race. It turns out that for me a looming race is a great way to keep motivated. I love running and would do it anyway, but I find that training for a race can be the necessary spur to get me outdoors on a really yucky day or that can get me on the treadmill (oh, joy). I have to admit that some of the motivation to train comes from the desire not just to run to the best of my ability in a race, but to avoid that horrible “I’m not quite in shape for this” feeling that can accompany a race. Every season I experience this to some degree. Last year, it was racing my first 5K of the season after taking a week off after HMRRC’s winter series races and then coming down with a series of colds. I didn’t realize I was undertrained until I took off from the starting line and kept waiting for the first mile marker. It took awhile to arrive. When you are desperately looking for mile markers in a 5K, it’s a really bad sign – you have stopped racing and are now surviving. This year, I have avoided illness, have remained injury-free, and have managed to keep my mileage up. During the last several months, I have idly wondered whether this is the year that I am going to experience problems associated with overtraining rather than undertraining. There have been times where I felt that I was on the verge of overdoing it – not just tired but kind of depressed – and wondered if I was getting a bit too close to the edge. I realized the other day, however, that you won’t know that you are overtraining until you are overtraining, especially if you are trying to stack up miles to get to another level.

More Motivation

More Motivation

Cupcakes

Additional Motivation

The problem, of course, is that the edge is different for every runner. If forty miles a week feels good, how would fifty feel? Sixty? I read somewhere that fifty might be the dividing line where breakthroughs are made. When testing limits, however, we also need to be wary of the breakdown line. I have the feeling that the two might be very close together. I guess I might soon find out.

 

Motivation Strategies Gone Awry

I forgot to tell everyone about the insane (in retrospect, as I will explain) thing that I did in the middle of January. Merely as a method of motivation, I decided that I would forgo beer until I reached my racing weight goal of 155 lbs. I didn’t have any illusions that the calories saved through beer’s avoidance would be enough to take off the pounds. It was a rule implemented solely to provide some focus and discipline. Now, I’m not one of those runners whose main reason for running is so that they can drink large quantities of beer. There are, of course, running clubs that appear to have done exactly that through the successful merging of running and beer and there is, in fact, a documentary film on the horizon that examines one of the most famous of these clubs, The Fishtown Beer Runners from Philadelphia (http://www.runnersworld.com/general-interest/upcoming-documentary-about-running-and-beer). I’m a firm believer that Guinness is one of the best recovery beverages and that there is nothing better than sitting out on the back porch with a Newcastle Brown after a hard summer run. I thought that the threat of losing my recovery beverage would help to keep me on track for cutting those last few pounds before the spring racing season. I also have to admit that I had just upped my mileage, had immediately and easily lost two pounds, and assumed that the rest would quickly follow. That’s just not the way that diet works, is it? I should have known better. I lost a bit of weight and then I stabilized. I can only assume that the mileage increase also had the effect of improving my running efficiency. So, for the last several months I haven’t had a beer (I know, this is pretty much the definition of a first world problem…) and my weight has stabilized despite the increased distance. All, however, is not lost. I did manage to take slightly more than a minute off of my 4 mile personal best, so something seems to have worked. I really hope, however, that there’s not a true correlation between abstention and running performance.

If you race long enough, you'll pick up a lot of these. What to fill them with?

If you race long enough, you’ll pick up a lot of these. What to fill them with?

While I’m on the topic of diet and exercise, it looks like our friend Kevin Helliker from The Wall Street Journal has come out with another one of his fitness anxiety pieces, “Why Runners Can’t Eat Whatever They Want: Studies Show There Are Heart Risks to Devil-May-Care Diets – No Matter How Much You Run” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303949704579461381883678174?mod=e2fb). Although Helliker once again cites his favorite cardiologist, James O’Keefe (who you may remember insists that a moderate twenty miles a week is all the running you should be doing) and strings together a slew of half-related studies and anecdotal evidence to almost construct a valid argument, I have to admit that the main point of Helliker’s article does bear (I almost wrote “beer” there) some thinking about, particularly for the masters runner. I first became cognizant of the fact that I couldn’t eat anything I wanted to, even if I was running a lot, when, more than a decade ago, I had upped my mileage and was still gaining weight. How was this possible, I asked myself? Well, I soon realized (OK, maybe not soon enough) that there was a straightforward calculus of calories consumed and calories expended of which one needed to be aware. There really is no way around this simple fact. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that what you eat – how is this surprising – also contributes to your overall health.  This might be the crux of the problem for the long-distance runner. When you are doing high mileage, moderate eating can be difficult – a scoop of ice cream turns into a really big bowl, a slice of bread becomes a loaf – you get the idea. You’re hungry – you need to fuel. Well, now it looks like we need to be careful about what we’re fueling with – less ice cream, diary, cheese, and cake (and…uh…cupcakes). Eat more fruit, beans, and vegetables and keep serving sizes modest. I think that most masters runners are probably already aware of the moderation mantra – we just need to be mindful of it.

Spring Resolutions: More Mileage

It’s the first day of spring and a week after my birthday, so I thought to myself, “What a great day to recommit to my blog.”  My few followers may have noticed that I haven’t actually posted anything since the end of November – urk. This is probably not the best way to gain a following. I realized during the last several days that my blogs often become completely unwieldy and as a result they get delayed in the editing process and remain unpublished. So, I am going to try to write briefly and frequently. I have to admit that graduate school is probably to blame. I always feel that I need several citations – at least – to support my opinions and I start writing like I need to fulfill the demands of outside readers. My inner critic and editor make it almost impossible to write at times. I am really trying to kick the critic to the curb; because, in the final analysis this is supposed to be fun.

Although my writing has been just about nonexistent for the last several months, my running has actually been going well.  Many runners appear to visit my site for updates on the mystery of leg cramps, so I will – yet again – offer an update. My last post indicated that it would be the final word on the topic, but I can’t resist an update. I got back from Christmas vacation and decided that I would run in the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club’s January first Hangover Half Marathon. I felt that I had enough long runs in during the previous several weeks, and my training had been going fairly well. On the day of the race I woke up feeling good. The temperature was in the low 20s with a ten mile-per-hour wind. I seem to recall that it was sunny. For a winter race in the New York Capital Region the conditions were excellent. I told myself that I was going to take it fairly easy at the start and see what happened.  Of course, I got drawn into a very fast early pace, felt good, and about five miles in noticed that I was well-under personal-record pace for the half marathon distance and I was feeling good. I really wasn’t expecting to be in this position, so I started pressing. At nine miles the wheels fell off – I started cramping like I have never cramped before – not just calves, but hamstrings, as well. I slowed down quite a bit, but was still able to continue running between the leg spasms. The final four miles were not fun, although I did finish up several minutes better than last year’s time.  Still, I was a bit disappointed that I had missed an opportunity to get under 1:30 for the half. The leg cramping was also a surprise. I had convinced myself that I was now running enough and had acclimatized enough to longer distances that the cramps were a thing of the past – not so much.

I still believed, however, that muscle weakness was the problem, so I upped my mileage during the winter – something I was planning on doing anyway. For the last two months, I have consistently run over fifty miles a week, topping out at sixty-nine during the middle of February. Much of this was done on a treadmill.  Yes, I will write a post about treadmill training in the near future. Here’s the good news: the increase in mileage has had great results. Several weeks after the half, I ran in the HMRRC’s winter series 10 miler and managed to take more than a minute and a half off of my 10-mile PR with not even a hint of leg cramps.  The benefits of increased mileage also appear to have continued with a minute PR for four miles at last weekend’s unofficial start of the spring racing season – The Runnin’ of the Green. This is a race I have always had trouble with and it was great to finally run a time that I thought I was capable of: 25:46.  So, after an initial cramping incident at the beginning of the year, I haven’t had any cramping problems and the one change that I made was upping my mileage. I am hoping that this might be the final word – from me, at least – on the mystery of leg cramps during the later stages of a race. The solution seems to be running more – something I can get behind.

That’s where I’m going to end it for today. I also received an awesome pair of Nike Lunarspider R4 racing flats for Christmas, which I will review in the near future. They’re a pair of shoes that you don’t wear in inclement weather conditions, so I have only managed to wear them twice, so far. Both runs were memorably fast.

Leg Cramps: The Final Word (Really?!)

I recently noticed that when people find my blog through an internet search, it is almost invariably for three reasons: they are searching for cramp remedies, they have heard some bad stuff about running and ibuprofen, or they want to get the 411 on kinesiology tape.  When I started writing this blog, I promised to return to various topics and offer some updates based on my being an experiment of one.

It may look like I am experiencing leg cramps...

It may look like I am experiencing leg cramps…

I’ll start with the issue of leg cramps. As I pointed out exactly a year ago, experts don’t agree on the causes of leg cramps. A fairly comprehensive piece by Gina Kolata in The New York Times, “A Long-Running Mystery, the Common Cramp,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/14/health/nutrition/14BEST.html?_r=0) gave a good rundown of the main suspects, including dehydration, sodium deficiency, and, finally, muscle fatigue. These are the big three, but I pointed out that regardless of the cause we needed some effective preventative, as well as ameliorative measures. I decided that I would experiment with ingesting mustard before races. The theory supporting mustard consumption is that that cramps can be caused by a deficiency in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates muscles to work and mustard contains acetic acid, which helps the body produce more acetylcholine. It is possibly the vinegar common in both pickle juice (a traditional anti-cramp remedy) and mustard that stimulates the necessary neurotransmitter. You may remember that I started having several tablespoons of mustard before races and that I ingested packets of mustard when I subsequently cramped during races. I wasn’t all that impressed with the results. I ran a series of longer races during the winter where I cramped during the later miles, ate some mustard from a packet, and continued to cramp. There also didn’t seem to be a whole lot of correspondence between dehydration and cramping. When I ran the New Year’s Day half-marathon – The Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club’s very popular “Hang-Over Half,” I was fully hydrated and made sure that I hit every water stop and slowed down enough to actually drink. Nonetheless, I experienced painful calf cramps beginning around nine miles.  Nothing was really helping and cramping during races was becoming increasingly frustrating.

I now return to this topic, because I think I have an answer.  It’s probably not the one anyone will want to hear. I don’t think there is any magic elixir of pickle and mustard juice that can be consumed, nor do I believe that hydration levels need to be obsessed over. Instead, I think that leg cramps are due to muscle fatigue and that increasing muscle strength and endurance over time is the surefire way to combat this problem. The magic is more running. It might be that simple.  In my own experience, it was telling that my first major problem with cramps occurred when I raced my first half marathon. The HMRRC course is flat and fast and I managed to run most of my splits up to eight miles faster than any previous races at those distances. So, I was running PR pace for everything and going longer than I had ever before raced.  In retrospect, it is fairly obvious that my legs were not used to both racing long and faster: my legs got very tired and I started to cramp. This also explains several weeks later when I cramped even earlier during a 10K race. The distance wasn’t a problem, but – even with the cramping – I took more than a minute off of my PR. I was running everything faster and it is now clear that my overall muscle fitness had not caught up with my new racing pace. Since increasing my long runs at the beginning of this fall, I have had fewer problems with leg cramps. At this year’s Hudson Mohawk Half Marathon, I only experienced calf cramps during the final four hundred meters. Likewise, at my first time running the 15K Stockad-athon several weeks ago, I only started cramping during the final half mile. In both of these races, cramps occurred when I tried picking up the pace at the end. The good news, however, is that despite faster running – the first half of the Stockad-athon is very fast – my leg muscles appear to by acclimatizing to increased speed and distance. I am convinced that much of this leg strengthening is due to the miles that I have put in over the years, as well as the recent increase in my long runs.  The solution, then, appears to be a long-term one – more running – rather than any type of quick fix.

One of the questions that emerge from this revelation is “what about well-trained, professional athletes, who experience debilitating cramping episodes?” In these cases, I would suspect that athletes doing a whole lot of mileage and speed work might be going into races with tired legs susceptible to muscle fatigue despite doing all the things necessary to build muscle strength and endurance. Thus, if you experience an isolated incident of cramping during a race, it might just mean that you did not taper adequately for a race and your leg muscles were still stressed from previous hard workouts. I think the key to avoiding leg cramps is to have the necessary muscle strength and endurance for your chosen race distance.  This, of course, is not as straightforward as it sounds, because we are always striving to go faster and longer and it is difficult to be prepared for every distance and speed, especially if you have never before tackled a specific distance. My final piece of advice: don’t get freaked out if you experience leg cramps while pushing the limits of your speed and endurance. It merely means you are pushing your limits; but, luckily, with additional training you can successfully push back those limits. Cramps, therefore, might be a sign that you are on the way to getting faster, a painful indicator; but, ultimately, a positive sign of improvement.

What Does The Wall Street Journal Have Against Running?

The Wall Street Journal is at it again. Almost a year ago, Kevin Helliker published “One Running Shoe in the Grave,” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323330604578145462264024472) which used some sketchy science and some odd anecdotal examples to argue that too much running could be a health risk. My conclusion at the time was that alarmists such as Helliker were too quick to settle on a very low threshold for what constitutes “over doing it.” I am willing to entertain the idea that ultrarunners could get themselves into trouble by never giving themselves time to recover from inflammation. I will also, however, not be surprised if we find out that ultrarunners’ bodies are able to more efficiently deal with inflammation – they would just about have to, wouldn’t they? Helliker followed up this inflammatory article with another later in the year, “The Slowest Generation,” The Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2013 (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324807704579085084130007974) which argued that today’s younger runners lack the competitiveness of previous generations. The recognition that the sport’s growing popularity has increased the number of beginning and inexperienced runners is quickly glossed over in favor of a more newsworthy “crisis of competitiveness” argument, which was taken up by subsequent commentators such as Toni Reavis, who argued that this is a general problem in the United States and not limited merely to running. With the publication of Chad Stafko’s opinion piece, “OK, You’re a Runner. Get Over It: Running a marathon is hard enough without also patting yourself on the back every step of the way” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304448204579186401818882202), The Wall Street Journal once again decided that poking fun at runners and stirring controversy is a good way to generate page traffic. I know that Stafko’s piece is meant to be funny in a snarky, undergraduate kind of way; but it is written – as are many of these WSJ opinion pieces – like a lazy blog entry and made me wonder if the WSJ still has a paper edition. Yes, we understand that you can’t fathom why people would choose to run, when you can drive. Yes, we get it that the 13.1 and 26.2 bumper stickers might be ostentatious and self-congratulatory (I, too, think they’re a bit silly. It’s like an excessive touchdown dance in the end zone – act like you’re going to be there again.) and that you think running is just about exhibitionism. Yes, we ultimately realize that this was an attempt to humorously rile runners in an effort to multiply page views. As expected, runners, as well as those who appear to really hate runners, all weighed in as evidenced by 871 comments (when I last looked) and still counting. I can guarantee that a similarly sophomoric opinion piece or badly researched article about the dangers of exercise will grace the pages of The Wall Street Journal every several months (This is probably more about page views and advertising revenue than anything else.) as long as readers continue to take the bait.

Stafko’s accusation that runners take up the sport to be seen – he questioned their “infatuation with running and the near-mandatory ritual of preening about it” – does raise the question about the meaning of running’s increasing visibility in our society. I think Stafko reaches the conclusion he does because he interprets all social interactions through the lens of capitalist self-interest – all of our actions (I don’t think many WSJ-enthusiasts would disagree) are shaped by money and the status conferred by money. With this type of “Wall Street Journal world view,” it does make sense that Stafko would interpret runners’ behavior and motivation as merely reflective of the worst aspects of the United States’ system of commercial capitalism: self-absorption and unchecked individualism. According to Stafko, runners run to be seen and subsequently the sport is more about conspicuous consumption than having fun, because how could it possibly be more fun to run ten miles than to drive?

Although Stafko’s piece was meant to rile runners, he does manage to indirectly raise some important considerations about why people run and running’s place in society as a cultural phenomenon. Since the 1880s (I’ll probably get more precise about this date range in the future.) there has been tension between the commercial attributes of the sport and running’s more metaphysical aspects. This tension and the struggle for balance was first manifest in the almost century-long debate between professionalism and amateurism and then, during the late 1970s with the rise of Nike, in the struggle between commercialism and running’s inherent radicalism. Running’s critique of societal norms, as well as its seeming promise to offer people a different way of giving their lives meaning has competed during the last thirty or so years with the recognition among various entrepreneurs and established athletics companies that given the right marketing running could be profitably “monetized.” At the same time that people such as George Sheehan and Bill Rodgers touted the simplicity of running and its essentially populist nature, companies like Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and Brooks (to name a few) were effectively arguing that running was not at all simple. In fact, to avoid injury and do it most effectively one needed protective, padded shoes, crammed with the latest in running shoe technology. This was an effective and profitable message that saw its corollary in all sorts of additional running gear. Running shoe companies, aided by a host of articles about training and injury prevention in books and magazines devoted to running, made a simple sport complicated. In making the complicated understandable (and in recent years, simple again) lay the avenue to profit.

I would argue that part of the commercialization of running was necessary to its coming of age as a professional sport. Sheehan and Rodgers, for example, were able to make their livings from the sport because of the popularity partially conferred through commercialization. I would argue, however, that they also professionalized the sport very much on their own terms. Rodgers often indicated that overthinking things could undercut one’s enjoyment of running, as well as training effectiveness, while Sheehan sold a lot of books by essentially arguing that running was appealing because it allowed for a very personal escape from the artificiality of the consumer capitalist system. It’s difficult to sum up Sheehan in one sentence and I have undoubtedly done an injustice; suffice to say that Sheehan was as surprised as anyone that he was selling books more about the metaphysics of running than the techniques of running. Without the growing marketing potential of the sport, however, it would have been unlikely that publishers would have taken risks on running books, or that Rodgers would have been able to open several stores devoted to running.

Stafko is right in recognizing that commercialization and the promise of profit has helped fuel the recent running boom. Weekends are filled with races, specialty running stores are popping up all over the place, and the shoe industry produces a dizzying number of models. Yet, after all is said and done, I would argue that people don’t take up running because effective marketing has convinced them that they should or that they feel consciously or subconsciously that this is a great way to fuel their exhibitionism, as Stafko would argue. For one thing, it takes too much effort – this isn’t a fad like collecting Beanie Babies, you still have to do the work (and it can be exhausting) – to become a runner. Thus, I would argue that running is still a transgressive act, even though it exists very comfortably in the world of business. Runners can’t help but to be seen. In fact, in this day and age, it’s an essential safety requirement. At its core, running constitutes a challenge to society. It is personal, yet communal. Perhaps most importantly, running provides a model of success that bears little resemblance to the money and status markers that typically define success in our capitalist society. It is a radical, empowering activity that has become mainstream and this must be scary for the Chad Stafkos of the world.

The New York City Marathon 2013: Some Final Thoughts

The New York City Marathon is now in the books, and my hat comes off for Toni Reavis’ prediction that Geoffrey Mutai was a sure thing. Marathon handicapping is a tricky thing. My guy, Olympic and World Championship winner Stephen Kiprotich never looked all that comfortable and looked like he was having a difficult time covering the leading pack’s surges. Mutai, however, looked impatient at times and ultimately ran away with it exactly as Reavis predicted, even though Mutai later admitted that the wind made it a tough race. It didn’t look all that tough, and one has to wonder what his time would have been without the wind. My prediction that Kebede might be “on the downside of his career” was obviously a bit premature. If he wasn’t trying to protect $500,000 he might have risked blowing up and challenging Mutai. Kebede looked good and I do predict that there are some additional marathon major wins in his future.

I did choose correctly (as did just about everyone else) in the women’s race, as Priscah Jeptoo won. I don’t think, however, that anybody predicted how Jeptoo would win. After spotting Buzunesh Deba 3:28 by mile 14, Jeptoo came storming back over the final miles to win by forty-nine seconds. The startling thing was that Deba and Tigist broke with the pack almost immediately, but really were not going all that quickly. The possibility of Deba “stealing” the race appeared to increase as the miles passed – she lives in the Bronx and trains on the course. It looked like an upset in the making. At a 1:54 into the race, however, Deba threw up and it was clear that she was slowing. I think she deserves a lot of props for hanging on for second place. I would definitely keep an eye on Deba for next year.

The final chatter coming out of the New York City Marathon is a perceived lack of competitiveness among the top American runners. Ryan Vail was the first male American in 2:13:23 in 13th, followed by Jeffrey Eggleston 2:16:13. Vail’s time was actually quite good considering the wind and bodes well for a sub 2:10 in the future. A cursory look back over New York results reveals that the U.S. field has never been all that deep. In 2003, for example Matt Downin ran a 2:18:48 to be the first American male. When Alberto Salazar won the 1981 New York City Marathon in 2:08:13, Tony Sandoval was the next top American in sixth in a time of 2:12:12. This is fairly typical, although it seems very fashionable these days to rue the lack of competitiveness among U.S. distance runners. The top American woman was Adriana Nelson, who ran a 2:35:05. No other Americans got under 2:40 and Joan Samuelson – age 56 – was the 15th American woman in 2:57:13 after decided the night before that she would even run the marathon. I wouldn’t start the hand wringing quite yet, but it is difficult to claim that American women didn’t have a rough go of it last Sunday. Should we immediately conclude that American distance running is in crisis, probably not? It might be easier to realize that the New York City course is tough at the best of times and the wind made it even worse. It has also been suggested that a lack of American-only prize money has made more competitive runners think twice about going to a race that will probably not result in a PB or a payday.

Finally, ABC7 and ESPN2 managed to deliver credible coverage of the marathon. There were some flashbacks to the old days when their coverage of the men’s race went AWOL and only returned after the Mutai’s surge had managed to break up the pack; but overall the coverage struck the right balance between professional sporting event and civic endeavor. It looks like it might be on for next year. On a personal note, I was inspired to go out for a long run and managed sixteen miles. Maybe a marathon is in my future…