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…).

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Distance Running in Crisis: Some Initial Thoughts

My new goal for the next several months is to write more and procrastinate less. My original intention when I started this blog was to examine running from the perspective of a masters runner to sort out the best ways of getting fitter, faster, and, ultimately, to have more fun. I also wanted to explore running as a cultural phenomenon and use my historical training to make some interventions into running’s greater meanings.

During the last several months, various commentators have blogged and published articles arguing that the sport of running is in crisis. My intial read on this was that crisis sells newspapers and helps to generates blog traffic. Closer examination, however, reveals that there do appear to be some valid arguments that point to larger problems concerning the popularity of running as a spectator sport. Over the next several weeks, I am going to examine some of these problems and offer some solutions.

The first crisis that I am going to tackle has been lurking since at least the early 1990s: spectator interest, so the argument goes, in the sport of distance running as been undermined by a lack of competitiveness among U.S. distance runners at the international level, as well as in domestic marathons such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. This has resulted in less support for U.S. distance running as the financial backers of the sport have perceived less marketing potential in supporting elite athletes. Several months ago, for example, the Competitor Group very publicly ended appearance fees for elite athletes running in their Rock ’n’ Roll race series in the United States. Subsequent discussion made it clear that the private equity firm Calera Capital that owns Competitor Group, Inc. (CGI), believed that having elite runners at its events didn’t actually recruit participants and that they could make plenty of money by providing everyday fitness runners with an entertainment experience, as well as a destination. Why this came as a surprise to anyone is rather astonishing – CGI is first and foremost a media company designed to generate maximum web traffic and sell advertising. The development of elite runners seems to have been a side effect of their business model. Why did they pay large appearance fees for several well-known runners, such as Kara Goucher and Ryan Hall, to run in their races in the past? The argument is that the participation of elite athletes in CGI events are necessary to convince the media that these races are competitive “real” events that they should cover. Media coverage, in turn, generates excitement and interest that attracts regular fitness runners to submit their race applications and pay their entry fees. There aren’t a whole lot of events that a “hobby” athlete can compete in with the elite professionals of their sport. That was the idea behind CGI’s model of high appearance fees for a few name elites combined with generally small prize purses. It would also appear that high appearance fees combined with low prizes helped to restrict the domination of African distance runners that has occurred at the major city marathons during the last several decades. What would happen, however, if someone within Calera Capital or CGI questioned this business model? This did happen with the announcement that CGI was ending appearance fees for elite athletes at most of its Rock ‘n’ Roll race series events.

I think it is clear that with the increasing popularity of color runs, obstacle course runs, and the ballooning of haphazardly organized charity 5Ks –– all “races” in which competition is secondary to “having fun” (like racing isn’t fun!), merely finishing (an accomplishment, of course, for first time racers not to be scoffed at – my first five miler when I was in sixth grade seemed very long and my big goal was to finish without walking), or establishing real, face-to-face community in an increasingly depersonalized society –– allowed CGI to wonder if elite athletes were really all that necessary. There is plenty of evidence that even serious runners aren’t influenced to join a specific race because of elite participation. Toni Reavis provides a great example of a woman qualifying for the Boston Marathon who could have cared less about whether there were running elites in her race or not: “I wouldn’t even know if there were elite runners at the Rock `n` Roll Marathon,” she said of the race where she ran her old PR 4:18.” (http://tonireavis.com/2013/09/16/dumbing-down-slowing-down/) The question remains, however, how CGI’s new approach to the Rock ‘n’ Roll series will affect their bottom line. Will media coverage decline when there aren’t any stories of elite competition on which to focus? Will declining coverage undermine the number of race entries? Will cities be less amenable to closing roads for a race that will garner only a minimum of media interest? These questions, of course, remain to be answered. It might turn out that elites do provide some intangibles that contribute to an event’s prestige and help to spur necessary race entries.

Days after CGI cut elite athlete appearance fees, CEO Scott Dickey explained that the Rock ’n’ Roll series had always been more about the regular back of the pack runner and was “more about the lifestyle than the sport.” (http://www.runnersworld.com/races/rock-n-roll-series-significantly-lessens-elite-program) Dickey’s quotation is instructive. One of the problems that distance running in the United States faces is the separation between lifestyle and sport. It reminds me of the dilemma that the North American Soccer League confronted during the late-1970s and early-1980s. Soccer-boosters couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that although there was a soccer “boom” occurring at the club level (It appeared that every girl and boy in the United States between the ages of seven and fourteen was on a local team.) and widespread interest in the game, the NASL was mired in financial issues that could be partially traced to a lack of fan interest. The public was just not watching soccer – either at the stadiums or on television. The lack of television viewership was a serious problem, as advertising revenue suffered and the NASL television contracts paled in comparison to the money that professional football and baseball commanded. At the time, observers explained this as a symptom of the seeming impossibility of televising a soccer game with commercials (a problem subsequently easily solved), although it is evident in hindsight that those who played soccer may have been more interested in doing it than watching it. Rather than inside viewing, they were outside playing. You can probably see where I am going with this analogy. Running is essentially an individualistic sport of singular accomplishment. Most participants in a typical road race will not be contending for an overall victory. There are, however, personal triumphs –– completing the distance without walking, setting a personal best, raising money for a charitable cause, getting healthier by training for a race –– that make it appealing to each participant in specific, personal ways. This is one of running’s strengths as a mass-participation sport, but it is also a weakness, particularly when it comes to marketing the sport at an elite, professional level. The majority of the sport’s participants have goals and definitions of success within the sport that are only tangentially related to the sport’s elite level.

The problem, therefore, is how to turn runners into devoted fans of the sport of distance running. One of the underlying subtexts of this question addresses the issue of competitiveness. A recent inflammatory article, “The Slowest Generation: Younger Athletes Are Racing With Less Concern About Time,” by Kevin Helliker, writing for The Wall Street Journal, argued that along with the mass-participation ethos of road racing there was an “embrace of mediocrity” as younger runners just didn’t seem to be all that interested in getting faster or even competing. (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324807704579085084130007974) Instead of recognizing the likelihood that increasing marathon times reflect the healthy influx of less experienced runners participating in the sport in record numbers, he draws the conclusion, instead, that this is indicative of a more general competitive malaise among Americans. Helliker goes on to quote the ubiquitous Toni Reavis: “This is emblematic of the state of America’s competitiveness, and should be a concern to us all.” This crisis of competitiveness sounds similar to the crisis of masculinity that commentators identified at the beginning of the twentieth century that was subsequently “solved” by Teddy Roosevelt taking sparring lessons in the White House and sending U.S. troops to Central and South America on a regular basis during the twentieth century. It is a stretch, however, to equate increasing road race times with a crisis in competitiveness –– especially the competitiveness of professional runners –– when there is plenty of evidence to indicate that U.S. professionals are actually getting more competitive. I’ll defer this discussion for a later blog.

This lack of competitiveness that Helliker and Reavis identify, however, could be quite useful in understanding why runners don’t become fans of the sport. I think they reach the wrong conclusions about “competitiveness.” Rather than leading to mediocrity at the professional level, disinterest in competition among everyday fitness runners leads to a lack of desire to become fans of the sport. Just because you love running and it has become part of your “lifestyle” does not mean that you are an active participant in the “sport” of running. I’m not sure if inculcating a new, more competitive ethos in the average road race participant is possible or even desirable (I think there are some signs that over competitiveness and a complete focus on racing could sour some people on the more community-oriented aspects of the sport.) as a way to increase fan interest in distance running. It is possible, for instance, that we are conflating two separate issues. There is, however, another possible intervention, that could generate interest among the general public in the sport and that is by revamping the sport itself by making it more media and fan friendly. How to go about doing this is a topic that deserves several blog entries. I am going to initially focus on one reform suggested by journalists such as Toni Reavis and Running Times columnist Parker Morse. This is the adoption of team competition for distance running to overcome the fact that the competitiveness of the sport at the international level precludes –– except in rare instances (Morse points out that Bill Rodgers is intimately associated with the Boston Marathon and Greta Waitz with New York) –– the association of an individual athlete with a specific marathon. This lack of consistency undermines fans’ desire to follow distance running. The solution is to cultivate running teams similar to other professional sports teams, that spectators could follow over time and to which they could develop loyalty.

One of Reavis’ ideas, earlier foreshadowed by Morse in his Running Times’ column, “In Search of Continuity: Why teams would work better than records to build our sport” (http://www.runnersworld.com/rt-columns/search-continuity), is to develop running teams that would represent cities. Reavis briefly describes this team-based response as a way to popularize track and field, as well as road racing, in his blog of September 28, 2013, entitled, “Team-Based Competitions Rather Than Individuals.” (http://tonireavis.com/2013/09/28/team-based-competitions-rather-than-individuals/#more-8363) The individual runner would be incorporated within the identity of a team. This is a good idea since one of the problems with distance running is that top runners often get injured and drop out before the race even starts, thus hampering the ability of spectators to follow a specific athlete on a regular basis. Team competition might lessen some of this disappointment by fostering spectator loyalty with a city-identified team. True baseball fans, for instance, don’t stop following, or, more importantly, watching the Boston Red Sox because Dustin Pedroia has spent the last two weeks on injured reserve. They also didn’t stop following the Red Sox when Yaz retired. The idea is that fan loyalty and interest, as well as continued viewership, will increase when the public identifies more strongly with a team than a specific individual on the team. Ultimately, then, the development of team competition based on cities will overcome the fan loyalty pitfalls associated with a sport in which individual accomplishment is often the only indicator of professional success. The team competition model also allows us to avoid thinking that the only way to solve the spectator problem is to make everyday fitness runners more competitive and that somehow this will make them more interested in watching specific athletes. The city team model has a lot to offer and deserves to be realistically assessed and, hopefully, implemented.

If you have stayed with me so far, I can say that this is merely the beginning of my ongoing examination of the crises associated with the sport of distance running. Next time, I’m going to discuss the unanticipated results of professionalization on the sport.

Just completed the Hudson Mohawk Half Marathon on October 13, 2013

Just completed the Hudson Mohawk Half Marathon on October 13, 2013

In other news, I’m still a fan of my Hoka One One Bondi Bs, although the sole wear really needs to be improved. My training is going well and I have started to finally heed the advice about running my recovery and long runs much more slowly – 9:30-10:00 minute per mile pace. I definitely feel better the next day and I am confident that I will be able to use this strategy to boost my mileage. My last race was the USATF Adirondack Cross Country Championships where I ran several seconds under twenty minutes. I good result for me, since I really didn’t see myself breaking twenty on the Saratoga Cross Country course anytime soon.

Finally, as part of my efforts to spend more time writing, move to the next level of blogging, and attract more readers, I have installed a PayPal donation button. My intention is to keep my blog clean and free from advertising links, but raise some funds to help with coffee and beer expenditures. I would be much appreciative of any support – thanks.

Hoka One One Bondi Bs –– Yes, the hype is real

When I started this blog, I didn’t really see myself doing a whole lot of shoe reviews. There are (better) sites devoted to that (see, for example, Runblogger) and I tend to stick with the several shoe models that work for me. Several years ago, while suffering from painful plantar fasciitis in both feet, I made the switch to minimalist shoes and completely revamped my running form. I now (well, until several weeks ago…I’ll explain) alternate between a pair of Nike Zoom Streak XC 3s and the original Nike Lunar Racers (harder and harder to find…grrrrr). The Streaks are almost zero drop, extremely light, and are almost always on sale somewhere, so they are inexpensive. The update that Nike recently made was improving the tongue of the shoe – it is now padded and doesn’t bunch up at the sides –– and changing the name of the shoe and the colors (although it looks like the most recent release has changed the mesh…hmmm). The essentials of the shoe, however, haven’t changed (yay!).  If I had a direct line to Nike, I would suggest removing the Zoom Air in the heel –– I would be surprised if there are any heel strikers who wear this shoe for more than several minutes –– for some additional weight saving. Of course, if they did that, they would have just about reinvented the best racing flat of all time, the Nike Eagle. Anyway, going minimal and becoming a forefoot and midfoot striker changed my running for the better: I got faster, my knees stopped hurting, that weird click in my left knee went away, my feet stopped hurting, and I didn’t have to take a day off of running every other day. I began to evangelize for minimalist running.

Now, I’m going to shock you. This blog entry is an enthusiastic endorsement of the Hoka One One Bondi Bs. Not exactly a minimal shoe. My family initially called them “the clown shoes,” as did I. Ultra marathoners and runners recovering from injuries have embraced the exaggeratedly cushioned Hokas. I had seen some very enthusiastic online reviews and was intrigued, although the price was initially off-putting. Why did I think I needed a pair? Well, despite the joys of minimalist running, my running had stalled of late. I was stuck in a rut and had convinced myself that the cure was more volume. Unfortunately, I was finding that when I increased my mileage my legs began to hurt and I would have to take several days off before I could run again. My overall mileage actually started to decrease. What to do?

Hoka One One Bondi Bs

Hoka One One Bondi Bs

I bought (into) the Hokas. I have had them for several weeks and I can unequivocally say at this point that the reviews are true and the hype is real. I am not an ultra marathoner, nor do I have seemingly unsolvable chronic injury problems. Yet, I find the Hokas extremely useful. I don’t find that they make running all that much easier, but they make recovery I whole lot faster, which allows for more and better running. After I go for an eight to ten mile run in my Hoka One One Bondi Bs, my legs feel noticeably better immediately after a run (much less fatigued), as well as the next day. They don’t feel sore and beat down. I was concerned that the super cushioning of the Hokas would alter my running form and start me back on the slippery slope of heel striking. In fact, the Bondi Bs are my first true zero drop shoes and I found that it only took several hundred meters to get used to them. Despite the cushioning, there is actually some road feel and I found that they seemed to firm up over the course of a run. As everyone reports, they are absolutely fantastic for running down hill. They have a wide base and the super cushioning does a great job of absorbing downhill impact. I found them less ideal for going up hill –– the super cushioning feels like it is adding to the work. Some runners have reported upper tears in the mesh by the toe box. I haven’t had this problem and I suspect that Hoka may have addressed this problem in this version of the shoe. The upper is made of a durable mesh and has few overlays, as well as plenty of room in the toe box. This is a very comfortable shoe. The sole durability could be an issue. I immediately saw some wear in the midfoot area that is not protected by more durable rubber on the bottom of the shoe. It is fairly clear that I am striking a bit further back while wearing the Hokas. I still feel, however, that my stride hasn’t changed too much. I don’t have any chronic injuries, so I can’t speak to those who have used the Hokas to restart their running after years of not being able to do it. There do seem to be plenty of remarkable stories out there. I can say, however, that if you are looking to increase your mileage without overly stressing your legs, going the “maxi-minimalist” route with the Hoka One One Bondi Bs could be the way to go.