Sunday, July 12, 2015

How to make ultra running (even more) awesome: An open letter to The North Face Endurance Challenge Series

How to make ultra running (even more) awesome:  An open letter to The North Face Endurance Challenge Series

Let me begin by saying that I have deep philosophical disagreements with much of what I’m about to write.  I feel, on a visceral level, that the greatest things about running in general and ultra running in particular have to do with running’s participatory nature.  What moves me is watching runners come face to face with their personal limits, struggle, hurt, fall down, get up, and push against those limits as hard as they possibly can.  It’s awesome to see regular girls and guys who are going to come out of a race a bit wiser and a bit tougher than they were before – to know that, in however small and irrelevant a way, they will have experienced the triumph of our human spirits over our weak and fallible bodies.  It’s cool to know they will come out of the race with a story to tell, and to know they will most likely tell it repeatedly, no matter how much it annoys their non-running friends.

That was a long-winded way of saying that I don’t give a crap about what happens at “the pointy end” of the field.  The experiential nature of running that interests me seems to be less and less prominent as a runner becomes more and more proficient.  The experience and exploration of self is replaced by base competition, and to be frank, you don’t need to run 50 miles to have a competition.  A few hundred meters will probably do.

Instead, I’ve always liked romantic amateurism, but as Sally Edwards recently pointed out on a podcast with Trail Runner Nation, romantic amateurism is a truly stupid business model.  Money in sports is all about spectators, and you won’t find many red-blooded Americans with the patience to watch skinny people in baggy shorts jog for half a day at a stretch (case in point, curling is a far more popular spectator sport than ultra running).  If you want spectators to be interested in distance running, you need something more special.  To address that need, Edwards pointed out five things she considered to be critical for generating interest in a race, specifically used during her creation of the California International Marathon.

1) TV coverage, which is potentiated by
2) Celebrity athletes, who join the race because of
3) Prize money, which is given by
4) Corporate sponsors. 

Oh, and apparently it’s important to have
5) A great course (fortunately, “great” is in the eye of the beholder.  Seriously, who wants to run toward Sacramento?)

Given that I’d heard of the CIM before listening to the TRN podcast, I have to grant that Edwards is probably close to the mark.  On the other hand, given that the only runner I recognized on the 2014 finisher list was 10th place David Laney, whose name I only know from his ultra results, I’m not sure that the Celebrity Athlete criterion holds much water.  More to the point, the lack of fame on the finisher list reminded me of a truism from Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball.  Fans don’t come to games to see their famous players play; they come to see their winning teams win.

From the athlete’s point of view, ultra running is a solitary endeavor – the notion of team is essentially absent from the sport.  However, it’s quite possible for a team mentality to be generated in the mind of a running fan.  The typical high school cross country scoring system (one point for first place, two for second, etc., team with the lowest overall point total wins) allows fans to cheer for one team of runners in competition with other teams.  Our natural human propensity for tribal in-group / out-group psychology feeds right into that support.  That support could create great interest in ultra running, if only someone could create teams to match a part of our personal identities.  Enter The North Face Endurance Challenge Series.

One key to human identity is our sense of place.  There’s a reason that the Yankee’s, for all their success, still primarily draw fans from New York.  Part of this is certainly the ease of access – if you want to see a Yankees’ game, it helps to live in New York – but the identity of place is probably a larger influence.  New Yorkers consider themselves to be part of New York.  They consider the Yankees to be part of New York.  And so, despite wild differences between million dollar baseball players and the denizens of The City, New Yorkers consider those players to be part of their tribe, and they support them accordingly.

The Endurance Challenge Series is perfectly placed to take advantage of this primal aspect of human nature.  In order to create teams that draw from the identity of place, the ECS need simply invite the top six women and top six men from each of it’s regional races to compete as a team in the December championship race outside San Francisco.  Instantaneously, and for the paltry fee of a few plane tickets and hotel rooms, the ECS would have Team Washington lined up to race Team New York, Team Wisconsin against Team Ontario, and the dark horse Park City Team thrown into the mix.  Perhaps add in international teams from Trans Gran Canaria, UTMB, or the Australia 100K.  Play the team identities properly through social media, and people from Denver to Salt Lake would get excited about the Team from the Rockies.  Midwestern runners would start trash-talking Team Canada.  Everyone could be happy that the Mason-Dixon line still separates The District from The City, and we could all stand back to watch the US vs. Europe argument rage.  Add in prize money for the winning team, and you have enough drama to get traditional media deeply interested.

There’s another key aspect to team racing that could raise spectator interest in ultra events and shorter distance races as well.  From a spectator’s point of view, the typical distance race is half over the second it becomes clear that the leader won’t set a world record.  It’s perhaps 95% over as soon as the winner crosses the line.  Interest lingers a bit as the second and third runners finish, but then drops to zero while the vast majority of athletes run through the end.  A focused team competition, with team prize money, would break the myopic spotlight on the records and the first finisher.  All of a sudden the fates of leading teams depend not just on the first or second or tenth finishers, but possibly on the finishing place of runners struggling and bonking deep in the mid-pack, a scene that elicits drama for hours rather than minutes. 

Further, the team focus could span years much more smoothly than the focus on single athletes.  There’s no reason to think that Sage Canaday and Dakota Jones will both be healthy and interested in battling it out at the championship race this year, much less next, but every championship race for the next twenty years could feature Team Wisconsin battling Team Australia.  The decade long rise and fall of one team could be discussed and analyzed.  The consistent presence of a runner on another team could be noted and admired.  The possible end of a third team’s long also-ran status could be argued and debated.  Teams easily allow long-term story lines in a way that single athletes rarely do, and those long-term stories are compelling.

Now for the cynical part: the great thing about this scheme is how little it costs The North Face in return for how greatly it could increase the stature of the Endurance Challenge Series.  The North Face doesn’t have to pay the athletes in question, much less sponsor them.  You don’t have to care if the same athletes make a team year after year or if a stream of new faces appears – media can make a story either way.  You don’t even have to be responsible for maintaining or managing the teams; the regional races automatically create the teams anew each year, and the top runners who might make the teams will be managing their own training already.  All you have to do is continue your existing races and at worst pay for travel expenses, warm-up suits, and prize money for a few runners.   At best you could get the teams sponsored by local businesses (the Goldman Sachs Bears!) and the prize money covered by advertising dollars.  Also, while most of these benefits are aimed at raising the profile of the championship race, the competition to earn a spot on the regional teams should raise the profile of the regional races as well.

While I’m not entirely comfortable with the evolution of ultra running into an increasingly professional sport, I was struck by one more of Sally Edwards’s arguments.  She claimed that the increase professionalism of triathlon had given rise to an increased number of races and level of interest, which had in turn elicited a much higher extent of participation amongst amateur triathletes.  I’m not sure if the correlation is actually indicative of causation (does the NBA increase the number of high school basketball teams, or simply feed off them?), but the argument is convincing enough for me to propose the ideas above.  Regardless of how these sorts of changes might impact the culture at the top level of the sport, an increase in access and encouragement for regular runners is worth pursuing. 

So, The North Face ECS, if you want these ideas, I’ll sell them to you for a penny.  Note: actual penny not required to complete transaction. 

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