After yesterday’s The Marathon Project in Chandler, Arizona (Dec. 20, 2020), NYTimes writer/runner Lindsay Crouse tweeted, “If I were wealthy first I would give a lot of money to charity and then I would put on another staging of @MarathonProj with $1 million to the winner, just to see what happens.”
Lindsay’s tweet may have been tongue-in-cheek but in fact, she hit on a topic that has long haunted the sport of athletics, its lack of high stakes. Though athletics refers to itself as a professional sport, in a world where pro athletes earn millions, most runners who earn anything at all earn a few thousand. And even much of the money that does exist is kept hidden from public view, a vestigial remnant of the sport’s amateur past.
Yesterday in the desert air of Arizona, the runners vied for $16,000 in prize money, with $5000 going to the winners, Sara Hall (2:20:32) and Martin Hehir (2:08:59).
The sense of drama that high stakes can confer on an athletic competition is rarely conveyed in running except at the Olympic Trials and the Olympics itself. And even there it isn’t money that is at stake, rather the Olympic distinction.
An interesting question that may be answered in this pandemic year of 2020 is whether running can stand on its own as a sport rather than as a civic tale of mass participation where charity fund-raising, economic impact, and human interest stories make up the heart of the enterprise with the pro race merely an appendage leading the way. Can a simple race hold people’s attention?
Yesterday’s The Marathon Project made strides in that direction. So did October’s Elite-only London Marathon as well as Eliud Kipchoge’s two Sub 2-Hour Marathon attractions in Monza, Italy, and Vienna, Austria in 2017 & 2019.
Elite-only has long been the model in Japan before Tokyo joined the Abbott World Marathon Majors in 2013 and created the first mass citizen’s race to go along with its professional field.
As presented by Ben Rosario, Josh Cox, and Big River Running Company’s Matt Helbig, TMP was limited to 90-plus runners split between the two sexes. It featured a robust pre-race media build-up including clearly stated goals to build public interest. The organization, though a one-off, was highly professional; and the coverage spot-on during which the race was the story.
In point of fact, there were (relatively) high stakes on the line for many of the runners spinning around the 4.3-mile loop course as annual shoe contract obligation and bonus clauses were in play. But like the use of appearance money at the World Marathon Majors, the public is never privy to such dealings.
The lack of financial import is part of what has made marathon running more of a public spectacle than an intriguing athletic competition.
The lone nit I had to pick with the staging concerned the mileage/kilometer signage on the loop course. All the readings were presented for the 90-odd runners, not for the thousands of TV viewers. So when the men’s lead pack passed a sign in the first three minutes of the race that the camera saw looking backward reading 22 miles, what would a novice watcher think? Because it wasn’t explained, it may have taken a second or two for new viewers to understand that that particular marker pertained to a subsequent loop farther down the course heading in the other direction.
Some old-timers may remember when the finish line tape and signage were pointed toward the winning runner, but be blank on the backside from the cameras’ POV. Finally, somebody suggested that you turn the tape and finish line markings around so the camera can capture the sponsor’s name for many thousands of viewers rather than to the single runner breaking the tape.
Double-faced signs and clocks have long been used in Europe. The fact that they never caught on in America indicates how the coverage of the sport has been less central than the participation, reinforcing the opinion that the sport can’t appeal to a broader audience, which may, indeed, be the case.
The Marathon Project was, in its way, like a self-published book, prepared to make money, but not primarily designed to do so. TMP was staged by a coach, Ben Rosario (HOKA NAZ Elite), and an agent, Josh Cox, looking to get work for their clients in a Covid crushed industry. They invested their own money, then picked up some sponsors along the way to help defray costs.
But the question is, could a wealthy benefactor budget a marathon race to be like a big-time boxing match or MMA fight in which a small number of athletes (fewer than 100 like TMP) battle for a big prize bankrolled by a savvy promoter? The Sub2-Hour Marathon events captured a sense of that but focused their spotlight on a single athlete, Eliud Kipchoge, the recognized World #1 marathon runner. Will other ad hoc promotion teams be inspired by The Marathon Project? Or are we just holding on till what’s left of normal returns on the backside Covid-19?
Whatever the future holds, The Marathon Project came off as well as the organizers could have possibly hoped. The Marathon gods smiled on the day with perfect conditions and the athletes performed beautifully led by Sara Hall’s #2 all-time U.S. women’s performance and MartIn Hehir’s impressive 2:08:59 victory, leading a record seven U.S. men sub-2:10. The Marathon Project earned widespread praise and will be long remembered for its impressive support of the running game.
Now, Lindsay Crouse, go dig up that million-dollar promoter and let’s see what, indeed, may happen.