A Million Reasons to Run a Fast Marathon
New Balance comes along with a nifty million dollar offer for an American record marathon. Motivated?
Posted Friday, 15 November, 1996
Let's see if I have this right: You are one of the top distance runners in the USA. Although these is plenty of "American only" prize money in races around the country, you mostly skip these races to concentrate on the marathon. That's all right because your sponsorship income provides a comfortable living. Now New Balance comes along with a nifty million dollar offer for an American record marathon. You say great - this is just what we American marathoners need to become motivated. Motivated?
This is the big bucks in sports 90's and marathon running is getting in on the act. On Monday, CEO Jim Davis announced New Balance will award one million dollars to any U.S. man or woman who betters the American marathon record in 1997. For nit-pickers, New Balance is counting Bob Kempaianen's 2:08:47 as the AR, despite the downhill Boston course and a stiff tailwind that may have aided that performance in 1994. Joan Samuelson's women's AR of 2:21:21 in Chicago in 1985 is undisputed.
Aside from gaining New Balance a quick publicity hit, what are we to make of this announcement? Is it good for running in general? Will it improve the standing of American marathoners? Does it really matter?
At first blush, the million dollar bonus seems like another angle on the "How can we beat the Kenyans" dilemma. For the past decade, US road races have been dominated by a legion of foreign runners, led by the mighty Kenyans. This has been more of a "problem" for the media and race directors than for the general running public. Ask anyone who ran Falmouth this year who won the race and few could come up with an answer(Joseph Kimani). Except for Cosmos Ndeti, few Kenyans have been able to carve out an identity with the running public. Very few participants in a road race mingle with the elite athletes, and just as few seem to care who won.
Things were different in the early 1980's. American distance running was at its zenith then, as Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar all reached the top ranks among world marathoners. Most folks who ran marathons back then were not only very serious about their own running, but followed the leaders of the sport very closely. In 1981 and 1983, over 50 US marathoners broke 2:20 at Boston. That number has dwindled to a handful the past few years. The sport has evolved in many ways.
This begs the question of whether New Balance is missing the point. Do we really need an American record in the marathon? How about an Olympic medal? We haven't had one of those in 20 years on the men's side and 12 on the women's. Didn't we just have a marathon AR two years ago? Will an American record make us feel better about our running? Will it make more kids in high school run cross country rather than play soccer or basketball? Will we all become fans of elite marathon running if someone from California runs 2:08:36?
Perhaps it's not entirely fair to ask these questions. Maybe New Balance has the best interests of the sport at heart. Maybe they really are hoping to develop the grass roots of the sport, creating a better talent pool to draw from, so that our performances on the world stage will be more competitive with those of other countries. It just seems that throwing money at the problem is such a typical American solution to a "problem" that may not even need fixing.
My first reaction to the announcement was to think of those "million dollar challenges," sponsored by Gillette. You know, those goofy events held at half-time of the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals. They choose one contestant out of a slew of entries to try to complete a simple athletic maneuver in front of a national television audience. "Make a free throw and win a million dollars!" "Kick a field goal and win a million dollars! The attendant publicity generated for Gillette by the side-show will more than offset the possible payoff to a successful participant. By the way, in several years of these stunts, not one of the participants has yet to win the money. Gillette is very eager to have a winner.
Now we have "Run a fast marathon and win a million dollars!" For years New Balance has tried to promote its image as the "All American" running shoe company. There is no question the million dollar offer will enhance that perception. But is this is what the sport really needs? Marathon running is extremely healthy in this country. Races in every city are thriving. The selection of quality marathons to run has never been greater. Thousands and thousands of "average" folks have created a healthy lifestyle of health and fitness, motivated by the goal of completing a marathon or qualifying for Boston. Millions of dollars are raised for countless charities each year by people running marathons for a cause. All this, despite the fact that Kenyans and athletes of other assorted nationalities have been winning the races. If New Balance has a million dollars to toss around, it seems to me there are better ways to spend it. How about providing 10,000 runners with a $100 stipend towards their fund-raising if they decide to run a US marathon for a US based charity? That would be a nice way of supporting US marathons , US marathoners, and United States charities in a very philanthropic way.
Elite marathoners in this country should not need a million dollar incentive to aspire for the American record. Let's face the facts: genetics says that only a select few men have the proper physiology to run 4:55 pace or women a 5:15 pace for 26.2 miles. Nation's bank put up $100,00 grand for first place in the men's Olympic trials marathon in February and Bob Kempaninen (the current American record holder) could only manage a 2:12 on a cold day. Would another $900,000 have made him run four minutes faster?
No American woman has run faster than 2:28 in this decade. How will anyone magically come up with a seven minute improvement or more? Hey, we all know the deal here. You train as hard as your body will allow, being as smart as you can about it, and run your best race. If it was simply a matter of hard work, Dave Camire and I would still be running in the mid 2:30's!
I must admit it does make for interesting speculation. Will Todd Williams or Bob Kennedy make the move up to the marathon? How about Lynn Jennings? You have to love Lynn. While every elite American athlete was salivating over the possibility of winning the million, Lynn said it would not change her plans one bit. We have all been waiting for her to move up to the marathon; it looks as if we will have to keep waiting.
Marathon running is doing just fine right about now. Elite marathoners have plenty of incentive already to run fast. Moses Tanui ran 2:09 to win Boston this year and Giacomo Leone 2:09 to win New York. Don't you think if a United States runner had run 2:08:30 to win either of these events, the payoff in sponsorship and future appearance money would have exceeded a million? It sure would have been close. I applaud Jim Davis for supporting American distance running, but feel he is off base with this proposal. Thousands of us are out there pounding the pavement to become better marathoners, not waiting at home for another American to run 2:08. We would rather the million be invested in a better shoe that would take a few minutes off of our own PR's, rather than in an elite athlete who should already have the drive to run as fast as possible. How much motivation do you need to do that?