Headlines Glitter, But Endurance Sports Face Business Hurdles

The marathon and triathlon worlds showcased two of their most sparkling events in the last week--the Chicago Marathon, and the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Both glittered. Chicago featured a rare win by an American, Galen Rupp, and the second fastest marathon ever by a U.S. woman, the 2:20:57 (third place) recorded by Jordan Hasay. In Kona, Germany’s Patrick Lange set an Ironman Championship record, while Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf won her third straight title. 
The print edition of
Competitor Running will
cease publication.

Below the newspaper headlines, however, there are signs of strong cross-currents for both sports. The leading road-running and triathlon media--Runner’s World, Competitor Running, and Triathlete--have changed hands, or will shortly. Road race participation and running shoe sales have declined, and the world’s biggest endurance event organizer faces potential over-expansion woes. In a separate situation, California fires forced the weekend cancellation of the first big USA event by another eager player--Virgin Sports. 

Multiple business-news stories have warned that Chinese conglomerate, Dalian Wanda, which owns both the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC, ie, all Ironman events) and the Rock n Roll Marathon franchise, is significantly over-leveraged. Asian banks are said to be eyeing Dalian carefully, and perhaps asking for the liquidation of some assets.

That could be one reason for Dalian’s abrupt sale on Thursday of the Competitor Group media properties. The new owner is Boulder-based Pocket Outdoor Media, whose principals owned many of the same properties a decade ago. Pocket CEO Felix Magowan says his company will continue to produce Velo News, Triathlon, and Women’s Running, and all their associated websites. It will also maintain the Competitor Running web site, but will cease publishing Competitor Running magazine. “The minute we stop the production and distribution of Competitor magazine, we get a huge positive delta in our business,” he says. “Competitor lost forty percent of its advertising in the last two years after it contracted out its ad sales.”

Pocket will also carry on with Velo Press books. Magowan says the book operation, which he launched 20 years ago,  is “an unappreciated little jewel” that has become the country’s leading publisher of running and bicycling titles. 

Runner’s World’s owner, Rodale Inc., of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, announced in June that it was seeking a buyer. In late September, the New York Post reported that Hearst, a large, diversified New York City media company, was the likely new owner. The deal has not been confirmed. Since both Rodale and Hearst are private companies, few details have emerged. 
Running shoe sales have
Earlier this year, Running USA reported in its annual Road Race Trends analysis that “For the third straight year, the number of road race finishers declined in the United States.”  Running shoe companies and retail stores have been hard hit. Foot Locker’s stock has plunged 50 percent in the last year, mostly in the last five months. The world’s biggest sporting goods retailer, Sports Authority, was forced to close a year ago, and couldn’t find a buyer. 

Nike, normally immune, has declined 15 percent in the last two months, and recently held a 40-percent off flash sale that one analyst called “unprecedented.” Under Armour stock has also declined 50 percent in a year. Adidas has bucked the trend, apparently riding a rise in popularity among teens. Its stock has risen almost 25 percent in a year. 

Dalian Wanda, owned by China’s second richest man, Wang Jianlin, bought the Rock n Roll Marathon race series four months ago. Just two years earlier, it had acquired the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), which owns the Ironman Triathlon events. In business circles, Dalian is often described as “the company that wants to be the Disney World and ESPN of China.” 

In recent months, press reports have indicated that Dalian might have undertaken too-large a shopping spree. It has supposedly bought more than $20 billion in new ventures since early 2016. The company may now face debt pressures, and was refused bank loans for a $1 billion purchase of Dick Clark Productions. 

Endurance sport insiders also believe that Dalian might have overpaid for the World Triathlon Corporation, which it reportedly bought from an investment group for $650 million in 2015. In 2008, the prior owners had picked up the WTC for about $85 million. 

The Rock n Roll races were the first big series in the U.S. to end up in the hands of investment firms. Others have followed, hoping to climb onto an ever-rising wave. Previously road races were primarily organized by local running clubs, who invested little and expected little. They simply wanted to offer their members the occasional race experience.

Now, if the wave is breaking, a certain amount of industry chaos is inevitable. That’s what happens when market expansion loses its oomph.

Two years ago, Mary Wittenberg joined Virgin Sports after leaving her CEO position at New York Road Runners. According to the web site of Virgin Sports, owned by the internationally famous Richard Branson, the company hopes “to get millions of people moving through irresistible, inclusive and entertaining athletic events.”

The first big U.S. event of this kind was scheduled to be the Virgin Sport San Francisco Festival of Fitness on October 15 with a half marathon, other fitness activities, and appearances by Sara and Ryan Hall. Last Thursday, October 12, the weekend festival was cancelled, with organizers saying their didn’t want to threaten the health of attendees, or burden “valuable Bay Area first responders and resources that can better be used elsewhere. 

Registered participants were assured that their fees would be refunded. In addition, Virgin Sports and ASICS each committed $25,000 to the Northern California coastal region of Red Cross. Wittenberg was also race director of the New York City Marathon in 2012 when it had to be cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath. The New York Road Runners held a Lloyds of London insurance policy for their marathon, and according to Insurance Journal received $15 million after Sandy. Virgin Sports may have carried similar protection. At any rate, the web site is already talking about another San Francisco event in 2018.

Rock n Roll adds its first Chinese
race in two weeks.
Despite some challenges, running participation remains at a very high level, with Running USA reporting that almost 17 million runners crossed a finish line in 2016. Events organized by traditional clubs like the New York Road Runners, Boston Athletic Association, Atlanta Track Club, and others appear to be robust. 

Even Dalian might find a bright new frontier in its home country where marathon races are growing at a China-like rate, from just over 100 in 2015 to nearly 400 last year. Dalian has also inked a 10-year agreement with the World Marathon Majors, apparently designed to create another major marathon in China during that decade. On October 28, with co-sponsorship from United Airlines, Dalian will hold the first Rock n Roll race in China. It will take place in Chengdu, a city of 14.5 million.

If Runner’s World ends up at Hearst, it will be owned by a company far bigger, and with more resources, than Rodale. Pocket CEO Magowan says his new properties are doing well on the Internet. He intends to focus at first on rebuilding magazine ad sales with an in-house staff. “We are not private equity buyers,” Magowan noted in a press release. “My partners and I see ourselves as long-term investors, and our goal is to improve the product across all platforms. We have ambitious growth plans, and want to restore these brands to their historical industry leadership positions as quickly as possible.”

Running shoe sales will do what running shoe sales have always done: follow the trends of the larger consumer audience.

In a period of flux, it seems likely that companies chasing after speculative endurance-event dollars may suffer. Those that focus on core participants should eventually prosper again, and grow even stronger.

Joan B Samuelson And Doug Kurtis: Two Long Running Marathon Greats

[Note: I wrote this story over several days prior to Samuelson's announcement, Wednesday afternoon, that she would not be racing in Sunday's Chicago Marathon, due to injury-limited training. I think much of the information and analysis is still interesting.]

Among marathon runners, who is the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT)? It depends, of course, on your criteria.

If you choose only by world records, things are simple. You would opt for Dennis Kimetto (2:02:57) and Paula Radcliffe (2:15:25). If you believe, on the other hand, that the Olympics are the ultimate test, you might select Abebe Bikila. He won successive Olympic Marathons in 1960 and 1964, and set world records in both efforts.
Benoit Samuelson has scratched from
Sunday's Chicago Marathon.

There are other good measures, as well. For example: continued excellence through many years. After all, the marathon is an endurance test. Let’s see what runners have produced top results over long periods of time--decades. By this yardstick, Joan Benoit Samuelson leads the pack.

On Sunday in Chicago, Samuelson hopes to continue her high-level marathon career by becoming the first woman over-age-60 to break three hours in the marathon. According to the Association of Road Race Statisticians (ARRS), the current world record for a 60-year-old woman is the 3:01:30 that New Zealand’s Bernardine Portenski ran in 2010 at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia.

Samuelson has run many other impressive marathons, including two Boston Marathon wins, an Olympic Marathon victory, and her personal best (2:21:21) at Chicago in 1985. After that, she entered a quiet period, raising two children. But she stormed back into the spotlight at the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials, when she broke 2:50 at age 50.

Two-and-one-half years later, at 53, she set a single-age world record at Chicago, running 2:47:50. Her last fast marathon (2:54:26, Boston 2015, at one month short of 58 years) would also be a single-age world record, except the ARRS does not accept Boston for record performances. Benoit’s first fast marathon was a 2:31:23 she ran in New Zealand in 1980.

Doug Kurtis’s long marathon career followed a similar trajectory. His first fast marathon was a 2:30:31 at Boston in 1975. Thirty-eight years, six months, and six days later, Kurtis ran a 2:59:07 (at age 61) in the Detroit Free Press Marathon in October, 2013. It was his 200th sub-3-hour marathon, a record.
Kurtis ran 200 sub-3:00s.

“That last sub-3 didn’t come easy,” Kurtis told me several days ago. “I had to run 70 miles a week, and do speed work on the track with friends from my running club. Without them, I would never have made it. The older you get, the harder it is to push it alone in your training.”

The most interesting question to ask about Samuelson, Kurtis, and other long-performing runners is this one: How much did they slow down per year (or decade, etc)? The following Table shows the basic data. Samuelson has slowed only .43 percent per year (4.3 percent/decade) over 35 years and 2 months. Kurtis slowed .49 percent per year over a longer period, 38 years and six months.

Marathon Slow-Down Rates of Joan Benoit Samuelson and Doug Kurtis

First fast 26.2
Recent 26.2
Yrs Between
% Slow Down
% /year
Feb. 1980
Apr. 2015
35 yrs, 2 mos
.43 % /year
Apr. 1975
Oct. 2013
38 yrs, 6 mos.
.49 % /year

Those who remember Ed Whitlock’s incredible marathons into his mid-80s might imagine that he exceeded Samuelson and Kurtis. But, no, at least not on the slow-down-per-year metric. Whitlock’s strong late-life running began with a 2:50:22 when he was 63.

Twenty-two years later, he ran 3:56:38 at age 85. No one younger than Whitlock has ever broken 4 hours, but his per-year slowdown rate is 1.73% per year, much greater than Samuelson and Kurtis. Of course, he started much later than they did, and the post-60 years are a far tougher place to begin than the early 20s.

Samuelson’s longevity also shines in comparison to the younger U.S. stars in the generation that followed her. Meb Keflezighi will run his final serious marathon this fall in New York City at age 42, and Deena Kastor ran her last fast marathon two years ago in Chicago, also at 42. It doesn’t appear that they’ll be aiming for fast performances in another 20 years.

Thus far in 2017, Samuelson’s best race has been a 64:01 in the Cherry Blossom 10-mile in early April. That’s roughly equivalent to a 2:59 marathon. Her other races have been slightly slower, including a 3:12:27 at the Sugarloaf Marathon in mid-May. She ran there primarily to support a friend’s fund-raising.

In the early 1980s, famed physiologist-coach Jack Daniels, PhD, tested Samuelson in several Nike sport-science labs. She achieved a vo2 max level of 78.6 ml/kg/min, thought to be the highest ever obtained by a woman, and the same as Alberto Salazar, who could run a dozen minutes faster than Samuelson in the marathon. Why? Because Salazar had an exceptionally high running economy, says Daniels, whereas Samuelson’s was merely “average” for top runners. According to Daniels’s calculations, if Samuelson could run a 2:59 on Sunday, that would be equivalent to a 2:22 by an athlete in her prime. “It all depends on her training,” he adds. According to the official age-graded calculator of the World Masters Athletics association, the equivalent open division time would be 2:18. (Here’s the WMA age-graded calculator at RunnersWorld.com.) USA Track & Field lists tops American age-graded marathons by women here. Sunday’s weather will be a big factor for Samuelson, who couldn’t be reached for comment on her preparations. The current outlook is somewhat warmer and breezier than optimal. However, Samuelson has a strong record of fast races in Chicago. And no one doubts her ability or focus. “She’s so talented and has so much drive,” says Doug Kurtis. “I think she’ll make her sub-3 goal.”