Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
Last weekend, I attended a camp hosted by the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) called RunPro Camp. It wasn’t so much a camp as it was a conference, complete with name tags, an agenda, and a plethora of highly qualified speakers. The goal of the annually held camp is to help young distance runners transition from collegiate to professional running. Now, I know what you’re all thinking: “This girl just spent 4 blog posts and 5,000 words talking about how she DID NOT want to be a professional runner. Why on Earth would she go to a camp for aspiring professional runners?!” It’s a completely valid question. In fact, it’s one I asked myself several times leading up to the camp.
When I first learned of the camp from LetsRun, I debated whether or not I should apply. A couple weeks later when I received an email that I had been selected, I toiled over whether or not I should contact them back and say I could no longer go. I didn’t know if my situation as an aspiring semi-professional runner qualified me for such an event. (I have since taken on this label after coming across the following Webster definition of semi-professional: “engaging in an activity for pay or gain but not as a full time occupation”). I didn’t know if the information that was going to be presented would apply to me. I didn’t know if people would be displeased to learn I already had a full-time job that I planned on keeping. I just didn’t know what to expect. Ultimately I decided to go and give it a shot, but even on the flight down, I still had my doubts and reservations.
Turns out my worrying was all for naught as the trip was a resounding success. I honestly couldn’t be happier that I was able to attend. As the name implied, the focus of the camp was on professional running, however, the information that was presented was highly applicable and useful for anyone looking to run post-collegiately at an elite level. The RRCA brought in speakers from all the different aspects of the sport – athletes, coaches, agents, race recruiters, event organizers, USADA reps – literally everyone. It was really incredible how much time and energy and thought had gone into providing myself and 11 other recent graduates such an immensely beneficial opportunity. It would be quite impossible to convey, in a timely manner, all that I learned in the course of the 48-hour camp, so I’m going to summarize the three things I learned that I feel will have the biggest impact as I begin my ‘semi-professional’ running career.
#1 Running in elite races requires a great deal of planning and communication
When I competed at Cornell, all of the logistics were essentially taken care of for me. At the beginning of every season, Arthur and I would sit down in his office and plan everything out. He would tell me what meets we were considering going to, and what my race options were, and together we would come up with a racing schedule. When we were finished, I would walk out of his office, thus concluding my involvement in the planning process. As the season progressed, somehow all of the plans we made would magically be carried out. Flights and hotels would be booked, entry fees would be paid, and I would end up making it into all of the competitive and elite races I wanted. All I really had to do was check in at the clerking tent on race day, go on the line, and do my thing.
In the post-collegiate world, things are not always so easy. If you have an agent or are training with a with a group that has a coach, a lot of the logistics may still be taken care of for you, but if you’re on your own, the majority of the responsibility falls on you. For me personally, learning about this aspect of post-collegiate elite racing was particularly useful, and actually couldn’t have come at a better time. This fall, I plan on doing a bunch of the USATF road races. The races are open to runners of all levels, but each one does feature an elite athlete field. Going into this season, I knew that my prior achievements and PRs qualified me to compete in those fields, but I was relatively clueless as to how to go about getting myself entered.
At camp, I learned that every major race has an elite athlete coordinator. Their job is to handle all matters regarding elite athletes’ participation in the event, including acceptance and registration, travel and accommodation, appearance fees and prize money, and all other sorts of logistical tasks. If you want to be in the elite field and receive any of the assistance and potential benefits being offered, you need to reach out to the elite athlete coordinator well in advance of the race and begin the process. They may not be able to offer you all perks, but they won’t be able to offer you anything if you don’t communicate and express your interest!
The day I returned home from camp, I checked out the website of each of the races I’m thinking of running this fall, obtained the appropriate contact information, and got the ball rolling!
#2 There are many sponsorship opportunities out there, but they won’t just fall into your lap
Obviously, the holy grail of sponsorships is a shoe contract; NIKE, New Balance, ASICS and the like run the tables of the running scene. If you are accomplished enough to land yourself one of those, awesome! Keep doing what you are doing. However, if you are like the majority of young, aspiring elite runners, you may be talented and teeming with potential, but you are not quite at a level that can command those kinds of deals. While a big time sponsorship can certainly remain one of your eventual goals, there are a large number of smaller sponsorship options available in the meantime that could make a big difference and help you reach that next level.
This is where having a solid presence in the running community can come into play. Do you spend time at local running events? Do you have a large social media following? Are you an effective communicator who enjoys meeting and socializing with other people? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then you have the potential to be a valuable asset to a company! If you think you are a worthy ambassador of a product or a brand you commonly use, reach out to the company. Unlike some years ago where contact information was hoarded by the few, nowadays it is relatively accessible to anyone willing to do a bit of research.
Get yourself in contact with a sales or marketing or other representative of the company and sell yourself. Pitch them your ideas. Show them how much you love and utilize their product. Demonstrate the ways in which you could contribute to their marketing efforts. While it’s unlikely a smaller company will have the funds to throw thousands your way, they might be able to assist with some aspect of your training. Maybe they can help with travel or accommodations. Maybe they can give you some free gear or equity in the company. Maybe they don’t have the resources to support you now, but will remember you in the future when their business has expanded. Regardless of what they can or cannot offer you, it is well worth the time to put yourself out there and at least try.
# 3 What you do off the track is just as important as what you do on the track.
Being fast and winning races is no doubt tremendously important, but at a certain point, those two things only get you so far. At the elite level, everyone is pretty fast, and everyone has won some races. If you want to stand out and ultimately make a difference, you need to offer more. You need to be interesting and engaging. You need to be personable and relatable. You need to be professional and respectful. You need to be someone that people want to be around and get to know.
The elite running community is relatively small compared to most of other sports communities, and, as unfortunate as it is, so is its fan-base (in America at least). That means that what you do and and what you say and who are as a person, is going to be noticed, and it’s going to follow you wherever you go. While what others think of you is, by no means, the most critical factor in measuring your own self-worth, your reputation and integrity are still extremely important. The image you create for yourself has the potential to be an incredibly powerful tool, one that can be used to not only benefit you and further your career, but to help make a true and lasting difference in the lives of others.
Many of our sport’s most well-known and admired athletes succeed off the track by giving back to the community. Some support youth groups and charities, offering not only financial assistance, but their time and energy as well. Some give public talks in the hope that their stories and experiences, both good and bad, can educate, motivate and inspire others. Some make simple but powerful gestures such as thanking event coordinators and organizers from races they attend, supporting other members of our sport and congratulating them for their achievements, and acknowledging and appreciating fans and supporters.
An elite athlete who wishes to be a true ambassador of the sport is mindful of how they present themselves and what message they send. They recognize, appreciate, and embrace the influence they have and do whatever they can to foster excitement, growth, and positivity in the running community.
Thank you again to everyone who worked to make RunPro Camp 2015 an overwhelming success. The lessons taught, the advice given, and the experiences shared will aid me immensely as I enter the new and exhilarating world of elite post-collegiate running.
A couple key shoutouts to some of the speakers in attendance:
Jean Knnack – Executive Director of the RRCA
Pat Goodwin – President and Founder of Team USA Minnesota, a renowned distance training center