Remember that scene in Mad Men where Don Draper drives by his daughter’s teacher and sees her jogging? In typical Draper fashion, Don proceeds to roll down his window and ask her: “where you going? I’ll give you a lift…”
I think it’s one of the best lines of the show. The reason why it stuck with me so was because of the sincerity with which Jon Hamm delivered the line. You could tell that Don Draper was literally confused as to why a perfectly safe person would be running down the street for no apparent reason. She must be in a rush…
Mad Men is of course famously well regarded for its accuracy in portraying the culture and times of the 60s, and that little exchange was a perfect example. Fifty years ago, running as an exercise was simply not a thing. Nobody did it, and the early adopters of the sport braved the ridicule of the rest of society by doing it.
Though obviously, running as a function of human ability has been around since forever. Ever since our ancestors were getting chased down by saber toothed tigers, we humans knew about the benefits of running. Ever since arguably the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, where the Greek messenger Pheidippides ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce victory over the Persian Army (then promptly proceeded to die on the spot), people have been mindfully eager to entertain the notion of pushing the human capability for the kind of endurance needed for this long distance running. The marathon was one of the only 9 sports held at the First Olympic Games in 1896 (back in the day when the Olympics was called Games of the Olympiad), and it has been with the Olympic Games ever since. However, on the street level, in terms of popularity with common citizens, marathon running wasn’t really an established sport until well into the 1970s, and even today it’s still in the process of growing. The New York City Marathon that’s happening this weekend? That didn’t start until the year 1970. The World Marathon Majors, today’s international runner’s league that’s like the NFL-for-the-sport-of-marathon-running, wasn’t established until 2006!
The World Marathon Majors is a network of what is considered to be the Big Six marathon productions from around the world. New York City obviously, and Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin, and Tokyo. These cities’ marathons all have their own histories and were started well before the WMM ever came around, but what this league has done is it organized these six marathons into one integrated annual competition where participants earn points that rank towards purse rewards for the champions. It has created a new breed of athletes out of marathon runners.
The most interesting thing to me about marathons is the level of participation from amateur runners. Most of the over 50,000 runners at any given NYC Marathon are amateurs, but the World Marathon Majors has next to nothing to do with the amateur among runners. The league has essentially no implications one way or another on the marathoning experience of the people who have no intentions of winning. The WMM operates on a points based system, with points given only to the top 5 fastest finishers of each of the six marathons. They do separate by gender though, so it’s the 5 fastest men, and the 5 fastest women. But other than that, basically if you don’t intend to finish in at least 5th place of your gender, the work of the WMM organization has pretty much nothing to do with you.
But for those who do marathon competitively, the WMM rewards two $500,000 cash prizes each year: one for the men’s winner, one for the women’s winner. The “winner” is selected as the one with the highest aggregate points based on performance counted in all 6 of the races. People wonder what motivates all those elite level athletes to choose running as their career? The WMM could very well be one of the motivations.
Having said that. The amateur runners may have nothing to do with the WMM in terms of personal gain, but the behind-the-scenes business of the WMM has absolutely everything to do with the levels of amateur participation in the sport.
There are hundreds of marathons produced all over the world in any given year. What separates the Big Six from the rest is the upward spiral of influence created by runner participation and corporate sponsorship. As these things go of course, it’s a virtuous cycle because one helps the other: more participants draw more involved and lucrative sponsorship deals, which in turn enable greater promotional campaigns which draws even more participants. Tata Consulting. Bank of America. Virgin. BMW. These corporate sponsors line up next to the Boston Athletic Association and the City of Tokyo as the sponsors to the six individual marathon productions that make up the World Marathon Majors. Without the level of participation from the tens of thousands of amateur runners, there’s no way that any of these marathons can draw the millions of spectators at each event that they do, which in turn would mean there’d be no way these races would garner the kind of support from the cities and corporate sponsorships that make the WMM possible.
We might not all truly be winners, but in the case on marathons, the winners literally wouldn’t be winning anything at all, if it wasn’t for the masses that made it possible for this hobby of running, to be turned into an internationally coordinated league of athletic event productions that is the World Marathon Majors.
See you at the next exploration!