BATHED IN FLASHING NEON LIGHT THAT THE KING HIMSELF CROONED ABOUT, WE HIS DISCIPLES MADE OUR WAY DOWN THE STRIP, AN ARMY OF ELVI, PAST THE SPHINX CROUCHED OUTSIDE THE LUXOR AND UNDER THE "ZUMANITY" BILLBOARD WITH THE NAUGHTY SCHOOLGIRL, BENEATH WHICH STOOD A SOLITARY MAN HOLDING A SIGN THAT IMPLORED US TO "SEEK THE LIVING JESUS."
This is an article from the June 3, 2013 issue
We were seeking, just then, the starting line for the Zappos.com Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas half-marathon, the full marathoners having taken off some 90 minutes earlier. In all, 30,000 seekers had signed on for this event, a boisterous moving block party on the Strip on the night of Dec. 2, with live music at every mile marker. Who would win? Who cared? The idea at these Rock 'n' Roll events isn't so much to log a great time as to have one. If the point were for everyone to get a personal best, there probably wouldn't have been a run-through wedding chapel outside the New York--New York casino, at Mile 3.
History is shaped by vast migrations of people. So it made sense to join one such wave of humanity as the race approached—but only after waiting for my Elvette-costumed migrating partner, Gina, to finish taking selfies on her iPhone with Nikki Reed, who plays Rosalie Hale in the Twilight saga and who was also doing the race.
Taking our leave of Reed, we fell in step with a mass of Elvi, men and women in form-fitting jumpsuits, oversized aviator sunglasses and wigs best described as Blagojevichian. They included Jonathan and Steve, from York, England, who would run with inflatable guitars while taking turns pushing a stroller bearing a poster of Fat Elvis. Then there was Jorge, whose Elvis costume was actually a sailor suit because, he said, "the anniversary of Pearl Harbor is close to this day."
Pearl Harbor Elvis was joined by a half-dozen Santa Elvi—they'd warmed up the day before with a 5K romp called the Great Santa Run—plus Black Elvis, who was, while handsomely tanned, decidedly Caucasian. Bob Babbitt is of Polish and Russian extraction but prefers to be called Black Elvis on account of his daring black jumpsuit, tastefully accessorized with a leopard-print sash and zebra sunglasses.
As we milled before the start, listening to Heartbreak Hotel on the boom box Babbitt was pushing on a baby jogger, gusts of wind kicked up, buffeting wigs and lifting faux sideburns until they were horizontal, like hairy little wings. "Nice thing about the Elvis costume," noted the 62-year-old Babbitt, who's been racing dressed as the King for going on 20 years, "it keeps you warm."
One of Babbitt's other wigs, or hats: He was a cofounder of Competitor magazine, which was purchased in 2007 by Competitor Group Inc., a sports-marketing-and-management company that has injected a major dose of fun into endurance events—and profited handsomely in the process. "Come run with me in Vegas," Babbitt had urged. "You dress up like Elvis, and you spend the whole race high-fiving people and saying, 'Thankyou, thankyouverymuch.' You'll have a blast."
He was right. The beauty of running as Elvis, it turns out, is that it gives you an excuse to be slow—a point Babbitt drove home just before we started trotting. "Don't think of it as a race," he advised. "Think of it as a catered workout."
THERE WERE Elvi and Santas and brides in truncated gowns. Where, pray tell, were the Serious Runners, the gimlet-eyed, nipple-taping, heart-rate-monitoring, sub-6%-body-fat fanatics? They were much closer to the starting line, as far from us as possible, talking about target splits and compression socks and antichafing unguents. It's possible they were feeling a little lonely. The Serious Runners have never been more outnumbered—at this Rock 'n' Roll event, in which a full third of the folks around us were running their first race, and in the nation in general.
"If we define a frequent runner as someone who runs a hundred or more days a year, I don't think that number has gone up significantly since the '80s," says Rob Klingensmith, vice president of media and marketing at the race-technology company ACTIVE Network Inc. "And yet participation in these events has unquestionably boomed." So has the number of events themselves.
Participation in endurance events across the U.S. has indeed risen dramatically over the last decade. These physical challenges include the unthreatening, untimed and immensely popular 5K Color Runs; more testosterone-intensive challenges such as Muddy Buddy and Tough Mudder, otherwise known as MOB (mud, obstacles, beer) runs; and the scores of marathons and half-marathons, triathlons and CrossFit competitions that are selling out from Kona to Daytona Beach. If you aren't training for some physical ordeal that entails safety-pinning a race number to your person, then surely you've been hit up for sponsorship dollars by someone who is.
Mary Wittenberg speaks of a "flywheel effect" by which these events mint new endurance athletes who are younger and younger. "What's radically different from even 10 years ago is the breadth of offerings," says Wittenberg, the head of New York Road Runners. "There are all these fun, different ways people are getting pulled in. And once they're pulled in, we have a chance to help them run for life."
And no, the carnage at April's Boston Marathon won't put a dent in this trend. If anything, it will have the opposite effect. Babbitt spoke for many when he told me, the day after the bombings, "This isn't just a hobby. This is who we are. No one's gonna take that away from us."
We are not talking about a fitness craze; that connotes something faddish and temporary, like parachute pants or Groupon. America is in the midst of a sustained trend, what Running USA calls the Second Running Boom (with boomlets in triathlon and MOB runs). The number of U.S. road-race finishers has tripled since 1990, to 13.9 million in 2011. And during that time it's become increasingly important to put the seat down in the Porta Potties in the parking lot: Race fields have gone from 75% male to 55% female.
Call it the Revenge of Kathrine Switzer, who sneaked into the Boston Marathon in 1967, five years before the race accepted women. Switzer was famously chased down by race director Jock Semple, who was cursing at her and trying to tear off her race number when he suddenly found himself airborne, sent ass-over-bandbox by a cross-body block from Switzer's burly boyfriend, a hammer thrower named Tom Miller.
Rock 'n' Roll events have an even higher concentration of estrogen; women make up 65% of their fields, according to Scott Dickey, president and CEO of Competitor Group, which owns the 32-race series. "A lot of these women are running to stay fit, a lot of them are married with kids, some are coming out of the postpregnancy fog," Dickey says. "They're getting their groove back."
They're doing it, very often, in a way that benefits others—doing well by doing good. The dividends of exercise are well known, from boosting one's mood and stamina to improving one's sex life. And thousands of people on the Strip that night were doubling down on those benefits by running for charities. "A good conscience," as Ben Franklin put it, "is a continual Christmas."
WE RAN past countless earnest coaches in TEAM CHALLENGE T-shirts exhorting their runners, "Way to go, Team Challenge! You look great!"
"What about the rest of us?" I asked a few of the coaches. "How do we look?" It's true that in the days before the race some of us felt a vague resentment toward the Team Challenge people, who tended to roam the sidewalks in impenetrable clumps, occluding pedestrian traffic. Yet it was wrongheaded, I realized, to harbor uncharitable thoughts toward them. TC raises money for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, the official charity of the Vegas Rock 'n' Roll event. Its members were running for a worthy cause. They are part of the solution, I thought. What am I part of?
Mitchell Sabshon wasn't asking Mark Semer if he'd be interested in completing a triathlon to honor their friend Stephen (Skippy) Lubofsky, who in 2009 received a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. "He basically told me I was doing it," recalls Semer, who was then 39. Though he was a strong cyclist, Semer told Sabshon, "I've never run more than a mile in my life, and I can barely swim across a pool."
"Well," Sabshon replied, "you're going to learn how to do both."
Semer learned how to do both, working with coaches provided by the Team in Training program of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Some 25 people, most from Lubofsky's synagogue, Young Israel of New Rochelle, N.Y., trained for and completed the 2010 Jarden Westchester Triathlon, an Olympic-distance event (.9-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 6.2-mile run). Few had ever done a triathlon.
By race day Lubofsky was back in the hospital. A week after the event he sent an e-mail to his team expressing gratitude for the funds they'd raised and the "strength and motivation" they'd given him. More meaningful, he added, was "the love and camaraderie" he felt from them—no small gift at the close of his life. He died three weeks later.
Skippy's Team has raised nearly half a million dollars for the LLS, whose Team in Training has raised an astounding $1.3 billion in 25 years. At the same time, Skippy's friends gave themselves a gift: Over three years some 60 members of Young Israel, including Lubofsky's oldest son, Noam, 18, have completed an Olympic-distance triathlon, and many say their lives have been transformed by exercise. Multiply Skippy's story by 10,000, and you begin to grasp the outsized role played by charities in the Aerobic Uprising.
Social media have also fueled the boom, ratcheting up the "Look at me!" factor while piquing the curiosity of the uninitiated. "You see your buddy on Facebook," says John Korff, who has participated in more than 100 endurance races, including 100-mile ultramarathons, "and he's standing there in his spandex shorts and race T-shirt, gut hanging out, and he's just finished a marathon. So you start thinking, Well, I've got a gut.... Maybe I can do this too."
To stand at the finish line in Las Vegas is to know that you, Gut-Hanging-Over-Your-Shorts Guy, can definitely do it. There was no shortage of plodders and walkers on the Strip, acolytes of John Bingham, a.k.a. the Penguin, author of An Accidental Athlete (a memoir of taking up running at age 43) and self-described "spokesman for the slow-running movement." His mantra: The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.
Such bromides had long provoked sneers from running snobs who believed that if you couldn't finish a marathon in, say, 3½ hours, you had no business taking the start. Here we arrive at the crux of today's Endurance Renaissance. In the decadeslong battle between the Penguins and the sinewy, 45-beats-per-minute-resting-heart-rate, front-of-the-pack Serious Runners, the Penguins have won a decisive victory. They've done this by uncoupling performance from identity: You don't need to be fast to be considered an endurance athlete.
Having crunched numbers dating back three decades, Klingensmith, of ACTIVE Network, reports that as the number of marathoners has ballooned, so has their average time. "The average finish of a marathon has gotten 40 minutes slower in the past 30 years," he notes. "There's a whole range of reasons people are signing up for these events"—to commemorate a loved one, to raise money to fight diseases, to lose weight, to keep weight off—"but I don't think performance ranks very high on the list."
Klingensmith distinguishes between "competers" and "completers." Today's race fields have far more of the latter, and that's fine. Wittenberg says, "Even five or six years ago we heard a lot about the runners versus walkers [in NYRR races]. I don't hear that at all anymore. Why is that?"
It could be, she speculates, that "our races have corrals now, everybody lines up at pace, and nobody's interfered with." Aside from that, Wittenberg recognizes "the beginning of a philosophy shift," a collective attitude of nonjudgment according to which "everybody is celebrating everybody else who's out there."
This democratization of the endurance landscape also aligns nicely with the business plans of race organizers. As it happens, slow is where the money is.
DAVID MOROSS, chairman and CEO of Falconhead Capital, is a kind of professional trend-spotter. In 2005, in search of the Next Big Thing in the endurance world, he commissioned a study to determine the planet's most popular participatory sport. By leaps and bounds, the winner was: walking. "But I couldn't figure out how to make money on walking," Moross recalls. Second on the list, however, was running.
How to profit from running? By hosting events and charging entry fees. But the U.S. running landscape was Balkanized: thousands of races, most owned by local nonprofits and small mom-and-pop organizers. Falconhead started gobbling up properties, including San Diego--based Elite Racing, whose Rock 'n' Roll series then had only five events. Moross called his new company Competitor Group Inc., and bought five magazines, including Competitor, Velo and Triathlete, giving it "a lateral platform," he explains, "where someone could run in your race, love the product and become loyal to the brand." That loyalty, ideally, would spur people to read the mags, sample the company's online digital content, do some social networking, register for more events (CGI now had the Competitor-owned Muddy Buddy franchise, a triathlon series called TriRock and the endurance-event registration platform RaceIt) and in the process pay more fees.
And so it came to pass. By the time Falconhead sold CGI to Calera Capital last December (for a handsome multiplier it declined to make public), it operated 83 endurance events around the world, including 32 Rock 'n' Roll races.
While Moross was going all in on endurance sports, the economy was going over a cliff, which concerned him. It needn't have. Even as the stock market lost a third of its value in 2008, running proved curiously recession-proof. According to numbers compiled by the National Sporting Goods Association, the total running population in the U.S. that year was 35.9 million—an increase of 18% over '07. To cope with the trauma of lost jobs and battered 401(k)'s, it seemed, people turned to endorphin therapy: They laced up their running shoes. With the economy in the tank, announced The Wall Street Journal, "more people are discovering that without those 12-hour workdays, they're able to pursue fitness goals like never before."
Dickey of CGI identifies still another "external factor" prodding runners to the start line. He calls it the Biggest Loser effect. "The fact that there was a prime-time television show about people who were very obese, who were losing hundreds of pounds in a boot-camp setting and who, at the end of each season, attempt a marathon," Dickey says, was a powerful recruiting tool for endurance events.
"I used to be over 300 pounds," George Melichar confided after completing the Vegas marathon, "and I have a glamour shot to prove it." I'll just take your word for it, I tell him. Melichar is still a big guy at 6'4"—closer to 6'8" if measured from the apex of his "nuclear red" Mohawk, which may not be his most striking feature, considering his nose piercing (the ends of the curved barbell protruding from his nostrils suggest tiny tusks), his bun-hugging shorts and his U.S. flag top with leopard-print stripes sewn into it. ("I wanted to be punk and patriotic," he explained.)
Melichar, 34, worked for years in commodities at the Chicago Board of Trade, "but I couldn't really express myself," he recalls as his listener feigns surprise. "I had to hold everything in." Unfulfilled and overweight, he moved to New Orleans in 2009 "to be part of the recovery of the city after Katrina," he continues. In the process he discovered his purpose. He attempted a Turkey Trot 5K but couldn't finish. He was too big and out of shape. He kept training. He finished a marathon in New Orleans and hasn't looked back. He ran Rock 'n' Roll events in Dallas, Nashville, Seattle and Madrid. "I kept going forward," he says, "kept training and sewing my clothes and [getting] better."
No Elvis impersonator, no Santa, no bride and groom running side by side on the Strip elicited more smiles, more photo requests and—let's face it—more looks of utter bafflement than this exotic, friendly giant who reminds fellow runners, "You don't have to be an elite athlete to achieve an elite goal."
LIKE HELL YOU DON'T, John Korff would've riposted 40 or so years ago. Korff is a onetime 2:36 marathoner and recovering running snob who once believed that "if you didn't finish under three hours, you must be some kind of slug." This, of course, was before he owned and directed races such as the Aquaphor New York City Triathlon. If it weren't for the waddling masses composing the bulk of most event fields, he now knows, he'd probably be doing something else for a living.
Another reason more people than ever are registering for endurance events: Race directors finally get it. Jock Semple died in 1988; it took another 15 years or so for his fellow directors to get the memo—if you want a customer back, you do everything in your power to guarantee that customer a fun, memorable experience.
This is where Korff pulls away from the pack. He espouses the theory that an event can be only as much fun as the organizer himself is capable of having. His events, it follows, are great fun. This is, after all, a 61-year-old man who has run marathons backward, a competitive stair-climber practiced in the art of eluding skyscraper security guards in order to run up unlimited flights, a promoter who had the idea to enhance New York City's 2012 Summer Olympics bid by hiring an archer to stand on a moving taxi and shoot an arrow through the hole of a bagel.
Korff sends a thank-you e-mail to everyone who enters his events—occasionally confusing entrants, who wonder if they are reading a mass e-mail. "No, I'm a real person," he replies, "and this is my day job." His interns also call each Aquaphor participant to ask how his or her training is going. Many customers become comfortable asking Korff's advice. On numerous occasions, he says, men have informed him that their wives are pregnant, with a due date dangerously close to race day. What should they do? "The first thing I say is, 'Do not ask your wife if it's still O.K. for you to do the race. Because whether she says yes or no, the fact will remain: You asked.' "
He invites feedback—and gets plenty. Having complimented Korff on a well-run bike transition at last July's New York City Triathlon, participant Rebecca Ajavananda lamented having bumped into "so many dead fish" during the swim in the Hudson River.
"We don't say 'dead fish,' " corrected Korff. "We say 'ambience.' "
Last summer, after eight years of navigating bureaucracies and wrangling permits, Korff and his staff pulled off the Ironman U.S. Championship, the first Ironman-distance triathlon in and around Manhattan. The day of the race Korff rented a mountain bike and spent eight hours riding between the George Washington Bridge and the finish line in Riverside Park at West 81st Street, cheering on runners and asking them how they were doing. In the middle of the bridge, where the runners saw the WELCOME TO MANHATTAN sign, many of them shed tears. "They're back in the city, they know the finish is getting close," Korff says. "It's a very emotional time for them."
One beaming woman practically shouted to Korff, "I'm doing great!" Moments earlier, her boyfriend had proposed. Korff rode alongside her for three miles, learning their backstories, getting the details of the proposal. It is the race director's goal, he says, to make the athletes' "magic moments" come true. "Maybe I'm a sap for this stuff," says Korff, "but it meant a lot to me to hear how important that day and that moment had been to her."
THE MAGIC MOMENTS of a 140.6-mile ordeal must be savored, agrees Andrew Messick, CEO of Ironman's parent company, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), because they are sure to be outnumbered by low moments. It's simply in the nature of an Ironman that lots of bad things happen. Messick would know. On his final training ride before entering Ironman Canada in 2005, he crashed and broke his arm. "So the [2.4-mile] swim was pretty uncomfortable," he recalls. Because of the bum wing, he didn't reach often enough for his water bottle during the 112-mile bike leg, and he started cramping during the 26.2-mile run. Normally capable of completing a marathon in "slightly over three hours," he says, he took nearly 5½ that day.
"That's nails," I tell him.
"That's walking," he replies.
In an Ironman, it's part of the deal. "What the culture of the event embraces is, You keep going," Messick says. "It's all about not quitting."
Macca learned that the hard way. Before he won the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, twice, Australia's Chris (Macca) McCormack had trouble just finishing. In 2004, at Mile 19 of the marathon, he was suffering too deeply to take another step.
He quit, then hitched a ride in a passing car, which contained his hero, Mark Allen, who'd won Kona six times. In the car, they came upon an age-group racer, scraped and bloodied, walking toward the transition area with his trashed bike slung over his shoulder. "We pull over and ask him, 'You want a lift, mate?' " recalls Macca, "and he says, 'No, no—I'm finishing this race! It's Kona!' Then he looks in the backseat, and he says, 'Macca! You're out?'
"Here's this guy, epitomizing the spirit of Ironman racing, and I've pulled out because it hurt too much. I felt two inches tall."
Later, Allen told Macca that he was racing too much in Europe, that he needed to focus more on this, the Super Bowl of endurance sports. The Aussie took Allen's advice and went on to win the world title in 2007 and '10.
In those two words—It's Kona!—that bleeding age-group racer distilled everything this event stands for. In the endurance world the Ironman championship is as big as it gets. Which is why Messick has no use for false modesty: "We sit at the pinnacle" of endurance sports, he decrees. The company's bottom line bears him out: 65,000 people crossed an Ironman finish line last year. Of the WTC's 30 full-distance races around the world in 2013, 23 have already sold out, at entry fees of more than $600; five of the remaining seven are expected to sell out quickly.
The Color Runs and Tough Mudders, the half-marathons and XTERRA off-road tri's, the Gran Fondos and CrossFit competitions—the entire smorgasbord of endurance events—all lead to Ironman, according to Messick. Whichever gateway diversion you've chosen, "eventually you notice that you're racing next to or in a training group with someone wearing an Ironman hat or an Ironman finisher shirt," he says. "And you look at them and size them up and think to yourself, Wow, I wonder if I could do that?
"Can I do it after I've had a baby? Can I do it when I'm 40 years old? Can I do it after I've had cancer? I want to know what my limits are."
Of course there are whippets at the front, racing with a Ricky Bobby mind-set: If you ain't first, you're last. But for the vast majority, an Ironman is a personal challenge. Always has been, says Messick: "Talk to the guys back from 1978 and '79, when there were a dozen finishers. It wasn't a race, it was a can-you-do-it event. The culture of Ironman has never fundamentally deviated from that. It's about finishing."
NINETEEN EIGHTY was the third Ironman ever," Bob Babbitt was recalling. "I did it with my roommate, Ned Overend, who would later become a world champion in mountain biking, but mountain biking hadn't been invented yet."
Having finished the Vegas half-marathon at a leisurely pace—let's just say Nikki Reed beat me handily and leave it at that—Babbitt and I were back at the hotel bar replacing some fluids and turning surprisingly few heads for a couple of guys in Elvis garb. Babbitt's 2002 induction into the Ironman Hall of Fame was more for his triathlon evangelism than for his performance in the 1980 Ironman, which was nonetheless memorable.
He and Overend had bought bikes at a police auction. "Mine had been in a house fire," Babbitt remembers, "so it was a little charred." It had solid rubber tires, a raccoon seat cover and panniers, in which Babbitt intended to store camping gear. (He'd been under the mistaken impression that the Ironman was a two-day event.) The Pacific was churned by storms, so race organizers moved the swim to Oahu's protected Ala Moana Channel, which was only four feet deep in certain places—a godsend for John Huckaby, a weak swimmer who walked most of that 2.4-mile leg and remains, as Babbitt says, "the only guy in the history of the race to get blisters on his feet during the swim."
To allay boredom on the bike leg, Babbitt taped a radio to the handlebars. Lunch was a Big Mac, large fries and a Coke, followed by a snow cone. Babbitt also availed himself of the Hawaiian sweet bread stuffed into his jersey pockets. At a medical tent during the marathon, he was weighed; athletes who lost too large a percentage of their body weight were pulled from the race. After Babbitt stepped off the scale, one volunteer said, "Wait a minute, this guy's gained four pounds."
Babbitt finished without fanfare. After he stepped over a chalk line in Kapiolani Park in the dark, a solitary official asked him, "Are you in the race?" Babbitt said yes and was told simply, "You're done."
In fact he was just starting. Three years later he quit his job as a preschool-to-eighth-grade P.E. teacher and went into publishing. No one, arguably, has done more to grow the sport of triathlon. The first issue of Competitor came out in 1987. You can hear Babbitt's voice clearly in his writing: He's passionate about the sport but also able to poke fun at it, acknowledging the general silliness of "grown men running through neighborhoods in Speedos."
Babbitt chronicled the rise of a triathlon prodigy from Texas named Lance Armstrong. Babbitt was a cofounder of the REI Muddy Buddy series and the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which has raised more than $40 million for specialized prosthethics and wheelchairs for people with physical disabilities. He serves as emcee and director of Muddy Buddy events while dressed in a green frog outfit. He was in the frog getup at a Chicago event eight or so years ago when he remarked to a mother-daughter team, "Hey, ladies, once you go green, you never go back."
Babbitt is the Zelig and Bill Veeck of endurance sports, beloved by thousands, so it was no surprise to see him exchanging affectionate greetings with Kendall Webb last Aug. 26. Both men were competing in the Surf Town Triathlon and Duathlon in Imperial Beach, Calif. Webb, a remarkably fit 80-year-old, finished first in his age group in the duathlon, took a few steps past the line, collapsed and died.
"Not a bad exit strategy, if you think about it," Babbitt said at the hotel bar in Vegas, gazing into his second pint with his pompadour pitched precariously forward, like a rodent contemplating a leap into the cocktail mix. "You won your age group, you're smiling, sweaty, happy, high-fiving people as you cross the line, then boom!"
We raised a glass to Kendall Webb and agreed that if his was the fate awaiting us, well, then, we were O.K. with that.
For a photo gallery of endurance events around the U.S. and the world, go to si.com/mag