Inside a movement to elevate youth running
This was originally supposed to be appear in Outside Online. As I've explained, I decided I wasn't going to wait forever for the editors to get around to publishing it. And this is not a purely spiteful move; even after accounting for my obvious resentment, from a practical standpoint, developments over the past nine months have rendered the piece almost worthless. To name just one, Flotrack executed a "takeover" of the webcast of the Massachusetts All-State Indoor Championships on Feb. 23 that BaystateRunning.com was originally going to produce (I don't know the details). I was not surprised, but if this piece had run last summer or fall, it might not have altered this or related outcomes, but it may well have given people some ideas and catalyzed communication between coaches and other players in different states.
Outside doesn't operate using contracts, which is only one of its endemic editorial problems, so I'm not in violation of anything here except for possibly exercising bad judgment in throwing away the $600 they ostensibly planed to pay me for my work. Besides, the accounts payable side of Outside is apparently as dismal as its editorial arm.
I actually gave up months ago on Outside publishing this in a timely or usefully edited manner, but for a while afterward, I continued to grudgingly acknowledge that if I deep-sixed the arrangement, far fewer people would learn of the efforts of the people profiled than if I contained my exasperation and waited. After all, Outside may want for competence, but it offers a far larger platform than this electronic urinal ever could.
Then I admitted: No one outside the region in question really cares anyway. Men and women who have been involved with youth running for a long time might appreciate the occasional spotlight being shined on their efforts, but it's not what motivates them. Anyone who has ever coached high-school sports gets this.
I hope everyone understands how absurd it is to have a piece accepted for publication by a paying, professional entity ($600 is not chump change in the running-writing niche, which is to the greater world of publishing world what Top Ramen is to fine cuisine). As I noted in the chain of correspondence between myself and the editor that I will post as soon as I decide what, if anything, to redact from it, even when I was writing for print publications, I never experienced anything remotely close to this level of delay, neglect and all-around bullshit. I expect Outside to eventually be purchased by a Chinese billionaire and somehow made even worse as a result for everyone but the dickheads who own it.
American running fans usually accept that their sport represents a very small slice of the media pie. For example, ESPN’s 2018 list< of the 100 most famous names in sports didn’t include a single track and field or road-running athlete, and neither did their accompanying list of the 25 most famous sportswomen. And unsurprisingly, traditional outlets haven’t jumped to seize broadcasting rights to most track and road events, with the exception of national championships.
As a result, most live-streaming of the sport happens on a trio of sites: FloTrack, NBC Sports Gold, and USATF.tv. As a rule, running fans aren’t happy with either the pricing or the output, citing grievances ranging from announcers’ bad math to the quality of the video streams. As former pro runner Lauren Fleshman tweeted earlier this year: “Did the math, it costs $339.86 (including a discount going on right now) to watch track and field per year between three digital subscriptions.”
In the state of New Hampshire, which has a population of 1.4 million, a unique experiment aimed at addressing these issues got underway a couple of years ago. A coalition of coaches, business owners and parents began producing and delivering high-quality Internet streams of many of the state’s high-school cross-country and track meets -- and at no cost to viewers. Lest this be seen as a limited undertaking suited for a small state, it’s vital to note that the motivation for this -- to elevate the profile of youth running and legitimize the efforts of the kids and their supporters -- is universal among running fans, and that the model has in fact already spread.
The partner websites NewHampshireCrossCountry.com and NewHampshireTrackAndField.com boast a history that is short but promising, if you belong to that tiny sliver of the media pie mentioned above. In 2016, the first full year both sites were live, they received a combined 3.5 million pageviews; last year, that number jumped to 4.5 million.
Both sites started as very basic link lists, and have evolved to include interviews, polls, and a section where visitors can contribute content. The founders have no expectations to monetize the project. Instead, they’re driven by a combination of runners’ traditional obsessiveness and a desire to grow a community for the sake of its core constituents instead of for the benefit of those in charge. For example, ever Thursday this fall, a group of four prominent student-athletes representing different teams hosted a live YouTube video from their respective homes and ranked the top 10 boys; and girls’ teams in the state. This is the kind of camaraderie-based interaction that highlights a positive use of social media in competitive sports and couch catch on elsewhere.
Tim Cox (left) and Greg Hall of Coe Brown Northwood Academy and NHTrackAndField.com.
For runners in New Hampshire, this sense of community is nothing new. For over 30 years, Larry Martin, the head cross-country and track coach at Londonderry High School, faithfully compiled and distributed the New Hampshire Cross-Country Newsletter, which previewed every fall season in detail and went out to coaches statewide by postal mail. In 2014, Martin was preparing to retire and invited Tim Cox and Brent Tkaczyk, two coaches at Coe-Brown High School, to take over the publication. Being of a different vintage, the pair wanted to publish the newsletter exclusively online and make it available to kids, parents, fans, and coaches. “Posting the newsletter online revealed the vast potential of how it can truly be a community website,” says Cox. “It made everything easier. From coaches sending in results, to parents sending in pics, to learning more about athletes both past and present."
In 2015, Cox bought the domain NewHampshireCrossCountry.com. He and fellow Coe-Brown coaches Dave Zink and Greg Hall did all of the initial writing and technical work, learning much of what they needed to know about web programming on the fly. Having the two partner sites up and running was a great start, but the involvement of Runner’s Alley, a local running specialty store, boosted their profile.
At first, Runner’s Alley simply paid for the basic sites. When the store was eventually acquired by the Massachusetts running-store chain Marathon Sports, the company upped their support of the effort, offering to supply a trailer, new computers, and a wide-angle camera to the team. Colin Peddie, the owner of Marathon Sports and a former collegiate runner, offers a simple explanation for placing a strong business emphasis on scholastic runners. “I grew up in central Maine, and in some ways, running was my way out,” he says. “We try to help build the backbone for kids to feel good about themselves, about learning to set goals and develop confidence.”
Cox has maintained his original vision for the operation from the outset. “We’ve never had a five-year plan,” he says, “and no one is making any money. The one thing we’re adamant about is that this remains free for everyone.” Cox is careful to keep the comments section positive when it comes to specific athletes, but takes critical feedback into account when it comes to improving the site. The popularity of the “community uploads” feature has spurred the inclusion of entirely new website sections such as “Pics and Quotes” and “Featured Athletes.” Since the spring of 2016, every state championship meet across all divisions has either been streamed live or uploaded within a day. For this to happen, everyone has to pitch in. Hall has worked closely on the ground with a local timing company, and about a dozen coaches have contributed commentary during the webcasts. And the sites do more than provide amusement and digital scrapbook entries: from the archival footage, Hall has created customized videos for kids to supply to college recruiters.
Hall is familiar with the established track-and-field streaming services, and apart from providing free streaming and videos, he and his colleagues seek to fill a gap in those offerings. For example, it’s hard to give attention to field events during the webcasts, so Hall has arranged for results of these events to scroll across the bottom of the screen while track events were being shown, stock-ticker-style. The site principals are mostly distance folk, but as coaches and fair-minded fans, too, they’re attentive to giving sprinters, throwers and jumpers their due.
Cox says, “One of the largest decisions was to let go of the idea we had to livestream cross-country races. This is incredibly difficult, and to be honest, the quality of video was hugely compromised when we did this. We tried using hotspots, among other things, but the finished product was so bad in comparison, we ultimately felt that we had no choice.” Still, the cross-country videos are always made available within a couple of days.
The project is certainly a success story for New Hampshire’s running community. Cox says that the Runner’s Alley “Team Nights” in particular, advertised prominently on the partner sites, have become very popular, offering discounts to whatever team’s turn has arrived as well as focused attention on that team’s recent efforts. He says that college coaches, parents, and relatives who live a long way from New Hampshire have expressed appreciation for the service the websites provide.
It remains to be seen whether this kind of grassroots movement could catch on in other states, but last year, Marathon Sports helped launch a similar enterprise in Massachusetts. There’s an undeniable difference in scale—Massachusetts has almost 7 million people to New Hampshire’s 1.4 million—but the company is making a gamble that the same passion they found in New Hampshire will help drive the project in a larger state.
Ultimately, the leaders of this small movement are looking to honor what has kept them in the running community for so many years: a basic desire to see young athletes be rewarded for their efforts.