Anyone who works at Hawke Media knows I run a lot. I run before work, after work, and on my lunch break. Running has been a passion of mine since midway through high school and throughout college, where I received a scholarship to compete in cross country and track.
After college, I wanted to find a way to continue competing in the sport I loved the most. I wasn’t exactly going to become a professional runner, but I wasn’t exactly a recreational runner either, which brings me to how I took up marathoning. I’m training to break the world record for the youngest, fastest woman to run all six World Marathon Majors, all the while getting faster and looking to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2024.
Needless to say, I’ve been running some marathons. The New York City Marathon last month was the fourth marathon I’ve finished in the past few years, but it’s my first one since working at Hawke Media. Therefore, it’s my first marathon in which I paid attention to something other than the crowd, scenery, and my fast finish: marketing.
Pre-Race: The Expo
There’s so much marketing at a marathon, let alone one of the six World Marathon Majors. It started even before the starting line when you went to pick up your number at the race expo. After you grab your number, you’re ushered into rows and rows of booths with vendors selling products.
From NormaTec recovery boots to beet juices to Honey Stinger energy waffles, runners and attendees alike (expos are free and open to the public!) can pass through the rows, sample or try out the products, and talk to company reps. Every rep is trying to sell you on their product and convince you that what they’re selling is going to help you run faster, speed up your recovery time, keep you fueled for the race, etc.
The marathon even gives you coupons in your packet pickup bag for some of the products at the expo, as well as massages and discounts to local NYC restaurants. Since these brands’ target audiences are primarily endurance athletes, they’re in the perfect place to drum up business.
The Big Dance
Enough about the expo—let’s skip to the actual race. It’s marathon morning and all of the runners are being funneled through different color-coordinated zones to the starting line on the Verrazzano Bridge. After they strip down from their sweats into the clothes they’ll be running 26.2 miles in, the brand marketing really begins.
The national anthem is belted out, the gun is fired, and the runners are off, climbing up the bridge. Throughout all of the 26.2 miles and all five boroughs of New York City, participants are repping their favorite sporting brand, their local running team or group, or the charity they raised money for in exchange for a race entry.
I’m personally repping a few different brands myself: Central Park Track Club (my team in NYC and my current coach), the Janes Elite Racing (my team in Los Angeles and the women I train with here), Nike (my shoes and race kit), Garmin (my watch), and Stance (my socks). Over 50,000 marathoners running down the streets of NYC with crowds of over 2.5 million watching might be the best free advertising there ever was.
It’s crazy how much weight a brand can carry. For example, I was running with a woman from Eastern Europe for the majority of the race, and the race kit she donned was Tracksmith, an up-and-coming brand making waves on the running scene. Instead of people yelling, “You go girl!” (which we get a lot of because we’re beating all of the men) they were yelling, “Go Tracksmith!”
It’s also crazy how much free marketing for your running team occurs during a marathon. A man came up to me during the race and said, “You run for the Janes? I know your team captain, and they’re a great group of women!” Many people cheered me on saying, “Go Central Park!” in this marathon and in the London Marathon, another World Marathon Major, as well.
It works the same for charities, like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, one of the more popular non-profits you can raise money for in exchange for race entries. There’s no better way to spread awareness for your organization than with 2.5 million people watching runners wearing your brand across their chests accomplishing an incredible feat.
The Nike Effect
One of the greatest marketing realizations I had while running the New York City Marathon is how much of a mogul Nike really is. I mean, I know Nike is probably the biggest household name of all time in the sports world, but the extent of their brand’s reach is actually INSANE. A few years back and then again this year, when they sponsored Eliud Kipchoge’s attempt to break two hours in the marathon, they were quick to market the special (and sometimes controversial) shoes he was wearing with three different types of unique foam in them.
These shoes are said to help you run your fastest marathon ever, and that marketing pitch worked immediately. What runner doesn’t want to find any and every way (besides improving training quality) to run faster? Since The New York Times published their findings that maybe Nike’s marketing does have merit to it and these shoes might really help people run faster, the shoes have blown up.
I can speak for the front of the race, and just about every other person in the front, including myself, was wearing those aforementioned Nike 4% or Next % (the newer model) shoes. Almost all of the professional athletes were wearing them as well, and professional athletes wearing your brand brings a whole other level of marketing, above what the average person wearing your brand could bring. You want to wear what the best of the best are wearing.
Although Nike owns the shoe market in the marathon, New Balance owns the day as the official brand sponsor of the NYC Marathon. They make all of the official free and for-purchase gear runners receive and can buy at the race.
Not to mention, TCS sponsors the race and gets their name in the title of one of the six biggest marathons in the world, so you can imagine what that recognition does for their business. Abbott sponsors the World Marathon Majors series, in which NYC is one of six (the others are Chicago, Boston, London, Berlin, and Tokyo), and the situation goes the same in terms of acknowledgment and recognition for their company.
As a runner, when I cross the finish line of the NYC Marathon, after my mental and physical tests during 26.2 miles are completed and I’ve overcome it all, it feels so damn awesome. I’m pretty sure that almost all of the 50,000 runners would agree with me. Because I have positive associations with finishing the NYC Marathon and finishing well, I’m going to have positive associations with all of the brands surrounding it and that were present in my experience at the race.
Putting one foot in front of the other, not needing anything else but your own two feet, running is as real as it gets. The sense of accomplishment after you’ve completed a marathon is as real as it gets. Now that I think like a marketer all of the time, I can also tell you that marketing is everywhere, even at marathons, and marketing is also as real as it gets.