Twenty thousand winged goddesses on the streets of San Francisco

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This weekend has been the end of two weeks of travel for me, one on vacation and one for business. This weekend in San Francisco put me in my favorite city in North America, watching 20,000 women celebrate their weekend and their event, with "their tribe"....

Sunday, October 22, 2007

I awoke to a song by Jesse Colin Young, an observer of the human condition from the seventies. The song, when the Morning Sun comes...was in my ears, but also there was no stereo on...

Sunday morning came early, about six am, as the alarm on my phone went off, signaling the start of a new day. As I prepared myself for the journalist part of my day, I grabbed my I pod nano. With iTalk, a new accoutrement for the Nano, I now do interviews and ipod observations of running events.

Walking to the start on Union Square, I felt the tinge I always feel before the start of an event. My modus operandi today would be to walk up, introduce myself to a group of women marathoners and half marathoners, and let them talk about their reasons for running.

My first group of interviewees were from Alberta, Canada. Two were running their first half marathon and one had already ten half marathons. They were very positive, and spoke of the importance for running for a cause. One of the runners, only half jokingly said she was running because of the hunky firemen who give out the Tiffany necklaces at the end. That was honest!

The changes in the sport of running in this century is not only about the number of women, but the ethnic diversity. In the 70's, running was pretty male and pretty white. In this race, there is a strong Latino and Asian contingent--and African American contingent as well. The sport is becoming more open and more inclusive.

In another set of interviews, I spoke to three Latinas from Los Angeles. One had run for twenty years, one for fourteen and one had just started up running again! One of the runners had run 19 half marathons! One had run one race and the third had run five half marathons. These three runners had only been racing again for the past five years, but had been running for up to twenty years! What motivated them to race? And why now? The Nike plus Half marathon was getting many runners to do more than lace up their shoes every, day, they were participating. Two used Brooks running shoes, one used Nike and ASICS, but all three said that they were buying Nike apparel.

The late George Sheehan once said that the difference between a runner and a non-runner was the bib number, i.e., race, and become a runner. Many were first timers here, although there were over 500 runners who had run all four marathons or half marathons.

What about brand awareness? In the running foodchain, in performance, while Nike is the king of all running shoe sales, a $6.5 billion business-Nike does nearly $ 3 billion in Nike sales--Nike is third or fourth in the performance business, behind ASICS, Brooks, and New Balance. This is huge improvement for Nike, as they were in a free fall for the past half dozen years. Nike had went from geek brand to wanna be geek brand.

While there is nothing wrong with three billion in sales, Nike had started as a runners' brand and as sales grew, the attention to detail, the attention to core runners, seemed to have left the brand. Key designers and Nike lifers left to go elsewhere. The word was that Nike had lost its way.

The grumbling started seven or eight years ago, and the self analysis was painful, and still is. Key Nike execs, including Phil Knight, the founder, were uncomfortable with this. But many execs, who had come to Nike from non-running backgrounds, were also fearful to shake up the apple tree too much, as Nike was and is selling alot of shoes.

Last spring, at a press conference, Mark Parker , one of the Co Presidents of Nike, expressed that Nike was a running shoe company and it would reexamine its roots. Parker, a runner, a shoe geek, and also one of the few executives in the massive behemoth that has become the Swoosh, who can effect change. His words were remembered by many. HIs words were feared by some.

In the end, it came to finding a corporate soul. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step according to Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse (http://www.classicallibrary.org/laotse/tao/part1.html).The journey began with many half steps. The first was the Nike Border Clash eight years ago. An event held on the Nike campus between the best high school runners of Oregon and Washington gave Nike insiders and industry congnescenti something to ponder.

About a year ago, rumors began that Nike would shake up their structure once again. Leslie Lane was hired as Global Director of running, a man with a big title, but what was the mandate? Lane has experience in cross country running and crew. He had been Nike executive for three years, working on the Converse aquisition. Well educated, Lane leads quietly, assembling a team and empowering them to fight the good fight. With a team, Lane has began to effect change in a structure that does not welcome change.

The Nike Women's Marathon is part of that good fight. Nike staffers started to say, a few years ago, we need to listen to the consumer, especially women. What do they want? What do they need? How do they view our brand? The Nike Women's marathon is one moving, breathing consumer laboratory. No mice are harmed in this research, but runners are made, and relationships are started.

In part, the race was to celebrate Joan Benoit-Samuelson's twentieth anniversary of her victory in Los Angeles. Ironic, as the LA Olympics saved the Olympic movement, and Benoit-Samuelson's marathon and the minions of women runners she influenced have saved the sport of running.

Over the past year, Lane has assembled a strong team at Nike, first to look at the problems and secondly to find a way to re-embrace Nikes' beginnings and its core
beliefs-a thankless job with a $19 billion company that is making gobs of money and where many would more than likely fear any change. But, slowly, over the year, some things happened good that started the first hundred meters toward real change. A step forward, a half step back. That is how change works in modern business and society.

Back to the race...While Carol Lewis, a tv sports commentator, former athlete and sister of Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, continued to say, " We are all athletes here! Yell if you are a runner!"

Martha Graham, the renowned modern dancer, called dancers "athletes of God". In this new era of running, we are all athletes. The key is to participate, to move one's body, get the heart pumping, and become aware again of the world! Nike's and other footwear companies focus should be opening sports and activity up to as many who can get off their behinds and walk, run, jog, jump or throw. Celebrate the body or you will not have that body. Breathe in, Breathe out.

Leslie Lane was in attendance at the start, waiting for his wife to cross the starting line for her first half marathon. Before the start, Leslie put the event in perspective. " Remember, Nike is named for a women, the Winged goddess of victory. Today, in San Francisco, there are 20,000 winged goddesses!" Lane stood there and watched 20,000 winged goddesses, including his wife, run with their hearts and their feet.

It took twenty-six minutes and two seconds for twenty thousand marathoners and half-marathoners to cross the starting line on Union Square this morning. I watched them cross the starting line, trying to catch as many faces and expressions. Hugs as many crossed the starting line, smiles, and shouts were heard. Lots of cameras and camcorders captured the moment that many had trained for the last six months, getting up four to six days a week, in good weather and bad, to run for something bigger than themselves.

I was so in awe of the start, and so captured by the emotion, that I missed my van to tour much of the course. The truth was, I had seen and experienced exactly what I wanted and needed to. Walking back to my hotel, I was touched the the silence and quiet on the streets of San Francisco, where 20,000 runners and walkers had just began their tours of the city streets. I

I reached my hotel and changed into my walking clothes. Grabbing my shoes, and my Ipod, I started my walk, and honored the 20,000 participants of the NIke Women's 26.2 and NIke plus Half marathon the only way I knew how-I joined them on the roads and streets of San Francisco for my hour....

*****

For more on the Nike 26.2, please check:http://www.nike.com/nikemarathon

For more on Lao-Tse, please check: http://www.classicallibrary.org/laotse/tao/part1.html

For more on the running network, please check: www.runningnetwork.com

To reach the writer, please email [email protected]

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