Any (non-doping-related) publicity is good publicity
I love this time of year, when the harbingers of the fall running season begin to trickle in. The big races announce their elite fields. Marathon promos appear on TV. Packs of high school cross-country runners invade public parks like members of the world’s least intimidating gang.
Another seasonal fixture of sorts, one that has become more conspicuous in the age of social media, is the celebrity marathon runner. The lead-up to a prominent race typically includes an announcement by an entertainer, athlete, or politician stating their intention to run 26.2 miles with the masses. Oprah. Al Gore. Pamela Anderson. P. Diddy. The list of celebrity marathoners is long. In late July, Kevin Hart, his five-foot-four-inch frame laden with Nike gear, informed his 34 million Twitter followers that he had a “HUGE” announcement: He is going to run the New York City Marathon in November. (“I’ve got little legs, but a big heart.”)
Unsurprisingly, this disclosure prompted a LetsRun.com thread speculating on how the actor and comedian would fare. Would he DNF or DNS? Would he go sub-four? Mixed in among finishing-time predictions based on Hart’s previous 5K performances were a few derogatory posts:
“The ego these entertainers have. Why is it HUGE NEWS when a young healthy person decides to run a marathon? Oh, because he’s famous for something else? So that makes HIS entry special?” one poster complained.
Despite such grumbling, however, the positive reactions outweighed the negative ones. Most agreed that Hart’s enthusiasm and promotional clout would give distance running some much-needed attention. Several posters wrote that Hart’s upcoming NYC marathon run—and, by extension, the celebrities-running-marathons phenomenon as a whole—was “good for the sport.”
The question of what is “good for the sport” comes up frequently in debates about the current state of running—particularly in discussions about how it can increase running’s popularity. Even though a number of fans felt rather lukewarm about Nike’s recent Breaking2 project—the heavily marketed, meticulously contrived attempt to get a few superstars to run a sub-two-hour marathon—afterward there was some consensus that one positive effect of the spectacle was that it churned up some healthy media buzz. From this perspective, anything that can be done to get more people into running, whether it’s Kevin Hart’s “HUGE announcement” or Eliud Kipchoge’s superhuman ability, is desirable.
Of course, there’s a sense that what’s “good for the sport” isn’t necessarily always in the interest of the individual recreational runner: With increased demand, popular races can become more expensive, crowded, and difficult to get into. Earlier this year, the Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon sold out in 26 minutes. It had 27,000 finishers. According to a New York Road Runners (NYRR) press release, there were 98,247 applicants for the NYC Marathon lottery this year, a 20 percent increase from 2016, and 16,211 (about 17 percent) were ultimately accepted into the race. Thanks to Kevin Hart and co., one could argue that it might be even tougher to get into the NYC Marathon next year.
But there were 1,100 marathons in the United States in 2016. If entry to the most famous among them becomes marginally more exclusive as a result of Hart’s ebullient endorsement, it feels like a small price to pay. Having an entertainer with 54 million Instagram followers be an ambassador for running is good for the sport. Yes, that ambassadorship may be Nike-sponsored, but for now, distance running should be grateful for any exposure that doesn’t involve a doping scandal. Hart cited Kipchoge as his inspiration for signing up for New York. Speaking from the perspective of a longtime athletics fan, it feels almost surreal that a Hollywood actor would even know a pro marathoner’s name.
As for any concern that Kevin Hart’s running New York might unfairly hijack the spotlight from those pro marathoners vying for the win (at least one LetsRun poster brought this up), it’s rather unlikely that he’s going to be busting out a continuous stand-up routine while going hard for 26.2 miles. And if he does, he probably deserves the attention.
Anyway, the scale of the event is such that it tends to eclipse the status of any one participant, be it a Hollywood actor or a world record holder. As I’ve noted before, one of the best things about high-profile marathons is that you actually get to be in the same race as the finest runners in the world. It’s a welcome contrast to other sporting events where athletes are so aloof that fans feel grateful when a sweaty headband is flung into the stands post-game and celebrities occupy $15,000 courtside seats.
Fittingly, the most iconic photos of New York’s race are not images of famous individuals, but aerial shots of the flow of humanity traversing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Swarms of people may be the bane of the backcountry skier or trail runner, but they are the soul of the big-city marathon. So bring on the crowds.