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May 28, 2020

How Kara Goucher Stood Up to Running's Goliath

Kara Goucher explains how calling out Nike shaped her career, and where she goes from here. (Photo: Ian Allen)
Kara Goucher explains how calling out Nike shaped her career, and where she goes from here.

When Olympic marathoner Kara Goucher went public in 2015 with her accusation that her former coach, the legendary Alberto Salazar, had skirted antidoping rules with the elite runners of the Nike Oregon Project, she suffered an onslaught of criticism. The blowback set her back financially and competitively—and made her wonder if she had made a terrible mistake. Then last spring, Goucher spoke up again, joining former Nike teammates in a New York Times op-ed about the company’s practice of suspending female athletes’ pay during pregnancy. Nike soon pledged changes, and in the fall the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned Salazar from coaching for four years. In the middle of this storm, Goucher converted to trail running at age 40, finishing in fifth place among women in her first off-road event, the infamous Leadville marathon. In this episode, reporter Stephanie May Joyce, who profiled Goucher for a recent issue of Outside, asks the runner how calling out the athletic footwear and apparel juggernaut shaped her career, and where she goes from here.


This episode of the Outside Podcast is brought to you by Tracksmith, an independent running brand with a deep love for the sport. Tracksmith is offering Outside Podcast listeners $15 off your first product purchase of $75 or more. Go to Tracksmith.com/outside and enter the code OutsidePod at checkout.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast. 

Michael Roberts (host): When Kara Goucher decided to run the Leadville trail marathon in the Colorado Rockies last summer, she figured it would be a fun challenge. She was a world-class distance runner, with two Olympics under her belt and top-three finishes at major races, including the Boston and New York marathons. Sure, she was 40, no longer as fast as she once was, and the entire Leadville course was above 10,000-feet, but she was still a professional runner. She thought: how hard could it be?

Kara Goucher: And I just went for it. And it was horrible.

Roberts: Kara actually came in a totally respectable fifth place, but she says it was the most difficult competition of her life. She had trouble with the altitude, and threw up multiple times. But despite that, she loved it. This was mostly because of the way everyone involved with the event treated her.

Goucher: I Iove the running community, track, roads, everything. But I have never experienced anything like that, where no one said to me, Oh, you went out a little hard. Ah, you thought you could win. The stuff that I thought people were going to say, they were like, none of that ever happened. It was all just about, I can't believe you did. This is so awesome. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Like you did so great and we're so happy to have you, and nobody made a comment about all my bad mistakes and stupid moves. It was all positive. It was amazing. 

Roberts: If Kara sounds unusually excited about people being nice to her, that’s because that kind of positivity hasn’t always featured prominently in her career — especially in recent years.

In 2015, she went public with allegations that her former coach at the Nike Oregon Project, Alberto Salazar, had skirted anti-doping rules. Her comments were explosive in the track world. Salazar has been a huge figure in running since the 70s, both as an athlete, and a coach. And Kara who had once been a rising star at Nike suddenly found herself on the outs with a lot of people. She was mercilessly harassed online by trolls and accused of lying. She also lost some friends.

For years, nothing came of her allegations. Then, last fall, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned Salazar from coaching for four years after concluding that he had in fact broken doping rules. And yet, Kara has continued to be a target of criticism.

A lot of people would wither under that kind of negative attention but instead, Kara has just become more outspoken, raising questions about the culture at Nike that enabled Salazar and about the company’s overall treatment of female athletes.

Outside contributor Stephanie Joyce talked to Kara earlier this year about how speaking up against the most powerful brand in running has shaped her career… and why she can’t wait for her next trail race. 

Stephanie Joyce: Kara joined the Nike Oregon Project back in 2004. At the time it was only three years old. But it was already famous in the track world. It was not a great time for American distance running. No American had come close to winning anything for more than a decade and Nike had decided that needed to change. It created the Oregon Project explicitly to create the next generation of great American distance runners. And Nike wanted Kara to be one of them along with her husband, Adam, who was also a professional runner. Nike told them they would have every resource at their disposal.

Goucher: Like you'll be getting a massage every week on us. You'll be seeing an active release therapist on us. We can study your mechanics. We can send you to any doctor we can. And it was just sort of like, I remember being nervous to say yes because I felt like if we said yes to this and I still couldn't make it, then I had to just face the fact that like I just wasn't as good as I hoped I was.

Joyce: Kara and Adam said yes. And in 2004, they moved out to Oregon and started training with Alberto Salazar. He was the brains behind the Oregon Project and a legend. Salazar had won three consecutive New York marathons back in the 80s —the last American to win the race for more than two decades. He was already making a name for the Oregon Project with his unconventional training methods — like having athletes live in a house that simulated high-altitude conditions. Kara felt lucky to be training with him.

Goucher: When I first joined, I didn't know him that well. He was really, really nice, but I was injured and he was really excited to be coaching Adam. As I kind of started to rise up, we got really, really close.  I trusted him so much and I've been very open that my father died when I was little and he really filled that void for me. Like he was the person that I would go to with a lot of life stuff. And of course, looking back, was that appropriate? Probably not, but I really, really loved him and I loved his belief in me and I felt like long after running is over, I will be going over to his house and my kids will be playing with his grandkids. 

Joyce: (to Goucher) He was family. 

Goucher: He was absolutely family.. 

Joyce: (voiceover) In Kara’s first couple of years at the Oregon Project, she didn’t make much of a splash. She was injured a lot and posting mediocre results but then in 2007, she won bronze in the 10,000 meters at the World Championships. It was the first track medal for an American — male or female — in a long time. And it vaulted her into the spotlight. She had a few more impressive races and qualified for the 2008 Olympics and suddenly, she was a star. She says executives at Nike, like then-CEO Mark Parker, let her know it. 

Goucher: Once you become a successful Nike athlete, that's when it changes. There's a PR firm churning out stories about you so you're constantly on covers. I flew back from the New York City marathon on the jet with Mark Parker. I flew back from the Beijing Olympics with Mark Parker on the bigger jet. And it's kind of glamorous, right? Like you can walk into any of these offices. You're constantly seeing other professional athletes. There's just sort of this -- it's almost like this weird sense of power to be high up at Nike. My picture was everywhere. Iit's kind of intoxicating. I just really felt like, oh yeah, like this is where I'm going to be. 

They call it the Nike family. I'll always be in the Nike family. I really imagined that I'd go over for dinners at Alberto's house with my children. That's what I just thought my life would be like. That's how close I felt to these people. So sometimes when I'll see a photo or I'll look at an old journal or something in the night, I’ll feel sad for me that I thought that was a reality.

Joyce: (to Goucher) When did your relationship with Salazar -- when did that start to change for you? When did you start to feel differently about him? 

Goucher: I think Boston 2009 was really the first big, big break in our relationship. He was really, really disappointed in me. He felt like I didn't stick to the race plan and… 

Joyce: And just to clarify, Boston 2009, you were the favorite to win that race. 

Goucher: I was the favorite to win. And I finished third. 

Joyce: And tell me a little bit about that race. Tell me about what the plan was supposed to be and then what actually happened.

Goucher: Okay. I often get emotional when I talk about this. So I'll try to keep it together, but, the race strategy was: don't make a move until you turn onto Boylston. So essentially waiting almost 26 miles before you do anything. But as the race was unfolding, it was so slow, and I started to like to take note of how many women there were in that lead pack. And as the miles ticked on, and no one was really falling off, I started to feel a little nervous that if I turn onto Boylston and there's 20 women's still, maybe someone has a better kick than me. And we got to the Newton Hills and I felt like I could have run away, like I was pulling away and then I'd slow down and then I'd pull away and slow down.

And so we got out of that and I couldn't take it anymore. We had six miles to go and I just went for it. But I went for it for about a half mile, and then someone from the media truck warned me how fast I was running. And so I kind of slammed on the brakes a little bit, and then basically, just broke the wind for these two other women for six miles.

And then they ended up out kicking me. But the aftermath was not good amongst my team. It was me lying on the hotel room floor crying. My coach and my sports psychologist going over and over about how I messed up. Talks about flying to London because the London marathon was six days later and trying to redeem myself and it just — it was the first time I was let know, like a lot of money's been put into you and you didn't deliver. Just like the whole feeling of it started to change from like nothing was good enough. Unless I won a gold medal or won a major, it wasn't enough.

It was definitely a time where I started to really not love running anymore.

Joyce: Kara had planned to take some time off to get pregnant after Boston, so she would be back in peak form for the 2012 Olympics… but she says she was so devastated by her performance in that race that she delayed until after the World Championships that year hoping to redeem herself. Then, in January 2010, she got pregnant with her son, Colt. 

At the time, it was still pretty newsworthy when elite athletes trained through their pregnancies and Kara says she discussed her plans with executives at Nike beforehand. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment about what they agreed to but Kara says she understood that so long as she continued to make appearances on behalf of Nike she would keep getting paid. So it came as a huge surprise when the company suspended her contract while she was 7 months pregnant. 

Goucher: I did 22 appearances during my pregnancy. In my mind, I'm upholding my end of the deal.

And then I get a call from my financial advisor in the summer saying, your quarterly payment is three weeks late. And I'm like, what? And it takes a week to find out I've been suspended for an indefinite amount of time. 

Joyce: No heads up, 

Goucher: No heads up, no notification. The response was I sort of remember that conversation, but there's nothing in writing, and this is where I first learned to sort of like to fight. This is the first time I ever fought because I am a good girl. And I do what I'm told my whole life. I  don't cause conflict. And that was the first time in my life I was like, no, this is not right.

And so I have my son. There's no resolution. I'm not getting paid. And I'm essentially told you need to race, cause as soon as you race we can at least stop the clock of between competitions cause you haven't competed since World Championships in 2009 so I wasn't healed and just started running and right before my first race, my son had a lump on his neck and my husband and I go in and they give him a scan. So he's knocked out and they bring out his little limp body and they say he's going into emergency surgery.

There's something bad in his neck. And he has surgery, he had a staph infection in his lymph node, had it burst, he would have died, but he needs to stay in the hospital for at least two days to be monitored. And I left to go to practice. Because no one said, you don't have to race this weekend. And of course I didn't have to. But I felt like I had to. I left my son in the hospital to go run. 

It was such a hard time because I was making choices that as a human, I didn't like -- I still wasn't getting paid and I just felt like I was going crazy. Like, I actually felt like I was going crazy. Like, how is this okay? And I tried to get a lawyer and they would say, that's totally illegal. And then they'd say, well, turns out you're contracted so you actually don't qualify for normal rights. But the problem is that they were using my likeness to continue to sell their product. Because I was a contractor I couldn't say, you guys aren’t going to pay for me? Don't worry about it. I'm going to go to Saucony for six months because then I'm breaching my contract with them.

If I had known you're not going to get paid for a year, I still would've gotten pregnant, but nobody would have seen me. And I would have gone and spent time with my grandparents who I love, and I would have spent time with my mom and I would have done all of these things and lived a life that didn't have these other expectations and things tethering me back to the brand.

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Joyce: Six months after giving birth, Kara ran the Boston marathon again. She came in fifth, and set a personal best. But she alleges that while she was training for the race, Salazar pressured her to take a thyroid medication that she hadn’t been prescribed, in order to lose weight. She says she didn’t take it, and he denies the accusation, saying he would never ask an athlete to take a drug they hadn’t been prescribed. 

But Kara says that incident made her re-examine other things she claims to have seen during her years with the Oregon Project. 

Goucher: I witnessed stuff: getting IVs for hydration purposes and faking dehydration, like witnessing the creams and witnessing the testosterone cream and witnessing the syringes. No one actually put it in me. So it's really hard  to describe. My best answer for people is if Adam wasn't in the picture, that could be my story. 

Joyce: (to Goucher) So in 2011, you decide this is it. I'm done. You don't leave Nike, but you leave the Nike Oregon project, the team that Alberto Salazar is coaching. And then in 2013 you decide to go to the U.S. Anti-doping Agency to report concerns about Salazar. Why that moment? Why did you wait? 

Kara: Well, when I left in 2011, I had a baby. I mean, he was not even quite a year old when I left. I'm in the Nike family. My contract is still ongoing. I had a line. Why did you leave Alberto? I had a baby and my life changed.My life changed and we were no longer the right fit, and I just sold that line forever. I mean, before the 2012 Olympics, I had reporters reaching out to me saying like, we know why you really left. And I wouldn't talk to anyone. I think being on that other Nike team and getting to know other athletes who were losing spots on Olympic teams to Salazar’s athletes that started to eat at me. In 2013, we were in Colorado Springs training for the Boston marathon, and that's when Lance Armstrong sat down with Oprah. And afterwards I saw Travis Tygart talking and he started talking about threats, he had gotten death threats and stuff, and I remember thinking he gets it. 

Joyce: Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. 

Goucher: He's the CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency. I just remember Colt was like on my lap and I looked over at Adam and you get that guy, I'll go talk to you USADA. 

Joyce: So seeing somebody else say, I face threats every day, but this is really important. That's what motivated you to come forward.

Goucher: Yeah. I mean, honestly that's it because I felt like the risk was so big and I know how powerful Nike is and then seeing Travis talk openly about getting death threats and still pursuing it, I was like, okay, this guy gets it and there's really no excuse. Like my silence is allowing this to continue.

Joyce: Kara did share her concerns with USADA. But publicly, she didn’t say anything. Then, in 2014, she didn’t renew her contract with Nike. Instead she signed with Skechers and the start-up women’s running company Oiselle. 

Not long after that, ProPublica and the BBC approached Adam for a story about alleged doping at the Oregon Project. And Kara decided she wanted to go on the record too. 

Goucher: I always said I'll never talk about it publicly until either there's a conclusion or my career is done. And I mean, my first thought was to tell him, no, you can't. Like that is a deal breaker. But I also was kind of relieved to be able to stop telling this false narrative about like, Oh, I just had a baby and then -- or why did you really leave Nike? Oh, well, I just wanted a new opportunity. I was just tired. I knew it was always bubbling up. There was always a threat, someone threatening to do a story, and it was just like, I don't want to have to worry about this anymore. It was kind of a relief to be able to think like, well, maybe we could say like, I left Nike because I thought they were unethical and I didn't want to represent them anymore.It was exhausting. 

Joyce: Did it feel like if someone else does the story and you haven't spoken up at that point that it also implicates you, that it makes you look really guilty? 

Goucher: For sure. And then I'm entering the conversations second tier on the defense instead of saying, you know what? Let's do this. But for sure, I was like, how's it going to look when Adam says all this stuff happened and then I'm just quiet, and I was the one that had the success.?Of course that's going to look so bad. So that definitely was part of it. That's going to look really, really bad. And if I’m looking in, I'd go, well, she definitely did something cause she's just quiet and she's the one that ran so well. I mean, that's just like logical. So I was like, man, I mean I probably should just meet it head on and answer their questions head on. 

Joyce: Obviously you were aware of what some of the consequences of that would be. How did what actually happened compare to what you expected? 

Goucher:  I expected a few trolls to say, yeah, she's a liar or she's jealous or Nike kicked her off the team, which is not what happened, I chose to leave Nike. I have the documentation to prove that. So I expected a little bit of that, but I didn't expect this sweeping backlash and I didn't expect it would just split this community. People that were my friends, now I'm the pariah. I was not prepared for that and I wasn't ready for what a toll it would take on me emotionally, which in turn took a toll on me physically. I found out just how many people thought I had doped, which was really, really hard. I mean, people that I had trained with and traveled with and been on teams with and. It was jarring. And there were times where I was like, I shouldn't have done this. But I never said I regret it.

Like everything is more difficult now because now I'm not in the Nike family. Not only was I not in the Nike family, I was spoke out against it. And even then, I still hadn't shared all of the -- I never talked about the environment of the team. I never talked about that I didn't get paid while I was pregnant. Like I hadn't shared all of these other things — it was just that I saw my coach and fellow athletes break anti-doping rules. That's what I saw.

Joyce: It took more than four year for anything to come of the doping allegations. It wasn’t until last fall, October 2019, that USADA suspended Salazar. Nike shut down the Oregon Project shortly after that.

But in the meantime, Kara kept racing. After she left Nike, she and Adam moved back to Boulder so she could train with her college coaches. And she started prepping for the 2016 Olympic marathon trials. She was hoping for a spot on her third Olympic team, but she had stiff competition, including her former Nike teammates, Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan. 

Goucher: I felt like I was. Even though I was 37 I was like, I might be in the best marathon shape in my life. Like I have workouts I can compare it to, and I'm exceeding anything I've ever done before. I didn't know for sure, but I felt like as long as I do my job and run like a steady, solid race, there aren't more than two people that will beat me. 

Joyce: Yeah. And so was there a moment in the actual race when you realized this isn't going to happen? 

Goucher:  Yeah, it was very, very hot that day. It was actually what's considered red flag conditions. Normally you wouldn't even run the race. So a lot of people, not just myself, had a last minute strategy change, which was 2:29 to 2:30  is going to make the team, and I can't go with any early moves because heat stroke is like a real thing. And so I felt very confident throughout the race because there were surges, but then those people would come back to us. And Amy Cragg and Shalane had really gone for it. They had pressed ahead and they had separated themselves. So I couldn't even see them anymore.

But as more and more people fell away, it was clear that it was myself and Desi for this third spot. Desi Linden.And with about four miles to go, I just couldn't -- she had started to slowly pull away and I just couldn't make anything happen. I almost started crying. I just couldn't believe it.

I thought either I'll be in the top three or I'm going to be 20th and realize I was totally a pipe dream that I thought I was going to make this. It never entered my mind that it would be right there and that I wouldn't get it. It was either like I'm top three or I'm not even close. It was very difficult to like get myself to finish that race. Like I wanted to join to drop out, like I really did. I was like, the minute I cross that line, it's all over. It's like everything I've been dreaming of and everything I fought through, it's done. 

Joyce: Kara gave an emotional interview after the race where she said the three women who beat her were simply better. But it actually wasn’t that simple. Two of the women — Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan — were wearing early prototypes of the Nike Vaporfly, the controversial shoe that has been shown to make runners faster. Once again, Kara raised questions about something she saw as a potentially unfair advantage. But that did not go over well with everyone.

Goucher: And it's hard for me to talk about this because people get really defensive because they love those two women. And I'm like, so do I. I like them, I respect them. One of them was one of my closest friends. I trained with her for two years. It's not personal, it's just facts that they had equipment that has been proven in studies to give an advantage and, at the time, the rule stated that you couldn't have a shoe that gave you an advantage over someone else.

A lot of people will say, that's disrespectful, how could you even say that? They say that was going to be your last race anyway. So does that mean I deserved it less? I mean, if I would have been top three, I earned it. I mean like they're mad at me for even questioning did I face a level playing field? I

And personally it's been hell. It's kept me up at night. Makes me think, what if? What if they hadn't been wearing those shoes? What if I was still with Nike and I had those shoes? I mean, do I deserve to be a three time Olympian? I don't know. And that's part of the problem is I don't get to know. 

Joyce: In January, World Athletics, which is the governing body for track and field, made clear in a new rule that shoes like the Vaporfly could be used in competition. 

It was a huge disappointment to Kara, but she’s had better luck pushing for change on other fronts. In May of last year, she and several other former Nike athletes spoke out in a New York Times op-ed about the company’s practice of suspending female athlete’s pay during pregnancy. And in response, the company announced changes, including promising not to end women’s contracts if they get pregnant. 

Goucher: Careers are lasting longer and longer, so we're going to see more and more -- before people would be like, I'll be retired by the time I'm 30. I'll just wait. Well, now people's careers are going way into their thirties so this is just a reality. More and more women are going to have children and if we support them throughout it, maybe their career goes six years beyond having that child, but if we don't and they have to make sacrifices to their body, their career is only going to go for a year or two more.

And so it just makes sense to address it and to deal with it and embrace it. Because if you want long careers, this is a topic that lots of women are going to face. 

Joyce: When you first signed on with Nike, did you have a conversation with them about what would happen if you got pregnant? 

Goucher: My husband, who was my fiance at the time, brought it up and I remember being embarrassed. He was like, so what happens if she gets pregnant? And I remember like, I shot him this look like I will kill you. Because I knew they didn't want to hear about that. I was young and I was like this won't affect me. The fact that I'm here in this room right now is a big deal. God, why are you bringing up a baby? And I mean like, of course now I'm like, Adam was just trying to protect me and he was thinking long term, but at the time, that's how it works. You feel so grateful for every little thing that I was just like, Oh my God, please don't talk about this.

Joyce: These days, Kara is best known for her advocacy. But she hasn’t stopped competing either. After the 2016 Olympic trials, she started training again for another road marathon, but she got injured and she says her heart really wasn’t in it. Then she turned 40 and suddenly found herself looking at things differently. That’s when she decided to enter a high-altitude trail race.

Goucher: Honestly, turning 40 was like the best thing that ever happened to me. I was like, why am I worrying about these definitions of success? Like I don't want to stop running. I'm slower. Who cares? Like honestly, it was like life changing for me, and there's so many avenues to explore in running and in endurance sport in general. And so I was like, I'm gonna run the Leadville marathon. Like, that sounds like a good idea. I've heard of Leadville and I've always been like, could I do the Leadville a hundred miler? Like I knew there was no way I could do it right now. So I was like, well, I'll do the marathon. I'll get my feet wet, you know? And I completely underestimated everything about it.

Joyce: I mean, I think a lot of people think running is running is running. How different could trail running be?

Goucher: They're completely different sports. I'm not a good trail runner. And I think it's funny cause people were like, Oh yeah, you're just going to go over the trails and like rip it up. And I'm terrible. I'm not good. But like I'm not good on technical trail. I'm scared. I'm a shuffler.I'm like a marathon shuffler, but it's so beautiful and different and fun until I fall, and it’s exciting and I really want people to try trail running. I think it can be really intimidating. You look at these Instagram posts, they're like on a cliff and you're like, I just jog around my neighborhood. So like one of the things like -- my biggest missions right now is to like show people that you don't have to be hardcore, but i it's such a sense of accomplishment to like run up a trail and just turn around and look, and it just makes you see the world through a totally different lens. And I guess I just want to keep having fun and if it sounds fun to go back and run a marathon, then I'll do that. But I think right now that I'm looking for a new adventure. 

Joyce: Welcome to trail running. You’re welcome to join me for any of my 18 minute uphill miles.

Goucher: That's one thing that you have to get used to, right? For so much of my life, my value was on my watch. And that took a lot of getting used to -- I was out there for two and a half hours and I only ran X amount of miles or I ran a 22 minute mile cause you're like hiking up this crazy Hill.

And that was something that was like really hard for me to wrap my head around because since I was 12 my value was writing my log at night. Like did I hit my splits or not? And you have to just let all of that go. But once you do, there's something super empowering about that cause you're like, I'm here for the experience and I'm not validating myself through anything but the fact that I am doing it. It's really fun

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OUTRO

Roberts: That’s Kara Goucher, speaking with Outside contributor Stephanie Joyce. Joyce reported and produced this episode, which was edited by me, Michael Roberts, with music by Robbie Carver. Stephanie also wrote a story about Kara for the May 2020 print edition of Outside. 

If you want to have Outside magazine delivered to your mailbox, you can subscribe now at a special discounted rate at OutsideOnline.com/summerspecial. Subscribing is also the best way to support this show. 

This episode was brought to you by Tracksmith,  a proudly independent running brand that makes high-performance products for real-world athletes. Right now, Tracksmith is offering Outside Podcast listeners $15 off your first purchase of $75 or more. Go to Trackmsith.com/outside and enter the code OutsidePod at checkout. That’s Trackmsith.com/outside and code OutsidePod, all one word. 

We’ll be back next week. 

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.