Money on the Run

The Boston Marathon celebrated its hundredth running in 1996 with much fanfare. Its organizers expanded the field to a record size and celebrated right through Patriots’ Day.

A year later, a small company based in La Jolla, California, took out an ad in Runner’s World. “You missed the first Boston,” it read. “Don’t miss the first Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

In 1998, almost 20,000 runners, the largest number to ever participate in a first-time marathon, moved 26.2 miles through the streets of San Diego, listening to a band at every mile. The field started more than half an hour late after an argument with the local police. Most of the runners were from out of town. Half of them were women.

The race marked the dawn of a new era in distance running. The 1998 Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon would change the way races were organized and promoted, who participated, and what they did before and after running. The event also ushered in a new era of investment in running and fitness, creating a key piece of the fitness ecosystem by providing a focal point beyond local, nonprofit races for a lot more spending and sponsorship.

An organized running race sometimes has the feel of a barn raising. Especially on the small side, a race comprises a group of like-minded folks who mostly know each other, and want to put a little formality around what would otherwise be a regular group run. Sometimes, they just want to see who’s really the fastest among them.

The barn-raising aspect comes from the need for dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of volunteers to stand along the race course for hours, guarding a turn, pointing out potholes, or handing out water and energy drinks to occasionally grateful runners. All for a dose of civic pride and a free T-shirt.

The civic pride element shouldn’t be understated. Races are a showcase for communities large and small. At their most prominent, major marathons (and the occasional 10-K like Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race) have grown into signature events for some of the world’s iconic cities. The races have become icons in their own right.

Still, the established races had the field mostly to themselves for a long time. When the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon debuted in 1998, it had been 13 years since a major U.S. marathon was born. Bill Burke organized the first LA Marathon, notable for its for-profit model, in 1985 to leverage the athletic attention and infrastructure in the wake of the 1984 Summer Olympics held in that city.

Why did it take 13 years? Mainly because it’s an expensive, complicated proposition, to the tune of somewhere between $750,000 to $1 million for a major race to get everyone started and finished. Beyond the majors and local races, the demand through the late 1980s and through most of the 1990s wasn’t apparent.

Tracy Sundlun was an irascible running coach in New York who’d navigated a Zelig-like career through the nascent track-and-field and endurance running worlds. The son of businessman and former Rhode Island governor Bruce Sundlun, he attended Philips Exeter and notably decided he wanted to be a coach at the age of 12. He served as an assistant track coach at Georgetown University in the early 1970s. Asked to mentor a young runner who moved east, Sundlun found himself the youngest Olympic coach at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. (Those Olympics, of course, were where Frank Shorter ignited a stateside distance-running boom with his marathon victory.)

Sundlun went on to become a fixture in the New York running scene, coaching the Warren Street Social and Athletic Club, one of the defining running clubs of the 1980s. By virtue of that association, and an apparent penchant for needing to cause trouble, he agitated—in practice and through the court system—for a more rational system for paying runners who win races, as well as scholarships for women in the wake of the passage and adoption of Title IX.

The national running community was small at the time and most people were connected by a couple of degrees at most. Across the country, Tim Murphy, president and founder of Elite Racing, was a southern California fitness and running entrepreneur whose signature event back in the 1990s was the Carlsbad 5000, an annual 5-K race held in the picturesque town that sits just north of San Diego.

The two men connected in the small world of racing, swapping favors around runner invitations and advice. Murphy was interested in further developing his youth program, called Junior Carlsbad, at his annual 5-K. Knowing Sundlun’s experience with youth development in New York, he hired him as a consultant in 1994. Sundlun, who lived and worked in La Jolla as a coach in the late 1970s, was happy to spend a week a month back in Southern California.

The two men clicked further as Sundlun dug into Elite’s expanding mission. Murphy, who was already putting on the only major for-profit race other than the LA Marathon, had aspirations for a 26.2 of his own. Given the existing franchises, they pushed for new and different ideas to get both runners and spectators to participate. Boston had Patriot’s Day—a school’s-out holiday that most companies also close for. New York had a start timed to push runners through the five boroughs at times when people would come out to watch. The most popular viewing area is First Avenue in Manhattan, which comes more than halfway into the race.

A San Diego marathon would have to begin early in the morning. What would entice runners and their supporters? Music. Murphy imagined a course that featured 26 small concerts. The working name was the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. Sundlun recalls: “Some of us thought it was a dumb-ass name. I did. We had three meetings to come up with better ideas and never had a better one, and thank God.”

The bands contributed to an overall festive atmosphere, one much different from a typical race. It pushed the whole marathon experience away from the grim determination of its early, gaunt, hollowed-cheeked die-hards and toward something more palatable to the everyday athlete. “When we started this thing, people ran 90 miles a week, tried to break three [hours], and the courses closed at four hours,” Sundlun says. “There were no Porta Potties on the course. They were these lean, mean, type-A male running machines.”

The Rock ‘n’ Roll target market from the beginning was less serious. Many would be more likely to finish in five or more hours. Some would walk most or all of the way. They needed portable toilets along the route—”more Porta Potties than exist in some states on a single course,” Sundlun says.

But how slow? Looking at New York finish times, Sundlun decided that seven hours should be sufficient time to keep the course open. At that point, the handful of remaining runners could move to the sidewalk to finish. (In fact, more than 1,500 participants ended up on the course at the seven-hour market, forcing organizers to keep the streets closed—“There isn’t a sidewalk in the world big enough to accommodate that many people,” he says.)

The first race was fraught with challenges from—yes—start to finish. Just getting people registered was the first challenge. Back in 1998, the Internet was nascent for much of the world and what passed for e-commerce was clunky. But if this was going to be the new model for modern marathons, online registration was a must. The organizers figured they’d get a couple hundred folks to sign up through the web.

One major problem: the initial site didn’t make it clear when a registration was completed. Many people unwittingly submitted duplicate entries, including one man who registered upwards of 40 times, Sundlun says. A number of especially enthusiastic would-be runners entered online, by fax, and by mail, leading to a backlog of entries that had to be sorted by humans.

By the time registration closed, about 6,700 people registered online.

The experiment proved a point borne out in areas beyond just registration, according to Sundlun: “We were made by the Internet. Initially, we were screwed by the Internet too.”

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon set out to break the record for an inaugural marathon set by Los Angeles back in 1985. Its goal was 8,500 people. More than 19,000 ended up starting the 1998 San Diego race. In part because of the size and its newness, it was fraught. An overzealous police officer delayed the start by 38 minutes because there were cars parked on streets that were supposed to be cleared.

The stories the following day, in the newspapers, were glowing, Sundlun says.

But the Internet wasn’t quite so kind. Grumpy marathoners shot off emails complaining about various elements of race day. Sundlun and his crew did what race directors had done from time immemorial with complaint letters. They gathered them up, figured out what the most common gripes were and, a few days later, sent out a form email apologizing and promising to do better. Too little, too late. “We got crushed,” Sundlun says, referring to message boards and complaints about the lack of responsiveness to the original complaints. It was a harbinger of the new interactive, instant early century to come. “Now with social media, you have to have an answer in five seconds.”

The huge turnout was a boon to many, including the city of San Diego, which pegged the economic impact of the weekend at $35 million. Team in Training, which had signed on as the exclusive national charity and registered 4,500 runners, raised $15.6 million. I ask Sundlun how Elite Racing made out. He laughs. For a while.

“We lost a million bucks,” he says.

While making other people lots of money was a surprise, losing money in its first year of the race wasn’t a shock to the Elite team. Part of what kept people out of the business was an unwillingness to invest for a couple years without turning a profit, Sundlun says. Investing meant aggressive advertising and direct mail pieces sent widely to touch a broad audience.

This was the plan: They created the event as a separate company to isolate it from the rest of the business and raised money from investors to cover what they figured to be about $450,000 in costs. Sundlun and Murphy worked their contacts, pulling in $10,000 and $15,000 commitments from other coaches and business contacts; Wilt Chamberlain, who retired to Southern California, was among the original backers.

As registrations poured in, Elite hit another snag, with its local bank. Fees were meant to provide much-needed working capital, but the flood of small deposits set off compliance issues with the bank, Sundlun recalls. The bank told Murphy it would hold all the deposits until the event happened, and wouldn’t budge despite desperate pleas. Elite was forced to open a new account, at a different local bank, for new registration fees and wait to get the money held hostage.

The registration process had yielded other, more positive, but unexpected insights. Murphy himself combed through entry forms, noting registrants’ locations and occupations. Always on the hunt for sponsors, he’d call up and ask registered runners if their companies wanted to sign up. A call to a pair of Nashville-based record company executives didn’t lead to sponsorship, but did open up an entirely new opportunity.

The Tennesseans were excited about the race and demurred sponsoring when Murphy called. But they did have a comment: Why was this company putting on a music-themed event in a city, San Diego, not known for being any sort of music hub. Why not a race in Nashville?

Elite executives were intrigued. They invited the pair out to La Jolla, where they hatched plans to put on what became the Country Music Marathon. That race, held in March of 1999, marked another first: the first time a race organizer had put together a race outside of their home city.

Elite planned the Nashville race armed with lessons learned at the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll. Country Music was another distinct company, with a roster of investors meant to cover the costs. March was warm enough in Nashville to hold a race and it didn’t interfere with any other marathons (there would be little overlap with the very serious Boston racers and a presumed batch of newbies down South).

How much distance running’s key demographic had changed manifested itself, Sundlun says. Based on San Diego’s success in drawing nearly 20,000 runners, Elite set a cap of 15,000 for Nashville. The race drew half that, ending up with roughly 7,500 runners.

It turns out the new, broader class of runners wasn’t quite as hearty as the never-say-die, don’t-miss-a-workout athletes Sundlun had coached. “People told us, ‘It’s too cold to be running during the winter. We don’t really start running ‘til March,’” he says. “In essence, they just weren’t ready to run a marathon. It was a different audience.”

Even at the lower participation level, Country Music still ranked as one of the five biggest inaugural marathons. Taking another lesson from San Diego, the group sold a $700,000 stake to investors. And still it lost a million dollars the first year.

They remained confident that they could spend their way to profitability over several years, race by race. Elite was tweaking the template to put on a successful race, learning each time how to best attract an audience, how to partner with a city, how to woo sponsors. The next leap forward for Competitor Group came from another, even smaller southern city.

Virginia Beach had an image problem, at least around Labor Day. The three-day weekend at the end of the summer had earned a reputation as a destination for college students who crammed by the dozen into hotel rooms up and down the beach. They drank and frolicked and acted like college students.

Local officials figured they needed to make an end-run around the bacchanal by counterprogramming an event that would bring a different crowd to the area. A marathon seemed like a good idea.

Competitor Group was a natural call. With the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego and Country Music Marathon in Nashville established, the company had proved it could put on a race, even in a city far from its home. Competitor sent a team of executives to scope it out.

They found that the town and infrastructure wouldn’t support a full marathon. The timing was also difficult, given the roster of established races slated for the fall. Chicago, Washington, New York, and Philadelphia all had firm slots on the calendar. Adding a presumably hot-weather, brand new marathon at the end of the summer, or beginning of the fall racing season, wasn’t going to work.

Competitor proposed something that at the time was radical—a stand-alone half marathon. They’d sell and market it with the same aggressive methods they did their marathons, only with a different tagline: “Half the distance, twice the fun. And you’re alive to enjoy it at the finish line.”

While Virginia Beach had little to lose, skeptics abounded, Tracy Sunlund recalls. The previous record for an inaugural half marathon had been roughly 2,900 participants, he said. Competitor estimated they could pull in 12,000, maybe as many as 15,000. “They thought we were nuts,” he says.

Runner’s World doubted Competitor to the point it bet a full-page ad, worth roughly $40,000. Team in Training, the charity that had benefited mightily in the first two San Diego races, opted not to participate. Competitor started its own charity for the race to pull in the do-good-while-running element.

Competitor ultimately got its free, full-page Runner’s World ad. The race sold out by July and was, Sundlun says, “a rollicking success.” Beyond the told-you-so smugness, Competitor made several discoveries that would change how it operated and programmed going forward.

There had been a fear that adding a race shorter than a marathon would dilute a key selling point to cities that Competitor was targeting—the ability to bring in out-of-towners who spent more money than locals at restaurants and hotels. With Virginia Beach, the numbers held. Armed with that knowledge, Competitor began adding half marathons to its existing marathons, giving would-be participants a choice.

More important, the Virginia Beach experience was a harbinger for a dramatic shift in the distance-running landscape: the emergence of the half marathon as a hugely popular distance that drew new runners and kept them in the sport. Almost every running expert I spoke to noted the meteoric rise of the half marathon in popularity. From 2003 until 2013, it was the fastest-growing standard distance in U.S. racing as measured by finishers, rising at an average annual rate of 12.5 percent, according to Running USA.

The same study—a special report on the half marathon released in mid-2014—showed that the number of half-marathon finishers quadrupled since 2000, hitting nearly 2 million in 2013. Since 2010, the half was the second-most popular distance, trailing only the 5-K.

The half marathon is the Goldilocks of distance racing—not too short, and not too long. Not too easy, and not too hard. Unwittingly echoing Sundlun, Mary Wittenberg says, “You don’t feel like you’re going to die at the end.”

The half marathon requires enough of a commitment that it can bring the runner noticeable benefits, mentally and physically. Most training plans call for a long training run of at least 10 miles, a distance that few can hop out of bed and run without some level of conditioning.

It’s also enough of a commitment that participants feel okay making a trip of it, either by pulling their family along to a destination, or building a boys’ or girls’ weekend around it.

A big chunk of the participants are women who pull together a group of friends to train and run. The second-largest half marathon overall in 2013 was the Nike Women’s event in San Francisco, with 26,406, according to Running USA. That same year saw the debut of the Nike Women’s half marathon in Washington DC—the biggest inaugural half marathon in history, with 14,478 finishers.

Overall, women comprised 61 percent of half marathon finishers in 2013, up from 49 percent in 2004. That number was boosted by a number of women-only races; in addition to the Nike series, there were dude-free races in Chicago and elsewhere that year.

As is the case with Pittsburgh’s marathon weekend, for many races, the marathon isn’t the main draw. The half is. (There was a nascent movement to change the description of the race from half, to break any assumption that people should pursue a full. Though saying, “I just ran a 13.1” doesn’t quite have a ring to it.)

Organizers have added shorter distances, like Philadelphia’s 8-K, held the day before the half and full marathons. Competitor, too, got deeper into the expansion act in 2014, with a twist. The innovation began, as many in the entertainment business do, at Disney World.

Disney saw the distance running trend early, and leaned in hard. The first Disney Marathon took place in 1999, the year after Rock ‘n’ Roll’s debut. As the half marathon gained popularity, Disney added a half marathon, but set it for the day previous to the marathon. Looking to draw the hard-core distance runners, Disney offered an option it called the Goofy—run both races, on back-to-back days. In 2014 the World’s Happiest Place added another dimension, a Friday 10-K. All three constitutes a Dopey.

A huge part of the appeal of the Goofy and Dopey and even just finishing one race, it turns out, is getting a medal. The hard-core runners of yore were content with, at best, a flimsy cotton T-shirt. Competitor Group, starting with the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll, decided to make the medal a big deal, creating it as a displayable keepsake.

Competitor in 2013 started its Heavy Medal program, which encourages completion of multiple events to earn distinct hardware. Starting with Rock Encore (two events in a year), runners earn special medals all the way up to finishing 10 or more events in a year, which earns you a Rock Idol medal. Competitor said roughly 30 to 50 people a year qualify for that status—conservatively, figuring early registration, such a feat would cost at least $1,000 in entry fees alone.

A huge part of Competitor’s success and importance comes from this reach, which is where its owners come in. What began as Tim Murphy’s brainchild and expanded amid a ferocious appetite for endurance events grew into a massive enterprise when big money entered the mix. A New York private equity firm called Falconhead Capital saw what Murphy was doing and provided the financial muscle to accelerate its growth and reach.

David Moross, the founder of Falconhead, was in the process of raising money in the mid-2000s. An investor mentioned she just ran a marathon and mentioned Elite Racing, then a small but growing outfit out in the San Diego area that put on three races a year.

Moross was aware of Elite. In his work analyzing trends, he asked a sports statistician named Rich Luger to dig into the fastest-growing participatory sports. Number three was soccer, no shock to any middle-class parent who’s spent hours of their weekend on sprawling complexes of suburban fields. The overwhelming No. 1 was walking, “but how the heck does one make money in walking?” Moross says.

And then there was No. 2—running—and Elite was deeply in the middle of it. With roughly $3 million in profit, it was squarely in the sights of investment bankers and investors who wanted to buy it and catch the broader fitness wave. “Six guys like me had already been there,” Moross says. He needed an edge, a fresh take to convince Murphy to sell.

He turned to Peter Englehart, an operating partner at the firm with deep experience in sports media and operations. An Emmy-winning producer at ABC Sports and ESPN, Englehart also created the Outdoor Life Network, one experience that gave him deep insights into participatory sports. Moross and Englehart conceived an idea to marry Elite’s races with media, including magazines aimed at the triathlete and the competitive athlete.

In 2007, Competitor Group was born, a combination of the media properties and the races. Moross and Englehart set about growing the company rapidly. By the time Falconhead sold Competitor in 2012, it managed more than 80 events. The firm picked up a registration company called Race It and a couple of smaller acquisitions along the way.

Moross and Competitor’s breakthrough was to identify, exploit, and encourage broader participation in the sport of running. “This is about the true mass audience,” Moross says. While a subset, a small subset, is focused on checking one of the major marathons like New York or Chicago off their list, and an even smaller subset focuses on qualifying for Boston, “Ninety percent of all people running aren’t going to do the majors,” Moross says.

For the broader audience it’s largely about the experience. That’s how Competitor ended up putting on a marathon in Las Vegas, after dark, on the iconic Strip.

Vegas is a situation where Competitor saw an opportunity to professionalize and commercialize activities typically left to local organizers or much smaller groups. Clarke County, Nevada had been taken advantage of by a less-than-honest organizer who failed to live up to his financial commitments. Seeing an opportunity to put on a race in a popular tourism destination, Competitor stepped in to take over the race.

What was traditionally a regular old marathon was transformed to be firmly in the Vegas ethos. Dubbed Strip at Night, the annual marathon and half marathon turned into one of Competitor’s biggest events. The weekend, which also features a post-race concert that draws nearly 100,000 people, generates $280 million in economic impact for Las Vegas, Moross says.

Falconhead sold Competitor in 2012, after conducting an auction of interested buyers. Given the private equity business model—buy, fix and/or grow, sell at a profit, distribute money, repeat—some sort of so-called exit is necessary. Falconhead sold the company to Calera Capital, another private equity firm.

The price tag was about $250 million, according to Street & Smith’s Sports Business Daily. The auction illustrated the growing appetite for assets in fitness. The nine-month process drew 32 initial bids, which were narrowed down to six and then two.1

Under Calera’s ownership, Competitor continues to nurse its ambition, going so far as to get into the New York City market. The company threw its inaugural half marathon in the city’s five boroughs in 2015, drawing 17,500 runners to Brooklyn. Competitor has hit some bumps along the way. It drew an outcry from the hard-core running set in 2013, when it announced it was cutting appearance fees for elite athletes (while still covering some travel and lodging costs). The move was seen as private equity slaughtering a sacred cow of the race circuit, threatening to deprive everyday runners chances to line up alongside, or at least near, their marathon heroes.

Within six months, Competitor reinstated the appearance fees, citing the protests from across the running community. “Who we’re dealing with is the priority,” Sundlun said. “If it costs a few extra dollars? So what? You’ve got to do the right thing, and we believe that runners and general fans will like the general features of this.”2

Moross continues to analyze and invest in fitness and wellness, which he says he believes to be a long-term trend. Like others, he sees evidence everywhere. On a business trip to London, he gazed out from his treadmill over Hyde Park at scores of runners. Fifteen years ago, the park was largely empty, he said. “Now, it’s similar to New York City. There are simply runners everywhere.”

Moross remains convinced of the megatrend, especially around running. He notes a direct correlation between emerging markets and improved fitness and health, as demographics shift toward a relatively wealthier population. “Running is usually the first thing the new moneymakers move toward,” he says. “Running is the core, it’s the real essence.”

Marathon money roams far. One of the richest marathons in the world by almost any measure is another of the few for-profit endeavors: The Dubai Marathon, held each winter in the wealthy Middle Eastern emirate.

Dubai isn’t built for outdoor athletes, by climate or design. It’s brutally hot much of the year, reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit at the height of summer.

When you can run or bike, it’s treacherous in much of the city. An Australian triathlete was struck and killed during a group bike ride in early 2014. Another athlete, a Lebanese expatriate, was killed during a run. Dubai, a Middle Eastern hub that sprung from the desert in the late 1990s in a frenzy of construction, favors cars and trucks over pedestrians.

Dubai is famous for its luxury and many have compared its opulence to that of Las Vegas, owing in part to its role as a playground for Arabs whose more conservative home countries frown upon the excesses Dubai embraces. The emirate is home to the world’s tallest building, vast malls teeming with free-spending tourists and locals, and near-constant construction (after a brief, Great Recession-induced pause).

Dubai has nothing if not ambition and strives mightily to be part of the latest trends. And so as fitness gains a stronger foothold in the global consciousness, Dubai shifts with the times.

It’s still hot in October—hot enough that a walk outside in midday can soak a dress shirt—and it’s on just such a day that I duck into a hotel restaurant in Dubai’s Media City section to meet the men behind the Dubai Marathon.

Peter Connerton, the founder and director of the race, isn’t a runner and doesn’t look like one. He’s a genial expat who first came to the region almost three decades ago, after his family’s Ireland-based textile company shifted production from India to Sharjah, another of the United Arab Emirates that’s adjacent to Dubai. He eventually moved to Dubai attracted, as many Europeans are, by the low cost of living (heightened by a lack of income tax).

He was a businessman in a burgeoning expat community and a friend asked him to raise sponsorship for a 10-K race back in November 1998. The following year, the group decided to add a marathon—the first in the United Arab Emirates—spurred in part by the growing popularity of races that distance in the United States and Europe. The inaugural marathon, with Connerton as event director, happened in January 2000, with about 120 runners going the full distance, and another 300 or so opting for the 10-K.

The launch was fortuitously timed to Dubai’s widening ambitions as a global city, and Connerton grew the race organically alongside the emirate’s burgeoning popularity. The field comprised almost exclusively expatriates—locals, known as Emiratis, showed little interest.

Many of those expatriates worked in financial services. Dubai in 2004 created the Dubai International Financial Centre, a zone where foreign banks could set up shop under specially designed rules distinct from federal Emirati law. Soon, most major international banks staked a claim, wooed by Dubai’s location as a friendly gateway to the Gulf’s riches.

One of those banks was the UK’s Standard Chartered, which already had its Middle East headquarters in Dubai and moved into the DIFC. Connerton, taking a cue from the other big marathons, contracted the bank as the title sponsor, adding Dubai to a list of races the bank backed. Flush with new promotional dollars, Connerton marketed the race aggressively overseas.

By 2007, Dubai was pushing deeper into the global consciousness by virtue of audacious development. Rumors abounded that a third of the world’s cranes were at work in the city. Emirates Airlines became the most talked about in-air experience for the discerning business traveler, a set similarly impressed by the Burj Al Arab, a seven-star hotel resembling a full sail, situated on a man-made peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf.

In that spirit, Dubai’s ruler—Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum —asked how to put Dubai’s marathon into the international conversation. The answer: money. Dubai in 2007 offered a tax-free purse of $1 million, including $250,000 for the men’s and women’s winner. The ruler then went a step further. He pledged an additional $1 million if a world record was set on the course. (To date, it hasn’t happened, but remains on offer).

Connerton is a savvy marketer, and with his friend and PR man Alan Ewens—a fellow long-time Dubai expat who represented a number of Dubai’s similarly audacious sporting events, including massive golf tournaments—went to the Mecca of marathons to (sort of) quietly announce the big prize.

The two choreographed that announcement beautifully at the 2007 Boston Marathon. Given Boston’s stature in the distance-racing world, most everyone was there, especially the complement of journalists needed to write the relevant stories. After the Boston press conference, Connerton began side conversations with the various reporters and soon the story ricocheted around the running community.

Next, Dubai needed a star runner to headline its marathon. Connerton decided on two-time Olympic gold medalist Haile Gebrselassie and set about wooing him. He sealed the deal a week after his Boston announcement, at the London Marathon. After a decade of turbocharged growth as a tourism and financial hub, Dubai had found a way to wedge itself into the global marathon conversation.

Connerton has in some ways the best of both worlds. While enjoying the largesse of the local and federal governments, his marathon is actually his. That is, he owns the race through his company, putting him in the small company of Competitor Group and the Los Angeles Marathon, also privately held. Unhampered by any nonprofit strings, Connerton is a pure entrepreneur, making decisions almost solely based on whether it’s good for business.

One of those elements is the course, which has never been the same twice. Dubai as a city is constantly changing (I visit there every year or so for work and am continually amazed to find entire new sections that were sand on my previous trip) and part of the marathon’s mission is to advertise the emirate’s wares to visitors who increasingly make it a destination marathon. The architecture of Dubai is startling and exotic, a kaleidoscope of buildings of various shapes, most soaring. And the course has to be fast—easier to pull off in the flat desert—to keep the million bucks tantalizingly close.

The collision of money and ambition isn’t limited to the Middle East. That cocktail’s been made for a century out in Los Angeles, where one of the country’s marquee marathons signed up a new title sponsor for its 2016 race—a name that’s come hard, fast, and suddenly into the conversation around high-end fitness.

When shoe-giant Asics opted not to renew, LA ended up going local, and taking as its title sponsor Skechers Performance. The Manhattan Beach, California-based shoemaker—long best known for light-up shoes and butt-toning footwear—capped an unlikely jump into the distance-running spotlight with the LA deal.

As has happened with Skechers a lot lately, the timing was impeccable. The 2016 marathon weekend would not only be the debut of its title sponsorship, but also feature the two best-known American marathoners, competing for spots on the U.S. Olympic team. The road to that sort of prominence was long, and owed much to Boston’s 2014 edition and its unlikely hero.


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