Running A Marathon Fantasy

I'm a marathon junkie. I ran New York in 2004 and I spend the first Sunday in November either somewhere along First Avenue or watching the entire NBC broadcast until the top men and women finish.

When I went to Beijing this summer, one of the only things I had to see was the Olympic marathon. I watched on the big screen on the Bird's Nest for two hours waiting for the women to finish their final steps in the stadium. It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip.

This all being said, I realize that not many can sit through a marathon broadcast. There aren't a ton of marathon fans because people don't know the personalities and there's no good schedule to watch. I don't even know where I could find a broadcast of the London or Chicago marathon.

It seems as though people either participate in it, root on their friends in person or are just not interested at all. That doesn't mean the folks who organize the major marathons aren't strategizing. And I absolutely love this year's effort made by the New York Road Runners to get people interested in the marathon.

It's basically marathon fantasy. The race organizers have provided fans with the top 10 men's runners and the top 10 women's runners on


Fans get to read up on the likes Paula Radcliffe, Catherine Ndereba, Paul Tergat and Hendrick Ramaala. The goal is to name the top three finishers on the men's side and on the women's side. Each side is worth one 2008 Toyota Prius.

I think having something to root for is a brilliant idea. Here's my conversation with New York Road Runners CEO Mary Wittenberg about this latest fantasy offering.

Darren: It has been a couple years since the marathon majors started and the idea of having names on the bibs came to fruition. It was a good idea, but didn't really get the public involved. Many thought that there had to be so called "skin in the game" for people to care and learn the names and watch. How does this type of fantasy game accomplish this goal?

Wittenberg: As we seek to build our fan base, we need to find multiple ways to connect the fans to our stars. The more we tell their stories, the better. The more we give people a reason to care about our stars, the better. If people cheer for Paula Radcliffe as "Marathon Mom," that's great. If we need to incent people to learn more about some of our other great athletes, that's OK. There's nothing like a little skin in the game to provide a connection point. Everyone loves to cheer for someone, and when a fan and an athlete's interest are aligned, the support is that much greater. Suddenly it's "my" team, or in our case, "my runner."

Darren: I think it's a tremendous idea to partner with a sponsor and to make people care more than ever before and root for people as if they are fans of these people. How long was this in the works and what are the goals for year one?

Wittenberg: We have been bouncing the general idea around for a couple years. We seized on the opportunity to better leverage what is a fabulous prize, a Toyota Prius. A great prize was key. In thinking through with Toyota our mutual objectives, together we decided, all would be best served by rewarding the cars to fans and building the fan base in support of the stars, rather than giving the cars to the pros or otherwise giving the cars away. Toyota has been a super partner, and gets a lot of credit for their efforts in support of all the runners. The way we look at this promotion, everyone wins and has a lot more fun following the marathon.

Darren: Is marathon fantasy for anything but the major marathons a sellable idea that you think could get some traction with?

Wittenberg: I think there is most potential with the majors, but we are just getting started. I believe with creative thinking and promotional support, you will see more of the same idea in running.

Darren: How hard do you think it is to handicap the field so you could actually pick 1, 2 and 3 in order? I know you probably do this in your head every race, but give a sense of how hard it is for someone who knows nothing and just looks at the stats provided.

Wittenberg: It is on par with March Madness. It feels next to impossible sometimes. That is the beauty and challenge of the marathon. We are "so called" experts and even we have trouble picking the order right in any given year.

That said, odds are good the three of each gender will come from a group of the ten main contenders, so, even with needing to get the order right, statistical odds are actually probably pretty good as far as "lotteries" or "sweepstakes" go.

Just to put my picks on the line to show everyone I have skills (or maybe not), my top three men, in order, are Abderrahim Goumri, Marilson Gomes Dos Santos and Paul Tergat. For the women, I'm picking (in order) Geta Wami, Catherine Ndereba and Dire Tune. We'll see on Sunday.

Update: You don't have to be watching NBC in New York to watch coverage of the New York Marathon. Click on this link, on Sunday. Live coverage begins at 9 am ET. The online coverage will include three separate live web streams of the main broadcast, men's leaders and women's leaders.

Questions? Comments?