Just about a year ago, right after the 2013 U.S. Club Cross Country Championships, The Trailer shut down for good. The site had for a brief time brought a unique perspective to the elite running scene, less dry and more off-the-cuff than the traditional stories we often see.
I was a big fan. The guys behind The Trailer treated running like a real sport. I particularly enjoyed their series that introduced the newest members of OTC Elite.
Then one day, it all stopped. What the hell happened? I emailed Jon Gugala, formerly the head honcho of The Trailer, to ask just that question and for his thoughts on the state of running media heading into 2014.
LIAO: Jon, it was a year ago – Cal International Marathon weekend – when we were hanging out in Sacramento talking about the state of media in elite track and field and road racing. The Trailer was your new, thriving site that covered the sport in a manner different from anything else we’d seen in the running world. Then one day, it all stopped. To this day people still ask me what happened. So…what happened?
GUGALA: The Trailer was always about the collective voice, that former- or current-collegiate running fanbase who followed the sport and had their own opinion on it, the opinion that didn’t always align with a cheerleader-like loyalty. I met a few guys that embodied that. They were all former D-I runners. One had run for the Nike Farm Team in its early days. Another was a Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon in 2008. And they were all hilarious. Nothing is funnier than the stuff that is said on a group run, and these guys were it.
But some things you find funny, others don’t. I got a friend of mine to write a story under a pseudonym about the things your running shop employee won’t tell you. I thought it rang true – my first writing gig was with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, and all those guys work at shops. I saw both sides to the life even back then: what you tell the customer and what you’re really thinking. Anyway, one of the guys from The Trailer took issue with it, said it was too negative. We had him pen a rebuttal, coming from a customer’s perspective, but the rift had already begun. I don’t think he ever really got over that.
The final issue came up during the week of Club Cross last year. If you remember, Ryan Hall had either tweeted or it had been hinted that some big news was coming. I was working a source in the Hall camp and heard maybe a month before that something big was coming. And then that week, from the same source, I heard that Hall was taking on Canova as a coach, effectively ending his faith-based coaching. So through that source we lined up an exclusive interview with Hall that we’d post the same day of the announcement. It was relevant news, timely, and it would have brought a ton of hits to the site, further legitimizing it.
Well, the only time Ryan had available was during my flight to Louisville, where I was going to cover Club Cross. So I sourced it out.
The guy initially offended by the run shop piece knew Ryan from his days on the Farm Team when Ryan was still in college. Perfect, I’ll have him do it, and he’d already shown himself resourceful in getting the first interview with Adam Nelson after word came out that Nelson would be retroactively awarded an Olympic gold. So I flew and he interviewed.
Well, turns out my source wasn’t fully clear with Ryan, or Ryan didn’t understand, but after the interview was over, Ryan asked what it was for. I’d already written a story months earlier referring to Ryan’s recent half marathons as “shitty,” which they were, and he took offense to that. Now that he’d just found out he did an interview for the site, he said he didn’t want the story to run. And our guy, based off their friendship, said OK.
That just can’t be done.
The decision was made unilaterally by one of our guys when he didn’t have the responsibility to make such a decision. Not only was it my story that I’d carefully nurtured for over a month, the site itself was always about the collective.
Well, he and I talked about it, and his feelings were hurt, and he never did give me the audio file of the interview, and shortly after he told one of the other founders that he was out. And that guy said the same, saying he was worried something like this would hurt his standing in the industry – he’d recently been approved by USATF to represent athletes as an agent. There were two others, both of whom were doing mostly tech stuff, and I spoke with them briefly about continuing, but like me, they were in it for the group. They walked as well.
There was the podcast, which was amazing, and then there were the stories. I felt the stories were what was driving most of the traffic, and since I’d written most of them, I decided to shut it down. It’s no fun playing by yourself.
And that is how The Trailer ended.
At least we got Nick Symmonds to wear an ugly Christmas sweater. That was a high water mark.
LIAO: Your comment to Ryan Hall taking offense to things you’ve written in the past brings me to two thoughts:
1. I’m often reminded of how small the running “industry” is. Some coaches also serve as agents. Journalists are also race organizers. Websites rely on advertising dollars from shoe companies to stay afloat. This convoluted web of relationships is how the running world works. With so much (often financially) on the line, it’s damn near impossible for truly independent voices to be objective about what they observe without fear of retribution.
Robby Andrews was having one heck of a crappy season last year. No one really knew why, but a behind-the-scenes video feature that Flotrack did gave us insight into his less-than-professional training environment. Running with your dad and little sister and grabbing a slice of pizza for lunch just doesn’t cut it on the pro level. I had offline conversations with a number of observers of the sport who agreed – if Andrews was to make it big, he needed a real training group – yet no one was willing to say it publicly. I’ll take my fair share of the blame for not speaking out, but the real question is why nobody did. Were we afraid of losing a business relationship with his sponsor? Scared of his powerful agent or receiving of public backlash?
2. The thin-skinned nature of some elite athletes is beyond ridiculous.
Ryan Hall unhappy that you pointed out his poor performances in 2012? Let’s be real, everyone thought those half marathons were crappy. Sure, he has high expectations placed upon him every time he races, but that’s the burden someone being paid a seven-figure shoe contact has to take on.
And then there’s the black hole of social media. I’ve been through my fair share of getting bashed by pros on Twitter. That’s fine, I can take it. It’s when the athletes themselves gang up on fans that it becomes a real detriment to the greater good. Fans are the reason the sport even exists, the very butts that fill the seats, the very consumers who purchase the shoes that pay athletes’ endorsement deals.
So no, the fan who critiques an elite’s racing tactics isn’t the bully (by the way, fan = 200+ followers, Olympian = 15,000+ followers, judge for yourself), he’s the reason you have a job.
GUGALA: 1. I think it’s great that you even had a behind-the-scenes look at Andrews. Hall especially is cagey about granting access, and so is the entire Salazar camp.
But getting back to the multiple-hats issue, it’s true, and it was true for many of the guys that were involved with The Trailer. One of the guys acts as both an agent, representing some of the B-list American elites, as well as managing several successful races in Northern California. He gets in trouble in the industry somewhere and you’re cutting off one of the legs of the tripod. The whole thing comes down. They are valid concerns.
People get blackballed by coaches and athletes all the time. Salazar is notorious for it, and I was on the receiving end after writing a profile on Kara Goucher for the 2012 marathon trials. I referred to his tech-dependency as “gimmicks.” That brought on a 6 A.M. call from my editor courtesy of an even earlier morning call to him from Nike AND Salazar. I thought, no way is this that serious, right? Ritzenhein later declined an interview after we’d already sat down at the Stanford Invite later that year at his coach’s behest. That guy has the memory of an elephant when it comes to grudges.
2. That’s just it: there is a burden you take on when you are paid to do something. Oh, you think you’re paid to run? Nope. You’re paid to sell shoes and apparel because of how you run. That our current crop of professional athletes pays little mind to this is part of the reason why the sport is languishing. You want a fatter contract? It’s got to translate into sales.
I feel like screaming it sometimes: Running can be cool if you’d only just show how it is, how it looks. And I remember when I first realized this: Stephan Shay at the USARC 10-Mile Championships in 2011. I was walking outside and I remember he passed with a group of runners, and he was wearing slim jeans and vintage shoes, and I just remember the stark contrast when you see Ryan Hall in his dopey, oversized John Hancock yellow vest from a few years back. It’s what happens when, as a friend of mine put it, you let old men run a young man’s sport.
But on criticism, it is not a plague of running, it’s a necessity of competition. I think it would be hilarious if Napoleon could (somehow) get on Twitter to defend his Waterloo strategy: “Well how many calvary regiments do you have? That’s what I thought!”
The mistake professional runners make is that they believe every decision they make in a race is the right one, regardless of outcome, because of the classic “I gave it all I had.” Maybe, but you gave it all away too early or two late. Racing is unpredictable because of the decisions, the chess moves, that go into it – think of the 1500m. If running was predictable, it wouldn’t be a sport. It would be, I don’t know, a book – a book that no one reads.
LIAO: With great talent also comes immense ego. Michael Jordan was notorious for blacklisting reporters who didn’t shine him in a positive light.
One of my hobbies outside of running is poker, which is sport/game/activity (take your pick) that suffers from a similar problem we’re discussing. The online poker sites (Poker Stars, Full Tilt, Party Poker) drive most everything that goes on, from endorsement deals with stars like Daniel Negreanu to sponsorship of media sites’ tournament coverages. You can see how one company paying for a coverage could skew how a media outlet portrays players sponsored by that particular company. On one hand, you can’t blame the media for accepting these sponsorship opportunities – they have a bottom line to meet. On the other, objectivity tends to go out the window when media is at the whim of corporate sponsors. This goes for mainstream media, too. It’s Exhibit A for why independent media that’s free from corporate influence is so critical to the public discourse.
What do you think it’ll take for more people willing to speak freely about the sport?
GUGALA: Yeah, UFC, which Adam Nelson loves to reference, is also notorious for blackballing both journalists and media outlets. Say something they don’t like, something critical, and you’ve lost access.
I’m sure it happens to an extent in all sports, in all media – get too vocal at a presidential press conference and you’ll still get the boot, despite freedom of the press – but the point is that the running industry is too poor to warrant any type of objective journalism (emphasis added by editor), which is why any big story breaks – think U. of Toledo, Suzy Favor-Hamilton, etc. – they’re always scooped by, you know, real journalists. Some of the best track and field writing I’ve ever read was by Charles Pierce of Grantland. Read his story from the 2012 Olympic team trials for track. He gets away with saying (this is amid the Gatlin controversy) that any athlete can do whatever drugs they want providing they have to lick it off the back of a frog publicly. You think Grantland gives a crap about getting blackballed from track and field? They think about it approximately once every four years. They follow the money.
But honestly, I’ve never been one for portraying running as objectively as I am about portraying it different. How different? Erik van Ingen different. Erik grew up watching ski videos – think skateboarding videos. There are whole subsets of extreme sports just devoted to showing how awesome that sport it. Thrasher, a skateboarding mag, has evolved beyond a screw-you mag to a screw-you website: they do more original video content than anyone, and theirs is always the counterculture side of it.
Nothing is more counterculture than Prefontaine living in a trailer.
That’s what I wanted to do with The Trailer, more than objectivity: I wanted to show it being awesome. Because it is awesome. But despite it being awesome, in an almost incomprehensible move of button-downness, the powers that be want to turn it into Sunday school. RUNNING IS NOT SUNDAY SCHOOL. God, just stop trying to do so much and try to show it how it is. Stop trying to put a facade on it – I think it’s the fakery on the face that keeps the next running boom from happening.
Thanks to Jon for sharing his thoughts. Follow him on Twitter @JonGugala.