In mid-May Rob Young, aka Marathon Man, set off to try and break one of the toughest and longest standing endurance records, the US Transcontinental. Rob was attempting to run the 3,100 miles across the USA from San Francisco to New York in less than the record of 46 days 8 hr 36 min held by Frank Giannino Jr since 1980. That’s a mind boggling 67 miles a day for 45 consecutive days across the various terrain of the American continent. But Rob has considerable pedigree not least in having run 370 marathons in a year.
A couple of weeks ago, with less than 1,000 miles to go, he gave up his attempt having been ahead of schedule at times, suffered painful injuries and been subject of serious and prolonged doubts about the veracity of his effort. Whether Rob ran every mile or had some help, his story has split the running community between those unable to believe he is capable of cheating and aficionados who cite various evidence of deceit.
We have nothing but admiration for Rob personally. He appears to be universally liked by all who have met him; he has undoubtedly overcome considerable challenges to achieve some remarkable feats, and helped many people believe that they, like him, can achieve things they didn’t believe possible. While even to consider and then attempt the US Transcontinental record is awe-inspiring, we have been very surprised that Rob and his team didn’t plan better and go to greater lengths to put in place the measurement systems that would enable any record to be verified and doubts about his honesty to be easily dispelled.
‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ (Carl Sagan)
Since January Rob has been sponsored by SKINS, the compression apparel manufacturer. They go to great lengths to reinforce their commitment to ‘the true spirit of competition’, and they have now launched an investigation into the whole attempt to uncover the truth, and presumably confirm whether they can continue their relationship with Rob in the future. They have gone as far as to publish a redacted version of their contract in an attempt to be as open as possible. While possibly the right thing to do now, this action does highlight challenges in this brand – athlete relationship.
1. Brands need to work harder to protect themselves and their athletes.
There are inherent risks in working with amateur athletes like Rob whose exploits are not governed by clear rules and structures that exist in professional competition (even if those have recently been corrupted). For their own reputation and Rob’s personal welfare, SKINS could have ensured that his team were better prepared and insulated against the clouds of suspicion that now exist. Rather than just providing financial assistance and kit they could have ensured there could be no doubt about Rob’s honesty or the success of his attempt by insisting on rigorous live measurement and tracking of his progress. Whatever they do now SKINS have been tarnished by association, and the tragedy is this situation was eminently avoidable. As Rob’s main supporter and funder of the record attempt SKINS should take their share of responsibility for this.
2. Brands should appreciate that inspiring, record-breaking influencers (like Rob) are not the same as professional athletes and should not be treated as such.
For all is athletic prowess Rob is not a professional athlete and brands need to form different relationships with inspiring influencers like him who have very different motivations, attributes and maybe even limits. The contract is a case in point – it appears to be a clumsy attempt to merge a professional contract with that for an influencer. People like Rob should be appreciated for who they are and what they can do for a brand. They are not clothes horses to generate some PR, but creative members of communities who can reach the parts (audiences) others cannot through the sincere and direct relationships they have via social media.
Whether Rob did run over 2,000 miles or not he is without doubt an inspiration to many, and we hope that everyone involved can take their own lesson from his heroic attempt to run across America.
For more on the story of Rob’s attempt and the suspicions surrounding it read this great article by Jill Homer at The Guardian.