Performance Over Social Media?
By: Patrick Larson
Over the last few years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of runners utilizing Instagram and Youtube to showcase their training and lifestyle. It has never been easier to leverage the power of social media and runners of all levels are taking advantage. No matter your personal opinion on how certain individuals or groups use social media, there is no denying the power it has in promoting people’s brands and in turn resulting in increased financial viability for them. Tinman Elite would not have cultivated such a strong following of young runners without social media just like Spencer Brown would not be on a Brooks contract if it weren’t for his popular Athlete’s Special Youtube channel.
But, as with anything seemingly positive in the running community, there is always pushback. The most recent example of this came just yesterday when professional triathlete and former All-American runner from University of Colorado Morgan Pearson added his two cents on Ari Klau’s recent triathlon victory. For a little context, Ari Klau is a former University of Virginia runner where he set PBs of 13:57 for the 5k and 7:51 for the 3k. While Ari is not the elite of the elite, he has found a way to gain a substantial amount of followers on Instagram and Youtube with some of his most recent videos getting more than 40,000 views. In a video posted three weeks ago, Ari talked about his decision to quit his full time job, move to Tucson, and become a professional triathlete.
Recently, Ari Klau psoted a photo of his victory at the Bartlett Lake triathlon where he won by over 7 minutes in a field that only had 14 competitors. Alright, so whats the big deal? Seems like business as usual—a talented young athlete pursues the dream of being a professional athlete and posts a photo and video of his race result.
Not so fast….
Here is where Morgan Pearson comes in. In response to Ari’s race result, Morgan tweeted yesterday saying, “it’s insane the amount of attention he [Ari] has gotten for winning a triathlon that’s the equivalent of your local 5k. Just shows how easy it is to make yourself look good at something in the #youtubegeneration”
He followed this up in the replies by saying, “I’m trying to set an example to the next generation. There’s more and more people dealing attention on YouTube and social media, and less and less aiming to get better for the sake of getting better.”
Morgan made sure to clarify that he isn’t coming at Ari with this post, but instead that his critique is more with people who are deciding to dedicate more attention to social media than to perfecting their craft. I want to make sure to highlight this as I’m not intending to start any sort of manufactured “beef” between the two athletes.
As to be expected, people were quick to reply to this tweet, including the likes of Noah Droddy who came to the defense of Ari.
Along with his most recent tweet, Morgan Pearson has been very public in the last couple years about his anti-social media views.
When it comes to the health of running in the United States, I think Morgan has really valid points. There is no amount of YouTube subscribers or Instagram followers that will be an adequate substitute for the hard work it takes to be competitive on the national and world stage. People like Galen Rupp have shown a unique ability to be nearly non-existent on social media yet still be one of the most well-known runners in the United States.
But, if people are more drawn to Ari’s victory at a low-level triathlon, is this not an issue with the governing bodies, sponsors, and athletes themselves for not creating compelling enough story lines for themselves beyond being elite at their craft? Just a couple months ago, Kyle Merber went on the Citius Mag podcast where he talked about how athletes need to take a certain level of responsibility for telling their own story and building their brand.
Merber told Chris Chavez, “You have to be your own brand manager and if there are any professional runners listening, the one question I would ask is: why should anyone root for you? What is your defining characteristic that differentiates you from everyone else?"
A few months ago, Morgan went on the Run Your Mouth podcast where he spoke with David Melly about the “new generation” of runners who are really active on YouTube. He acknowledged that social media does have the ability to get young people into the sport, but went on to say, “Let's not make the goal to have more followers on social media. Let's make the goal to break 4 in the mile or qualify for the Olympic Trials.”
I understand that Morgan is concerned about the precedent being set for a younger generation of athletes that might be more incentivized by likes, follows, and subscribers instead of chasing fast times and working hard. I think this is fair, to a point. In a world of Strava, Instagram, and Youtube, it's hard not to get caught up in social media affirmation instead of focusing on training hard and racing fast. But, until I’m shown otherwise, I struggle to think that runners at any level are incapable of harnessing the power of social media to build a brand AND train at an elite level. In a time where so much dialogue is dedicated to how we can improve the sport of running, I also struggle to think that athletes simply working hard and having good results will push the sport forward, bring more money to athletes, and allow more post-collegiate runners to chase their dream. Instead, shouldn’t we be excited that even a mid-level athlete in the professional world like Ari is able to attract so much attention to a niche sport and potentially support himself financially in ways he couldn’t have if he hadn’t put himself out there on social media?
Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions—but I think there is a place for both schools of thought to coexist. I have the ultimate respect for Morgan Pearson as someone who knows how to absolutely grind and who owns this as part of his identity. Anyone who watched him race at the Michigan Pro Half Marathon or the 2019 Club XC Nationals knows that Morgan is a competitor unlike any other. However, at a time when so much dialogue in the sport is dedicated to how we can grow the sport and push it forward, runners being public on social media and Youtube should be an incredibly positive thing when it comes to creating relatable storylines in the sport and encouraging people to maintain interest in non-Olympic years.
Wherever you stand on this, I think we can all agree that Morgan Pearson has raised some really valid and thought provoking points on this issue……….and many others (see below).