Anderson’s showing at Chicago-area road races earn him attention from major shoe companies
Nike wooing Anderson with 7-figure endorsement offer
Men’s track and field has been looking for a new posterboy ever since Michael Johnson announced his retirement. But if you think US Track and Field is in dire straits, imagine Nike’s position. Eschewing the big four sports, Nike has always depended on track and field to boost its appeal to the mass markets, so this past summer, they were desperate to fill the vacuum created by their departing flagship athlete. True, Marion Jones had the charisma and the footspeed (along with 5 Olympic medals), but Nike wanted a male counterpart to hedge their bets. Instead of searching at the Olympic level for a new athlete, they chose to go to the grass roots in hopes of finding someone the masses could relate to: someone who would stutter when interviewed instead of smoothly responding with rehearsed cliches; someone on whom a body suit would not be flattering; someone who didn’t possess sub 50 quarter speed; and someone who, when running hard, looked like they were struggling rather than appearing to float through the air. In short, they sought a blue-collar runner.
The hunt began in earnest back in September with scouts being sent out to road races around the country. Mind you, not the big ones. The Nike executives rightly figured the Manchester Turkey Trot, the Georgetown 10k, the Dallas Turkey Trot and the Army ten-miler would be saturated with high-profile guys like Weldon Johnson, John Carson, Chris Banks, and Erik Kean, who already had fat shoe (or website) contracts lined up. Nike wanted a diamond in the rough. So instead of heading to the big money races, they headed to the low-profile road races that handed out gift certificates to the local shoe store for first prize.
That’s how Nike rep Y. S. Lipra wound up at the “Run for the Health of It” 10k in Highland Park, IL in early October. A seasoned veteran of the local road race scene, Lipra recognized the a lot of the guys up front as a pack of about 10 came through the mile in just over 5 minutes. Most of the guys bounced comfortably along, but one guy stood out, literally: at 6’5”, he towered over the rest of the pack, and with every step, it looked like he would crash into someone. While the other runners wore matching singlets and shorts provided by their local sponsors, he was the only runner sans singlet, barring a white Beastie Boys t-shirt and a nondescript pair of black shorts. Graceful, he was not, but at least he had style. The kind of guy Nike was looking for.
Could he run, though? The pack would dwindle quickly, Lipra knew, as there was no one in the field capable of maintaining 5 minute pace for more than 3 miles, let alone 6. Sure enough, at the two-mile mark, the awkward-gaited giant lumbered along at the front of the pack. By the five mile mark, he had built a commanding 60 second lead and was waving to and encouraging the runners coming in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, Lipra’s post-race efforts to chat with the 31:30 victor were thwarted by the throngs of groupies and autograph seekers (mostly female, of course) hoping for some meaningful interaction with this new kid on the block.
Fast-forward three months to 11 AM, New Year’s Day in Lincoln Park, Chicago, site of the Millenium Day 5k. Here is a first person account of the race, excerpted from the memo Y.S. Lipra sent to the marketing V.P. at Nike:
As this was the only race of the month, I was reluctantly out on the scene, wondering who in the world shows up to a race in sub-freezing weather on New Year’s Day? Apparently, more than 400 crazy Chicagoans. At least I got to stay warm and survey the race from the back of the lead police car, rather than having to mingle with the cold huddled masses. A few minutes after the 11 o’clock scheduled start time, the meet director announced that the race had just been downgraded from “competitive” to “fun run” status (probably for liability reasons, as the trails over which the course runs were under at least half a foot of packed snow), but no one protested. It didn’t look like a competitive crowd (perhaps the serious runners have a higher propensity to party on new year’s eve?), but who was that in the parking lot lying on his back stretching his legs with some multi-colored rope contraption? He appeared to be the only runner wearing racing flats and as he clumsily rose to his feet, I recognized him as the elusive winner (whom I had forgotten about) of the Highland Park 10k. Would he live up to the high standards for entertainment and drama he set three months ago? His apparel showed an equal flair, at least. Although the mid-day sun was warming the air considerably, he was one of the only runners clad in shorts. But once again, it was his shirt that distinguished him from the rest of the crowd: green, thin material, short-sleeved, white splotches of paint, with a giant corncob surrounding the name “Ainsworth” (I figured this must be his name) imprinted on the back.
To my surprise, as the police car headed north at the start of the race, a middle-aged man in trainers (which appeared to be fitted with a pair of rubber studs for traction) opened up a gap on the rest of the field. Either the Highland Park victory was a fluke, or this Ainsworth character had lost fitness. But as they approached the first hill (this being Chicago, a small bridge over the lagoon qualifies as a hill), I detected the first signs of fatigue in the early leader. Sure enough, as the trail looped around and headed south back towards downtown, Ainsworth and the chase pack he was leading had closed the gap. But rather than let his momentum carry him to the lead, Ainsworth tucked in, even as the leader’s pace slowed painfully. Finally, as they approached the mile (now heading north again), a stocky man in baggy wind-pants took the lead. Ainsworth winced. All of the sudden, it dawned on me that he was struggling to hold himself back (for what reason I still don’t know—maybe to make the race exciting?). As they passed the mile in 5:23 (which seemed a bit generous to me, considering the snow and how slow they looked), Ainsworth grimaced again, but not out of pain. This was his breaking point: he could hold back no longer. He opened up his stride and dropped the pace by about 20 seconds per mile, courageously seizing the lead from the wind-pants fellow, whose futile effort to maintain contact lasted about 100 meters. Ainsworth’s stride looked surprisingly graceful on the snow, especially considering how uncomfortable he’d looked back in October (I later found out Ainsworth’s real name was Scott Anderson and that he had been training exclusively on this surface in this very park for the previous two weeks in preparation for this race). At the half way mark, the police car lost traction and started to spin out as the driver tried to negotiate a 180-degree turn. Ainsworth slowed as he passed the car, jokingly offering to help push us out. It took us at least a minute to get out of the snow, so we ended up missing his finish (a respectable 16:35 for what may or may not have been 5k), but apparently he was even more entertaining with the crowd than he’d been in the October race, as he was forced to dodge northbound runners for the next mile of the course.
At one point there was a fork in the path, and with no race officials to guide him, Ainsworth used a unique method to decide which way to proceed. As one back-of-the-pack competitor who was jogging in the opposite direction told me, “I saw this tall dude in a crazy green shirt heading towards me like a tank. I could see he would have to decide between veering right towards me and the other stragglers and veering left away from us. I half expected him to stop at the fork, exasperated, but instead he loudly played “Eenie meenie minie moe” as he approached the fork and at the last minute turned left, selecting the path less traveled. I guess he was probably just hamming it up for us, but it was good to see one of the fast guys not taking himself too seriously. I think most guys would have been really frustrated.”
As if the story so far isn’t clear enough indication that this guy is the next great one, immediately after he finished his cooldown, he met up with two of Chicago’s most eligible bachelors, Dave Sullivan and Eric Boeckmann (both of whom had finished in the top 20 despite the previous night’s festivities—maybe we should offer them sponsorships as well) and headed to the post-race party for beverages and socializing.
This is the kind of guy we need. I’m recommending a five-year 7-figure endorsement deal. He’s got the credentials of a local elite, he parties with the best of them, and he’s respected and well liked by runners of all types.
[End of excerpt.]
Needless to say, when this memo was leaked to other shoe companies, as is typical in the athletic shoe industry, everyone followed Nike’s lead. Industry insiders say offers to Anderson have escalated to 8-figure range as all of the major shoe companies (including Reebok, which just dropped its 6-figure sponsorship of the entire Enclave, Anderson’s former track club) have joined in the bidding war. Look for Anderson to sign a contract before the all-important Riis Park Striders 2.5 mile championship in early June.
If you’d like to join in the bidding war, feel free to contact Mr. Anderson.