Say what you will about the world’s most popular running site, Letsrun. As we told you in our Girl’s Guide to Letsrun.com, it can be controversial, rugged, and rough around the edges. But it truly is the internet home of the sport of running.
Its founders, twin brothers Weldon (aka Wejo) and Robert (aka Rojo) Johnson, started the website back in 2000. Since then, the site has risen to the top of independent websites for elite running. I’ve been a fan for quite some time so when Salty asked me to do an interview, I had no hesitations! I was quite surprised when Rojo responded to our request almost immediately. For me, getting to interview Rojo is like a 12 year-old school girl getting to interview Justin Bieber.
Whether you’re a huge fan like me or never heard of the site, I promise you this interview will get you thinking.
As you will read below, these guys continue to stay true to their roots. They are approachable, knowledgeable, and Rojo in particular, is not afraid to speak his mind. Rojo’s responses and insights were so great that we decided to present the interview to you in a two-part series (catch part 2 here). For today’s post, we discuss the history of Letsrun, its mission, its world famous message boards, and delve into the hot topic of women’s athletics.
Salty Running: What were the early days of Letsrun like?
Robert Johnson: In the beginning, there were two innocents, but not a man and a woman, rather two men in a garden apartment in flagstaff Arizona who were used to working all day and didn’t know what to do with their time as you can only run/do drills/nap for 3-4 hours a day. Two young men that were tired of seeing the sport they loved being promoted primarily as a fitness activity. Thus we started Letsrun to promote the SPORT of running and a main goal at the beginning was to get the knowledge of John Kellogg out there as well as proper training advice.
We, and particularly my brother, were riding an unbelievable dream right when LRC was founded and we wanted others to share in that and see their dreams realized. To drop your 10k PR from 29:49 to 28:27 in a single race in the year of the Olympic Trials is remarkable. If we could it, or if he could do it, why couldn’t others?
SR: What’s a typical day at Letsrun like now?
RJ: In terms of the website ten plus years ago and now, at its heart, I’m not sure there is that much of a difference between then and now. I think we go about producing a website that we want to read ourselves. We try to promote running as en exciting, elite level sport. Somewhere each day, running is a big deal, whether it’s in Boston for the Boston marathon or Atlanta for Peachtree, so we try to figure out where and get it out there.
I think the key is that we give you what you want to read. We don’t only link to our own crap like seemingly every other web entity out there. If ESPN doesn’t cover something, it’s not linked to on their website. Many other running websites seemingly operate by that motto as well. They’ll only cover it if they have it, even if that means basically reproducing someone else’s work with no link or a tiny link.
SR: What resources do you use when looking for daily up-to-date running information?
RJ: Each day, there are about 70 different daily websites that we check to see what the hell is going on in the world of running. I have always said I want to have the motto on Letsrun change each day and one of them would definitely be, “We surf the net so you don’t have to.” Running is an obscure sport for most newspapers but every now and then it’s a big deal. We find out where it’s a big deal on a given day and promote that on our site.
We also rely on tips emailed in by visitors as if something isn’t in our regular rotation we might miss it. That’s the best part of it as we’d likely miss something if it was in a small paper. I’m sure other people use computer programs and what not but we pride ourselves on being an old-school site and do it mostly the old-fashioned way.
SR: Since the birth of Letsrun, a lot has changed with not only the internet but the sport of running. Particularly, we see an explosion of personal running blogs and also huge increases in race participation. Do you believe this helps promote the sport of running or has it contributed to running becoming more of an individualized activity?
RJ: I think your question is really two different questions.
The explosion of personal running blogs, Twitter, etc. has been interesting. I think people at first thought that would hurt Letsrun as you can get running info all over now. But I don’t see it that way. People don’t have time to read 40 athlete blogs. They need someone like Letsrun to curate the content out there and see what is and isn’t worth reading. Plus a blog is little more than a PR piece for an athlete; they aren’t getting asked tough questions.
I think running is a fitness activity for most Americans. However, the increased numbers isn’t a bad thing. Professional running exists largely because the major marathons and shoe companies siphon off a percentage of the money for the pros. I think it’s largely a charitable act on their part but I am worried that down the road a lot of elite races will say “Let’s not give the money to the pros, let’s give it to charity.” I think that would be wrong as nearly all of these races were started as sporting events back in the day. Stay true to your heart. I also fear the rise of the Competitor Group a bit. I’d much rather see a non-profit like the NYRR, who is focused on the sport of running versus profit, run most of the races in the country.
SR: Letsrun (or maybe just its trolls) is notoriously criticized as being elitist, anti-hobbyjogger, and anti-women. What is your response to this criticism?
RJ: I don’t think being pro-elite is being anti-hobby jogger. The two really aren’t related or at least they shouldn’t be. I think the site and even those on the message board try to really promote elite accomplishment. I think some website visitors do get bitter when a non-elite accomplishment, like say a Dean Karnazes feat, is promoted in a way that makes him a bigger deal than say a Chicago Marathon winner. They shouldn’t but they do. I think it stems from the fact that some people who are really into running don’t like it when a non-elite performance is equated with being elite.
People like opinions, which is why I think our site is very popular.
I don’t get why some may be anti-hobby jogging. To me, running is a great activity that everyone should be encouraged to do. However, I just don’t think that someone who plays pickup basketball is the same as being in the NBA. Does promoting a 2:35 marathoner as being a bigger deal than 3:30 marathoner mean I am anti-hobby jogging?
As for being anti-women, I think the website visitors are skewed male and thus on the message board you get a lot of guy talk. Whether we wish it to be true or not, guys are interested in what women look like. It’s hard to deny that fact. I mean there is a reason why Gisele Bundchen makes twice as much money as Tom Brady. I’m not sure what we really are supposed to do on that front except moderate things to the best of our ability.
Do men’s performances get a little bit more front page publicity? Yes, they do. But that’s natural. Given the sexism that exists in Africa and the Middle East, men’s running is way, way deeper than women’s running. However, running and tennis are the only sports in the world where the women’s version is anywhere near the men’s in terms of exposure. And I’m not sure what we are supposed to do with the fact that when watching men’s sports you are watching the “absolute best” versus the “relative best.” For the same reasons that pro sports are more popular than high school sports, I think men’s sports are more popular than women’s sports. Whether we wish it to be true or not, it’s just more interesting for most people to watch a human being long jump close to 30 feet (men’s world record) versus 25 feet (women’s world record).
But I take great offense to someone who thinks I’m personally sexist. My first job out of college was working for a women’s professional tennis tournament. That was when women’s pro basketball was starting as well. I remember thinking maybe I should try to work with the ABL, as I thought they were really into promoting women’s sports, unlike the WNBA which I thought was just trying to protect the turf of the NBA. Plus, the first person I ever coached, and really the only semi-elite person I coached before starting at Cornell (Rojo was the men’s distance coach at Cornell for ten years before resigning in 2012), was a woman who was one of the first steeplechase competitors for women at USAs.
During our phone conversation, we primarily focused on women’s running as I knew Rojo’s response would likely incite some emotion from our female readers. Personally, I have to agree with him in that women’s running isn’t as big as men’s running. Rojo then went on to frame this as being more of a long, philosophical question. One that goes beyond Letsrun. In general, women aren’t nearly as interested in sports. Is it is a societal thing? A sexist thing? Just as Letsrun continually explores how we all can make the sport of running bigger, we can all continue to wonder what needs to be done to make women’s running (or sports in general) bigger. Or will it never be that big because the interest just isn’t there?
SR: I personally love the message boards, trolls and all. I will often search any topic, whether running related or not, to see how like-minded individuals view an issue. What were your original intentions with the message boards? Did you expect a sense of community to form?
RJ: The point of the message board was simple and really two-fold.
1) It’s a place where you talk just like you talk when you are on a run with a team. The best part of being a runner is going for a run with a group and just talking. It’s hard to do after high school/college as most people don’t run in groups. We really wanted there to be a place for runners to talk like they do on the run, whether that talk is about running or life. So yes, we expected a community to form. Runners share a bond. For a lot of people, running is a part of who they are, it’s not just a fitness activity.
2) It’s a place where fans of the sport can discuss the sport. With other sports, you can discuss the hot and exciting topics all over the place, whether on sports radio or at the office cooler. With running, without the message board, it’s very hard for fans to find other fans to share their thoughts/ideas with each other.
SR: An ongoing argument is whether or not Letsrun should require user registration to post on the boards. At the same time, much of the community that has formed would probably not have happened with user registration. How did you decide to not require user registration? Was it thoroughly thought out?
RJ: Pretty much when we created Letsrun, and this is still true today, we created the website we’d want to visit. Signing up for stuff is annoying and something we don’t like doing so why would we make you do it?
I wouldn’t say it was really thought out at first, but moderating the message board is something we really struggle with to this day. One thing is clear, we will never require you to give your name to post. We just think that would be awful. Yes, there would be some positives but the fact of the matter is, the running world is a very tight knit one and people are afraid to speak honestly with their name.
The message board is full of lots of great stuff. Yes, it’s like a society. There are problems. And given our size, with sometimes more than a million unique visitors in a single month, it’s unrealistic to expect it to be perfect but guess what? Life isn’t perfect.
I’ll make up an example. Let’s say I’m an agent and I’m unhappy the NYC race was cancelled. There is little chance I’d post anything under my name as the NYC marathon controls about 50% of my athletes income every year. If I’m a college coach who loves the coach at the other university in my town but thinks she or he really dropped the ball in this one instance of coaching or meet management, again, it’s not something I’m going to want to say with my name out there.
We have thought about requiring registration but allowing people to post anonymously as that would be easier to ban people. Still, one thing I don’t get about the message board is why so many people are focused on the negativity of it all. Does Tony Romo not get criticized? Peyton Manning? If a pro is getting ripped on there, shouldn’t they think, “Wow I’ve finally arrived?”
How do you feel about LetsRun? Did this interview change your opinion of it? And, whoa! How do you feel about Rojo’s feelings about the role of women in the sport of running?
Don’t think that’s it! You can find Part 2 of Rojo’s interview here.