Can Running Save America?

Running USA members debate the question at “town hall meeting”.

Attendees of the Running USA Conference in Carlsbad, Calif. gathered for a town hall-style meeting entitled, “Running: Setting the Pace for a Healthier America,” Tuesday afternoon. The meeting was moderated by acclaimed running television announcer Toni Reavis. Special guest panelists were Ali Vincent, the first female winner of The Biggest Loser reality TV contest, and Anne Audaine, a retired professional runner now working as a race director.

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Reavis opened the session by presenting a litany of statistics defining the scope of the obesity epidemic in America. He stated the obvious: that running is a very effective cure for obesity; and then asked whether Running USA should develop a major national initiative to combat obesity in America through running. He observed that Running USA was created 10 years ago to restore U.S. elite distance running. That mission has succeeded. Reavis pointed out that the United States is now the third-ranked distance running power in the world after Kenya and Ethiopia.

So, is it time for Running USA to embrace a new mission–that of taking on America’s weight problem? Reavis gave Vincent and Moller the first opportunities to answer this question. Both women expressed approval of the idea.

A charismatic public speaker, Vincent talked her way onto a hilarious tangent about fast food, singling out Taco Bell for special abuse. “Whoever does the marketing there is a genius,” she said. “Now they’ve got you thinking you can go on a diet and lose weight by going through the drive thru every day. No you can’t! It’s crap! And it’s not OK!”

Vincent’s spirited remarks set the tone for a passionate open debate that followed as audience members took turns holding the microphone and sharing their ideas and opinions. “We already have the programs,” said Beth Sugar of the ING Hartford Marathon. “We just need a national audience.”

A subsequent speaker suggested that Running USA work to save school physical education programs, and Audaine latched onto the idea. “What if our program is the new PE?” she suggested.

There was broad agreement that a Running USA anti-obesity program should target children. Scott Eastman from BlueDog Digital in Green Bay, Wisc. suggested, “Kids should run for free. They let kids eat free at Denny’s. We should let kids run for free at our events.”

If I had had the opportunity to share my own two cents, Iwould have said this: “The first question we need to ask is whether an anti-obesity program is a good way to grow USA Running and benefit the sport and industry of running in America. After all, that is the organization’s core mission. Fighting obesity is a nice idea, but there are lots of nice ideas that would not make sense for Running USA to get behind because they would not make strategic sense in relation to its core mission. In any case, I am inclined to believe that a project to fight obesity through running programs would be a good way to grow American running.”

The name of current First Lady Michelle Obama came up several times. During last week’s State of the Union Address, President Obama announced that he had tapped his wife to head a new campaign against childhood obesity. Some attendees thought that Running USA should try to link up with that effort somehow; others hailed it as a sign that there is a “rising tide” of public resolve that could make the country very receptive to a Running USA anti-obesity initiative.

Whatever comes of this discussion, the Running USA Conference’s first town hall-style meeting was an unqualified success. It was well attended and energized, with more participants wanting to speak than time allowed for. Expect another town hall at next year’s conference.

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