PepsiCo’s Growing Passion For Running

Gina Lucrezi fell into the opportunity of a lifetime when she met PepsiCo executive vice president Jim Wilkinson on a trail run in Aspen, Colo., last year.

The $66 billion company is committed to sponsoring runners and promoting the sport.

As an aspiring professional runner, sponsorship contracts aren’t easy to come by. That makes earning a living a tough balance between cobbling together small deals and part-time jobs that don’t interfere with training.

And that’s why Gina Lucrezi admits she was simply in the right place at the right time.

Last spring, Lucrezi, a competitive national-class trail runner, helped organize a 5K fun run at the Aspen Ideas Festival, a weeklong event in Aspen, Colo., that “links some of the foremost thinkers in the world with civically-minded leaders in business, the arts, politics and philanthropy.”

Among the runners she met on that run was Jim Wilkinson, the executive vice president of communications for PepsiCo. It might have been a completely serendipitous meeting, but maybe it was meant to be. Or just luck. Either way, Wilkinson, 43, is also a passionate runner, someone who has 26 marathons under his belt with an interest in training for his first ultra-distance race.

“We both talked about our shared passion for running,” says Lucrezi, 31, who lives in Boulder, Colo. “We kind of hit it off and stayed in touch after that.”

Lucrezi, the 2004 NCAA Division III 1500-meter indoor champion while at DeSales University, has been racing on the trails for the past eight years, but she’s always had to find a way to mix in training with a full-time job. That worked to some extent, as she won a U.S. 10K trail title, twice finished second at the 15K national championship race and represented the U.S. at the World Mountain Running Championships while she was working in PR for a shoe company. She moved up to ultra-distance races in 2012, and despite fitting in her workouts around a 9-to-5 schedule as an advertising manager at a magazine, she won the 55K Laugavegur Ultra Marathon in Iceland last July.

When Wilkinson asked her what her goals were, she said she really wanted to find a way to train and race full-time to see how good she could get. Fortunately, Wilkinson happens to be a visionary who has a marketing budget at his fingertips. As a former White House deputy communications director and the chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson during the George W. Bush Administration, he’s seen the world from a different angle than most runners. But having logged thousands of miles himself, he definitely knows the value of running to an individual and to the community.

It just so happens that PepsiCo, through Wilkinson’s guidance, has quietly been getting more involved in running. The $66 billion multinational company based on Purchase, N.Y., has a long heritage of being involved in endurance sports through its Gatorade products, but he says the company sees an opportunity to make an impact, both at the macro and micro levels with some of its other food and drink options.

Wilkinson offered to sponsor Lucrezi for a year with a modest stipend and food and beverage products from Quaker Oats, Tropicana, Naked Juice and Gatorade. The deal was recently renewed for a second year.

“She said she wanted to see what she could do as a runner, and that hit home,” Wilkinson says. “It’s about her enjoying running to the fullest and getting the most out of it. Fundamentally, it was about letting her go be a runner.”

This week, PepsiCo is announcing it has signed a multi-year partnership deal with the Aug. 12-17 TransRockies Run stage race in Colorado, serving as the official food and beverage sponsor of the six-day, 120-mile event that starts in Buena Vista and finishes in Beaver Creek.

In addition to TransRockies and individual sponsorships of Lucrezi and California trail runner Ross McMahon, PepsiCo sponsored a team of 60 runners in the 2013 New York City Marathon that benefited the Shoe4Africa non-profit organization and its project of building of a children’s hospital in Kenya. The company has backed running camps through the Westchester Running Club and a small charity run in Newtown, Conn., and is also exploring the possibility of creating an elite running team.

Lucrezi used that opportunity to train on a full-time basis, travel to races and get much needed massage and physical therapy treatments. Those are basic necessities most good runners—especially trail runners—don’t have money for unless they’re working a full-time job. At the encouragement of Jim and his wife, Erin (who is also an avid trail runner), Lucrezi stayed in the Wilkinson’s Lake Tahoe mountain home for a few weeks last fall and used it as a high-altitude base camp while training for two races near San Francisco—the Mt. Tam 50K (which she won on Nov. 16) and her first 50-mile race, The North Face Endurance Challenge (where she placed 14th on Dec. 7). Most recently, she placed fifth in the Chuckanut 50K on March 15 in Bellingham, Wash.

Aside from running and wearing a few sponsor logos like other pro trail runners, she’s an active blogger who sends her insights from the trails back to Wilkinson.

“Having the chance to train and really pursue my running dreams has been amazing,” says Lucrezi, who has a master’s degree in sports management. “There were a lot of runners who tried to make it happen right out of school, but my parents told me I needed to get a job, and I did. I feel fortunate to have this opportunity.”

Why is such a huge company interested in individual runners and smallish events? Part of the reason is that it will give a company known for its soft drinks a subtle way to highlight some of the more nutritious offerings in its portfolio. But it’s really about the individualist pursuit of running, Wilkinson says.

“It’s for the love of running, that’s it,” Wilkinson says. “What matters to us is promoting the love of running. We want to promote the sport. It’s not about commercializing it. I’m a runner and when I walk into a race expo, I don’t want to be hit in the face with products. I want to run my race. Fitness is a huge part of what we’re all about. Gina is the perfect example because she’s someone who is finding herself in running. To anyone who runs, that’s all that matters.”

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