NYRR CEO Rob Simmelkjaer On The Post-Pandemic Running Boom's Effect On Demands For Races, Transforming Communities

"I think anyone who has run, who has made running a part of their life, knows that it really does transform us as people. No matter what it is that we want to accomplish in life, we think that it makes everybody better by creating that habit of being physically active, moving your body, whether it's physical health or mental health. "

My guest for this episode is NYRR Rob Simmelkjaer, who also has a podcast of his own – Set The Pace. We’re at a point where we’ve got his boom happening. More than ever before, people are getting into running, joining clubs/crews/teams/training groups. NYRR puts on countless events in the city. I’m biased and think it’s got the best running community in the world.

So let’s take a look at the state of running and how someone like Rob and NYRR are striking that balance to accommodate so many people. Plus, we touch on his experience as an executive at ESPN and on-air talent at NBC has helped with the storytelling side to bridge the gap between the everyday runner and the elites.

The following interview excerpt has been edited lightly for clarity. You can listen to the full interview with Rob Simmelkjaer on the CITIUS MAG Podcast – available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your shows.

On NYRR’s mission and the power of the running community:

Rob Simmelkjaer: I think anyone who has run, who has made running a part of their life, knows that it really does transform us as people. No matter what it is that we want to accomplish in life, we think that it makes everybody better by creating that habit of being physically active, moving your body, whether it's physical health or mental health. So we're hoping that this new way of talking about our mission and what we do will draw more people into the sport, into our community, and get people moving.

On the impact NYRR hopes to have on the running community:

Rob Simmelkjaer: I learned recently how many people don't really know that we're a not-for-profit. When we get involved in different things in the public eye that people are talking about, the word starts to get out that we’re a nonprofit. A lot of folks are like, “Oh, I didn't know that.” So we want to make sure people understand what we're here to do, which is to make an impact in communities, especially the underserved communities of New York City, and be more forward and forceful about that.

On being the CEO of New York Road Runners:

Rob Simmelkjaer: This is a big part of what you and I are doing here today and what we do on my podcast as well – Set The Pace – is telling the whole New York Road Runner story. Letting people understand what we do all year long, not just on the day of the TCS New York City Marathon. One of the things I joke about is a goal that I have as CEO is to never have anyone ask me ever again whether being CEO of New York Road Runners is a full-year, full-time job. Sometimes people ask, “What do you do after the marathon is over?” And I'm like, “Well, we go to the next race, and the next race, and the next event, and the next program.” So telling that whole story of what we are and what we do I think will put us in a more truthful light in terms of what we're all about so that people can get a full sense of what New York Road Runners is all about.

On the power of storytelling to help grow the sport of running:

Rob Simmelkjaer: What I learned most, especially from that experience at NBC with the Olympics, is the power of storytelling. You can tell someone something, you can say, “Oh, New York Road Runners serves over 67,000 kids per year in our Rising New York Road Runners program and here are the numbers, here's all that we do.” And people will say, “Oh, that's great.” But if you say, “Here's Jane. Jane started off depressed, or physically inactive, struggling academically, whatever. And then she got into Rising New York Road Runners and her self-esteem increased, her physical fitness, and all these things changed, and it changed her life. And look at her now. Now she's a straight-A student. Now she's going to this great college. Maybe she's even running track at a Division 1 program.”

That's the kind of story that people can attach themselves to and say, “Now I get it. Now I see what it is you do.” NBC, we'll all be enjoying it this summer with the Olympics in Paris. They do such a great job with storytelling, as do our partners at ESPN and WABC when we've got the marathon on. We're trying to do more of that. That I think is something that I bring from my background to what I'm trying to accomplish here.

On bridging the gap between elite runners and everyday runners in the running community:

Rob Simmelkjaer: I think that it just comes down to making people care about the individual. The times and the podiums and all that, those are great, but they're kind of empty in a way. They don't tell them something about the person and why they should care. A couple of examples of people that I've gotten to know a little bit… Dakotah Lindwurm, one of the three women on the U.S. women's Olympic team for the marathon. I'm looking forward to talking to her in a little while because she's a woman who, as a high school runner, was pretty average… She walked onto her Division 2 running team in college and just kind of stuck with it, and now, boom – here she is representing the United States in the Olympics. So how does that happen? How does that breakthrough take place?

I think if you can understand as somebody running five hours [for the marathon] how that happened for someone like Dakotah Lindwurm, maybe you're not going to run 2:30 hours, but maybe you'll run 4:45, right? And what will that mean for you? What does that breakthrough mean? Not just in terms of being able to brag about your time, but how you feel about yourself, right? Your fitness, your mental health, all that. Those stories of struggling and then achieving, I think that's really what running is all about – because we all know it's a struggle. Running is a struggle, and people who choose to do it are choosing the struggle, which I think is what's amazing about runners.

Time Stamps:

  • 3:51 - Sharing about his recent half marathon performance.
  • 4:53 - His first two years leading NYRR as the CEO.
  • 6:54 - What Global Running Day means to NYRR + upcoming NYRR events.
  • 9:38 - How NYRR decided on their mission statement.
  • 12:20 - What he hopes to accomplish as CEO of NYRR + core pillars of NYRR’s mission.
  • 16:17 - The direction he hopes to steer NYRR towards.
  • 18:47 - How working at ESPN and NBC Sports helped prepare him for his role at NYRR.
  • 22:27 - His thoughts on how to bridge the gap between elite runners and everyday runners in the running community.
  • 25:46 - How he got into the sport of running.
  • 28:34 - How working for NYRR rekindled his love for running.
  • 31:05 - Thoughts on how to continue growing the running community.
  • 33:22 - The role of running groups in helping grow the sport.
  • 38:56 - More thoughts on the role of running groups in growing the running community.
  • 41:27 - His favorite place to run in NYC.
  • 42:11 - Who he would run with if he could run with anyone in history.
  • 42:53 - Best place to get pizza in NYC.
  • 44:08 - His favorite movie that takes place in NYC.
  • 45:10 - What his ideal day in NYC looks like.

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Chris Chavez

Chris Chavez launched CITIUS MAG in 2016 as a passion project while working full-time for Sports Illustrated. He covered the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and grew his humble blog into a multi-pronged media company. He completed all six World Marathon Majors and is an aspiring sub-five-minute miler.

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