Tuesday, November 18, 2014


With the recent news of Clif Bar dropping a couple climbers it has sponsored for years because what they do, what has made them famous and brought Clif Bar publicity (free soloing), is too dangerous for Clif Bar now. I have not seen the movie “Valley Uprising” but my friends and I have planned a party to watch it when one of us ultimately buys it. Basically, Clif Bar didn’t make the right move, at least not at the right time. 

The issue of sponsorship has come up a number of times in my life. Most recently after I became a 24 hour runner. Before that it was going to Mt. Everest. Before that, I have been wearing my Isaiah Janzen jersey for nearly two years. I realized at the time when I switched to sponsoring myself that while I had been “sponsored” it was for a total of about $100 in free gear only, which I received at the beginning of the sponsorship, and had for 18 months. The benefit to the company and the cost to my chest in races was a little too lopsided. So I became my own brand. I already had the website under my name, why not a racing vest? (Oh I’ve thought about mugs, t-shirts, polos, luggage and bumper stickers too.)

Building a reputation, which is all a brand really is, takes a long time. It can be wasted in a short amount of time, just ask any of the fallen stars, or jailed people who made one mistake. Or thinking bigger, just ask Kodak and US Steel why their companies are not as impressive as they once were. So I decided, if I am going to build a brand, my brand, which is to say my public reputation, I’m going to do it. When I do things, I tend to do them all the way. 

I read a lot. I read articles, books, magazines, tweets, blogs, and all sorts of random stuff. Much of what I have read is about mountaineering, particularly in Nepal, China and Pakistan. One of the big things people write about, or did 10-15 years ago was climbing all 14 8000 meter peaks. Ed Viesturs did it. I have two of his books, he is famous for doing them all without oxygen bottles and being an American. (Being half decent at anything and being a US citizen usually means higher earnings than only one or the other.) Climbing 14 8000 meter peaks is dangerous. For the record I emailed back and forth with Ed before my Everest attempt asking advice. His advice: don't go for the summit in the first weather window, too many people usually do. If we say there is a 2% chance of dying on each 8000 meter expedition, and you only summit one out of three expeditions, that means to get 14 summits you have roughly a 43% chance of surviving. The list of people with 10 or more 8000 meter peaks who have died on an expedition is long. The list of people with less than ten, but more than one, and thus at least some experience, is much much longer. So this is my background. I know these numbers. It is a dangerous game. You can read in Ed’s book the conflict in him returning to Annapurna to get his 14th, after multiple failures on that mountain. Did he go back for himself? Or did he really go back because the publicity was high and he was sponsored by 20+ companies including Rolex who wanted to be part of the first American and sixth person without bottled oxygen? I don’t want to have to make that kind of choice. Lists get people killed. There is a list of 14 mountains that has killed many people, probably dozens by now, who were captivated by that list. People who had sponsors who expected something in return, summits. 

While sponsorship interests me, I don’t think I can separate the sponsorship from the external expectations, which may nudge me into making a poor decision that is a little too risky. I didn’t tell anyone but my parents what my goal was in the 24 hour race (160 miles) until I was about 12 hours (and 83 miles) into the race and I had lots of evidence it was possible. Few people here in Iowa knew I even climbed mountains until I announced I was headed for Mt. Everest. Listen, I have big plans, big, ridiculous, outrageous, stupid, dangerous, unrealistic, “impossible” dreams that I desire to chase. For me to keep a clear head I need to shun external expectations. 

When a child first rides a two wheel bicycle on his or her own, the child wants to ride that bike. If the child did not want to ride the bike, he or she would stop the pedals. When one starts to ride there is also the question of how to stop, put your feet down or fall over? Similarly, how do you turn the bicycle without training wheels? This is complicated stuff for a five year old. The child is not going to do his or her best if there are distractions like yelling siblings, or even yelling parents, cars, or other local hazards. I am like that five year old child. God is like the parent, it feels like he is still there pushing me along, but I can’t see him and I don’t hear him yelling. External expectations might be like the sibling, that is yelling while I first try it on my own, who I glance at just before I hit a curb and crash. Maybe that sibling is not yelling, but wants to help push while I learn, or give me his old bicycle. Maybe that sibling wants me to learn to ride my bicycle so that we can both race the neighborhood kids down the block, and hopefully not get hit by a car. Sponsorship can be the car driving down the road not looking for five year olds on bicycles. Get on board and ride, or get out of the way.

I am in the business of risk management. I am rather good at it. The risks scare me, and they may kill me, so I can not ignore them. Anything that may contribute risk to the program is a candidate for elimination. Cotton clothing when the temperature is below freezing? No, that’s too big of a risk. Continue to push my body when workouts are already going poorly? No, that’s a sure way to setback months instead of just days. Drive faster? Usually not a great choice. Sponsorship comes down to much of the same. I want to do what I want to do, and I don’t want people that fund my fun to expect success because success is not the goal. Oh success is the goal, but it pails in comparison to doing the right thing. When success becomes the sole focus, you see Rita Jeptoo taking EPO, and beating me at Chicago last year. She probably would have beat me without taking EPO, but the fact that she probably was taking it makes it worse for me. I want 148th place in Chicago last year!

In mountaineering, the discussion is not about taking drugs, it’s about climbing the day after a snow storm, when avalanche conditions are terrible, but the sun is out and it’s a beautiful day. If your sponsors expect you to climb the mountain you may be more inclined to climb when avalanche danger is higher.

To expect success, at the really hard, really dangerous stuff, is ignorance of the previous failures. Yes, we went to the moon, but we had the Apollo One disaster, and numerous pilots died in airplane crashes, not to mention the probable fatal industrial accidents that occurred during production of the vehicles. You don't just go to Mt. Everest and climb it, sometimes unexpected things happen, and no one summits.

My reluctance to take on sponsors has to do with other factors as well. I have worn shoes by seven different companies in the last six days because of different applications, even within running alone are four of those seven brands. Going with one company may limit me from using the best possible tool, which may be made by a competitor. No, the shoes that I wear in a marathon aren’t going to make a 10 minute difference on my performance, maybe one minute tops, probably more like 10-20 seconds. Mountaineering, maybe one sleeping bag or tent, or ice tool is the best, and another may break the second day in a five day storm and leave you exposed. The point being, in the pursuit of best, it’s a risk to lock yourself into one product line up. I will say, knowing both mountaineering companies and running companies, you can have success with any particular company, the vast majority are of quite a high quality. The risks I am talking about are almost insignificant compared to not even bringing an ice axe on a trek over a 19,000 foot pass and a 21,000 foot mountain.

So that’s where I am. I spend a lot of money on shoes and other outdoor clothing, race fees, and equipment every year, not to mention my $70 weekly grocery bills. Perhaps I could find sponsorship for all or some of the products and services I use. I just do not want to do something half way and open myself up to a risk, however small, of not having the best tool for the job, or pushing myself into a situation that is far beyond my comfort zone.

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