How to win a race you can’t win.

James Cooper
Mar 1, 2017 · 18 min read

I cheated in the New York Marathon last year.

It’s a long story. And it’s taken me a while to write it, mostly because I was embarrassed but also depressed after the election. As this story unfolds please remember that in the end the kids get the money. And as my friend Dave says, ‘If you have to eat a shit sandwich, don’t nibble at it’.

Why run the marathon? There are reams and reams of paper dedicated to this very question. But my own TL:DR version is that I ran it in 2011, my first one and found it pretty tough. I finished in 4 hours 11 minutes and was fairly certain I would not do another one. Since then I have been running a lot of half marathons at pretty decent pace. Always around the 1hr 30 mins. The one thing about running is that it gives you a lot of time to think. So all the while I was thinking, ‘Hmmmm, if I can do a half in 90 mins I wonder what I can do 26.2 miles in?’

SIF 5.45 means Staten Island Ferry 5.45 am.

For serious runners there are certain times for distances that mean you are legit. 30 mins for a 10k and 3 hours for a marathon. I’m not sure what it is for a half although under 90 minutes gets you at the front of most races with the serious looking people. I don’t really have a decent excuse for why I would want to be perceived as a legit runner, as my friend Peter said about this marathon, ‘Neither of us are going to win it, so we may as well try and have fun’. But in this day and age where everything is timed, chronicled, compared and shared it’s increasingly hard not to think about what the data means.

But vanity, basically.

I live in Fort Greene on the marathon route. Almost every year since I ran in 2011 we have been away for the marathon weekend. Not that I was trying to avoid it, it just worked out that way. But not last year. I watched the tide of humanity go past our block and whatever you can say about the world right now, the New York Marathon really is a filip, a reminder that, should we choose to see it, we have more in common with people around the world than differences. So in 2015 I decided to run in again in 2016.

Back in 2011 I ran for a great charity called Camp Interactive. They weren’t entering a team this year so I applied to run for Team For Kids. The way it works is you essentially pay $2600 for entry and try to recoup that money through sponsorship. Back in 2011 I raised over $7000 for Camp Interactive, (their entry fee was $5k), but that was because my CEO at the time, Bob Jeffrey at JWT chipped in $5k. We had been working on a pitch for seven straight days and nights in Sao Paulo and although I had been using the treadmill in the hotel, one morning I said I was going to be late as I needed to go run 15 miles in Ibaprepuera Park. We won the pitch, a big piece of business, and I think this was Bob’s way of saying thank you. In an industry plagued with charlatans, Bob was, and is, a good man.

These days, having taken a break from the advertising scene to work in start-ups, I’m not so flush. Clearly, I’m not exactly broke, but I also don’t have $3k lying around to spend on a run. I just baulked at the idea of paying the $255 entry fee for the 2017 Marathon. I love the fact that more people are running these days but the danger is that racing is becoming something special or elite.

With this in mind I had an idea to ask some of the companies that I have been helping out or doing partnerships with over the last few years to see if they wanted to sponsor me. The idea being that I get $100 for every mile and then would then dedicate that mile to them in a wonderful congratulatory medium post.

Which would have been fine, if I ran the 26 miles and not cheated.

I joined the race at Mile 8. As it went past my house in Fort Greene. There is a long and short version of why this happened. You’re already in the weeds of the long version and this a marathon, not a sprint, so let’s continue shall we?

Training for the marathon takes about four months. Even if you are a solid runner it’s all about getting your body ready, especially if you want to hit a certain time. I wanted to finish around 3.15–3.20 because that’s the automatic qualification time for the 2018 Boston Marathon. You see, it’s not enough to do a good time at the New York Marathon, you have to qualify for Boston, because then you are a REAL RUNNER. I think you see where this is going.

All was well with my training. I was doing one short run, one track session and one long run every week. The track sessions were new to me and a lot of fun. I even found a perfect pair of adidas track spikes on ebay but then lost them when I was riding a citibike to the track in Red Hook and my bag fell off the bike. So then had to rely on my Nike Lunar Racer shoes to train.

Really the whole thing is Nike’s fault.

If you follow the running press you’ll know that Nike has been systematically doping their long distance runners for some time now. You can read all about the nefarious activities of Alberto Salazar’s Oregon Project right here. It’s a real shame cos like Chick D says, ‘I like Nike, but wait a minute’. My version is I fucking love Nike, especially the Gyakuso running gear. But the more I read about what was going on the more it becomes distasteful. Nike knew Lance Armstrong was doping and went to great lengths to protect him in every way they could, ruining other people’s careers along the way. There is no reason to think that the Nike win at all costs philosophy is not being similarly executed by their long distance running team. Mo Farah’s displays are incredible and as a Brit I felt enormous pride when he wins. But when you learn that he has missed three drug tests, one time for apparently not hearing the doorbell — for an hour, then alarm bells, rather than doorbells ring.

But I was reading all this stuff for the first time after I had been running in a pair of Nike Lunar Racers. These shoes legitimately get great reviews because they are super light but also have pretty good cushioning. I ran my fastest half marathon in them and despite getting a few blisters felt good in them. The thing is a few blisters matters. Because over time, especially on the long runs if you have a blisters you start to compensate and run on a different part of your foot. And that fucks things up.

Just Say No.

So, two days after a really great short run, where I was pacing at about 6.30 m/m (which would have got me way under a 3 hour marathon) I started having some really serious pain in my left knee. I actually couldn’t walk for a few days. After seeing lots of doctors and getting lots of different prescriptions for painkillers — including one script for Vicodin that no pharmacy would fill (the guy at one Walgreens said he wasn’t even allowed to call another branch to see if they had it because it was so suspect — which clearly made me want it more) I finally learned that, yeah, sneakers do matter. My knee was f**ked because I had changed my running style and my muscles weren’t used to it.

This was three weeks before the race. I was unable to walk.

I chatted with the Team For Kids doctor. He said go get some PT. Maybe all is not lost. So I did. For three weeks I was painfully prodded and rubbed. My only running was on an anti-gravity treadmill. These things are pretty cool, you put on what looks like the bottom of a wet suit but is actually an air-tight seal on top of the treadmill. It fills up with air lifting you and then you run. It’s cool, but weird, and made me want to pee.

As the weeks got nearer I did one real run outside. Five miles in the pouring rain. My knee hurt, but no more than when walking. Right up until the Saturday before the race I was still not sure if I was going to run. But when you go to the Expo and pick up your number — and boy did I have a good number — I was in the A corral, with the pros — you again begin to feel the humanity of it all. One final check with the doctors, they said that it was not going to worsen. So if I could withstand the pain I could run. So I made the decision to run.

The marathon was two days before the election. I can’t vote but clearly was anti-trump so I went to the local art store and bought some letters to make a sign on my race singlet. James on the front — it really is incredible how many people shout your name when you are running, it’s an amazing energy boost — and FUCK TRUMP! — in black sparkly letters on the back. Sparkly was not necessarily the look I was going for but those were the only letters left in the shop. I also figured the exclamation mark shows that I’m a fun guy, right?

So, I was all set. I arranged to meet some friends at the Staten Island Ferry at 6.30 for a 9.40 start. I always get nervous before a race. It’s dumb really, it’s not important at all. I think it’s the uncertainty. I’m prone to overthinking things, so I run through all the different things that can happen in a race. I would imagine its the same for most people, especially before the New York marathon because actually the start logistics are one of the main things you have to get right. But this worry was exacerbated many times over by me not knowing if me knee was going to give way at any moment. Maybe on the Verazanno bridge? Imagine having to walk back — from Staten Island. The horror. The embarrassment.

The night before I ate early, with the chickens, as the Brazilians say. I went to bed at around 9.30 or 10. My wife had been suffering from a cold for a few days and had a pretty bad earache so she was tossing and turning in bed. A combo of that and my nervousness meant I didn’t sleep at all. I think I had probably just got to sleep around 2am when my wife got up and said she thought she needed to go the hospital. For those of you who know Ale you will know that she grew up in the Amazon jungle and doesn’t take any shit, so if she says she’s in trouble then it’s true.

There is an emergency ward in the hospital in Fort Greene. Obviously doctors and nurses are all total heroes compared to the meaningless shit that we do all day but, truthfully, it’s not a great hospital. The neighborhood gag is that you should only go there if you get shot. So after much deliberation she decided that she would go that hospital. It was about 3am by the time she left. At this point I am wide awake. I made the decision there and then that I was not going to run the full race. I would not be able to get up as I couldn’t leave my kid alone in the house. I actually felt pretty good finally making a decision. I said that as long as my wife was back from the hospital and felt well enough to be left alone I would join the race as it came past my house.

So that’s what I did. I am very superstitous person — especially regarding sports and things I can’t control. I’ll wear the right colored socks for football matches etc. All the while I was in bed thinking about what was happening I thought that my ‘Fuck Trump!’ shirt was bad karma, bad juju coming back to haunt me. So I decided to switch shirts last minute. There was also a part of me that thought some people might trip me up — the Trump sign was on the back not the front. Half the country did vote for the fucker, I would have thought his supporters don’t index high in marathon runners but you never know, and it only takes one person to be offended and trip me. But basically I chickened out.

It was so strange preparing to join the race at Mile 8. I didn’t do my normal race routine, there was no where to do a little jog first. I tried to stretch a little and put all my gear on and as the 3.15 pace pack came past I broke through the crowd and joined in. It was a beautiful day and running through Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Williamsburg is such an incredible experience. I saw people I knew and, as always, got carried away and went off way too fast — at a 6.45 pace. I had taped up my knee with Keniso tape. Mike my great (for a Man U fan) physical therapist was skeptical about the tape but said it can’t hurt. Sometimes these things are psychological. The tape can act as a placebo. Actually all pain is psychological, the great runners and other endurance athletes just know how to process this pain better than other people. But thinking that way can be dangerous and lead you into IronMan territory.

After about mile 2 my knee was really hurting, I felt a twinge as I took an awkward step to avoid something. My tape was also coming off. As the tape came off more and more it was beginning to annoy me so I tried to bend down and rip it off — while running. As I did this really awkward move I felt something in my shoulder pull. Fantastic. But at least that pain took my mind off my knee. And you know what, the pain in my knee got better. As I went through Brooklyn and Queens and over the bridge into Manhattan I was not feeling it all.

Back in 2011 I was in a big pack. The average finish time is 4.17. This time I was with the 3.15 pack and it’s notably much thinner. There were times running up 1st Avenue when I was on my own. I made it up into the Bronx and back into Harlem before entering the park. It was this point in 2011 when I hit the wall. I had to walk for a little bit. This time, it was mile 16 rather than mile 23 so I was fine. I saw the guys from Finish Line PT and high-fived Mike. At this point I’m still running around 7.15 miles pace. As I neared the end I was definitely slowing, my right hip began to hurt but I saw my friends Peter and Rachel at Mile 25 so stopped to give them a hug and got a new lease of energy from that. That last mile on 59th Street is horrible because for most of the race you are in the sun and it’s relatively warm but you change direction and are suddenly in the shade and the wind from the Hudson hits you head on. But I made it and finished at 3.15.

I filmed the last 400 meters or so. I knew the race was void so wasn’t really bothering about a time. I actually forgot to stop my watch as I crossed the line. I only stopped it three minutes later once I was walking. Way to screw up your Strava stats.

I didn’t take a medal. I felt too embarrassed. If you run with Team for Kids they take you off to a special tent and give you goodies. The old guy that helped me was so great and saying how I had done such a great job. Again I was too embarrassed to tell him the full story. There were only about three or four other runners in the TFK tent, a serious looking bunch. They all said congrats too, I looked shifty. I downed a gatorade — disgusting — and just got out of there. I met my buddy Chris Berger who was watching and Peter Karlson who was racing, he finished in 3.02 which is obviously badass but he’s done better before and was disappointed not to break 3 hrs.

I went for a burger and beer with Chris and immediately felt sick — gatorade! I made my excuses and got the 2 train home in my race poncho. All the way home well-wishing strangers congratulate you. I had run 18 miles not 26 miles. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye.

Which brings me to the point of this. My original plan was to celebrate the run and dedicated a victorious mile to each one of my sponsors. But that now feels stupid. I’m sure they don’t really care, but I do. Nevertheless a deal is a deal.

So these are the fabulous people that helped me raise money for Team for Kids.

John Laramie — the CEO of Adstruc. We have been playing Table Tennis doubles for a long time and only ever lost one game. True story. We played a nike tournament before the US Open one year and won a four grand table as a prize. He has been running his start up since 2010 and I have been advising him with that. Adstruc is an online market place for Out Of Home media — billboards, bus shelters etc. We have used them for some Dots campaigns. So if you want to do a outdoors campaign and avoid paying stupid media agency fees he’s your man.

Dots are awesome. Adstruc helped them buy a painted billboard

Speaking of Dots, Paul Murphy the dots CEO is always very supportive with things like this. He was also a very generous sponsor and Dots as a company is incredibly civic minded and forward thinking. It’s so refreshing to see a gaming company that respects their players and the world. This belief is paying dividends as all three Dots games continue to storm the app charts.

Other betaworks companies that sponsored me include the one and only Poncho. Kuan Huang the founder of Poncho and TV Star is also a very generous man and always one of the first people to help in cases like this. It’s been so much fun helping Poncho over the last year or so and it’s incredibly exciting to see where the weather cat is going this year. Big things are ahead for Kuan and the team.

Brendan from Dexter, Tracksmith and Kuan from Poncho

Helping keep Poncho in the spotlight is the team from Codeword PR. I first met founder Kyle Monson at JWT and we’ve stayed friends since then. When we needed a PR firm it was a no-brainer to do something with him. He has such a radical business plan: do good work and be nice to people. Maybe it will catch on?

Along with Poncho, team Dexter were early supporters. Dexter is a platform that lets anyone write a chat bot. As with Poncho it’s been great to see Dexter develop into a really tight product. We’ve seen people build Drake Bots, Trump Bots and more recently Fucboi bots. This is a new form of creative expression and I love it. Brendan and Daniel at Dexter are both great people. Brendan is a runner like me so we always traded training chats early in the morning at betaworks.

Other betaworks connections include Geoffrey Weg who used to work with us at Alpaworks / Quire. He was training for the marathon too. It’ always fun to keep tabs on other runners, see what they are up to. Geoffrey was very diligently running up and down the Queensborough bridge multiple times. Hope you had a great race!

Betaworks itself also supported me. What can I say, it’s just a great place to work. At times it’s hard to transition from the ad industry, which I know so well, to the start-up world, where there is still much to learn but all the partners, Sam, Josh, Paul and John are asking big questions of everyone, constantly challenging me. Thanks again for supporting me.

Of course my links to the ad industry are still there. We worked with SSK on the aforementioned Trump Bot. This was such a fun project to work on. We thought we might get about 10,000 people playing with it. Last time I checked we were at nearly 500,000 messages and we just won an award for it. Kevin Skobak and John Swartz at SSK have been constant supporters of what we do at betaworks and helped me again with sponsoring the race. Keep rocking guys.

TrumpBot from SSk, Codeword and Jesse K (looking moody)

One of the other guys that worked on the Trump Bot while freelancing at SSK was Chris Berger. Bergs is one of my oldest friends in New York. I first met him when we were helping set up a digital department at BBH New York back in 2005. From day one it was clear he was a kindred spirit. He once booked a meeting room at BBH to explain to me what sort of headphones I should buy. This was pre-iPhone and all that bluetooth nonsense. The answer back then — and is still now — Grado Labs headphones. Berger, you are a dude, keep it real.

What to listen to on this headphones? Music and Podcasts of course. My friend Jesse Kay at Nue Music Agency is the king of the hustle. We have been working on a little music and cooking idea in our spare time over the last few months — which I hope will come to fruition this year. I love Jesse’s enthusiasm and energy, it’s fucking contagious. Thank you for your support.

For podcasts, who else but Gimlet? Betaworks was an early investor in Gimlet. And through that and making our own podcast The Intern I’ve spent some time with both Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber. Alex gave me a lot of advice on the Intern, all of which was 100% correct — not unsurprisingly. As the guys on Reply All like to joke, Matt Lieber is the man who wears many masks to keep Gimlet producing such great podcasts. Matt explained that Gimlet was not able to officially sponsor me but that he would personally. So there you are — the Reply All guys are not lying Matt Lieber is the man.

The Light Phone, Matt Lieber and Dexter, for all your bot needs.

I met Joe Hollier when I was a mentor at the first 30 Weeks course (the google backed program to turn designers into founders). He had an intriguing idea: a light phone. A phone that just dialed ten people and could fit in your wallet. I had previously written a piece on wanting to escape the tyranny of the iPhone and so immediately gravitated to this idea. As he launched an incridble kickstarter campaign it’s been exciting to see how we and co-founder Kai have gone from idea to production to actual shipping. Many don’t get that far, well done and thanks for the support.

Another start-up that I have kept a close eye on is Tracksmith. When someone told me they were the ‘Rapha for Running’ then I was immediately hooked. Now that I’m no longer spending money on expensive Nike Gyakuso gear Tracksmith has filled that void wonderfully. I love their gear and I love their philosophy. CEO and co-founder Matt Taylor is a totally solid dude with a great vision. When I pitched the idea of doing a Poncho / Tracksmith weather forecast for runners he got the idea straight away and pulled the trigger. Same with when I asked him to sponsor me. For the record, of course I wore Tracksmith for the race.

Mami Wata surf brand and betaworks.

The clothing connection continues with Mami Wata. One of my oldest and best friends Nick Dutton quit the London advertising industry to move to Africa and set up a surfing clothing and accessories brand. Him and the exceptional Boy Jingo have an ambitious plan: to create the world’s first global African brand. Judging by the quality of the stuff I have seen so far both in terms of gear and content they’re going to make it. This is an idea who’s time has come.

I think that is the final list. I probably forgot someone — please forgive me if I did. Obviously my parents sponsored me and my wife put up with me getting up at 5.30 in the summer and running 20 miles before breakfast, so thanks to you too.

The 2016 Marathon was not what I wanted it to be. The rest of the year was not what I wanted it to be either. As a historian who has studied fascism and authoritarian regimes I’m not optimistic about the short-term future. But we have to keep going. I’ll keep running and keep trying to help people who are trying to do interesting things. There are still so many opportunities out there and there is fun to be had — even if it’s micro fun, or for a time being, capsules of fun. I am not a religious person but I do truly believe in karma. Thank you to all of you who supported me in the race and gave money to Team For Kids. You did a good thing. Karma will pay you a visit soon. (Fingers crossed the president receives a visit from the Karma Police sometime soon too).

James. New York City. March. 2017

UPDATE: Later that year I ran a 3:17 at the Baystate Marathon which got me a place in Boston and ran a 3:12 in New York 2018. Which made me feel much better.