When Running Is More Than a Sport

Taylor Little was 20 when she lined up for her first marathon. Because she has cerebral palsy, Little needed someone else’s legs and arms to help get her through it.

Peter Kline was a 60-year-old experienced distance runner looking for a new challenge when he lined up behind a large jogging stroller that day in 2012 to push Little through the 26.2 miles of the Las Vegas Marathon.

They made it across the finish line together in 5 hours 27 minutes, and Little still remembers her emotions from that day. “I felt like I could be like everyone else,” she said recently.

Little, now 25, has kept going, joined by her sister Erin, 20, who also has cerebral palsy. Since that first race in Las Vegas, their hometown, they have each done about three marathons a year.

That day also helped change Kline, who had regularly run marathons. He never returned to traditional racing, he said, and he founded Marathons With Meaning, an organization that pairs runners and people with disabilities.

Marathons With Meaning was featured in a striking holiday catalog released late last year by the apparel company Brooks Running, which is a sponsor of Kline’s group. The catalog eschewed conventional models and Olympic contenders, leading off with photographs of runners from another organization that Brooks supports: Black Girls Run, which aims to encourage healthier lifestyles for all women, but especially African-Americans.

The theme, said Melanie Allen, Brooks’s chief marketing officer, was “giving back,” and the catalog aimed to show running as more than a solitary sport in which the quality of the experience is measured strictly by a clock.

The concept appears to be in step with a distinct trend in running, as well as an emerging one in marketing. The competitive running boom, which led to a glut of races with steep fees, has crested and started giving way to more social, and less exclusive, events like mud runs. The sport’s future may be more about connecting than competing.

For Toni Carey, 34, one of the founders of Black Girls Run, the Brooks theme was “a breath of fresh air.”

African-Americans are a rarity among recreational runners. They make up only 5 percent of female runners, by Carey’s estimate, and the low numbers seem to have a self-perpetuating effect, discouraging some from even trying the sport. That is where Black Girls Run comes in, offering support and camaraderie.

“If you don’t see yourself in a particular sport, you think it’s not for you,” Carey said.

At the same time, the advertising world in general has been taking baby steps away from the airbrushed idealism often used to sell products to women. CVS Pharmacy announced last week that it would stop altering the images associated with its beauty products. Aerie, the lingerie line of American Eagle Outfitters, had made a similar pledge.

In 2004, Dove began a campaign called Real Beauty featuring women of various ages, races and sizes. The strategy brought Dove lasting fame, but over the years the company has also produced heavily criticized “before and after” ads that showed dark-skinned women morphing into white ones. Also, critics have noted that while Dove said it was changing the standards of beauty, the campaign implicitly told women to buy Dove products in order to be beautiful.

But Kline knew he needed a new approach to running. He was getting almost bored after competing in marathons for more than a decade. He had qualified for and run in the Boston Marathon, and he had done ultras — races even longer than marathons. But the goals he had set for himself no longer seemed all-consuming.

So Kline persisted in seeking a rider-athlete — his preferred term for Marathons With Meaning partners — and found Taylor Little. Their time in that debut race in Las Vegas was more than an hour and a half slower than Kline’s best as a solo marathoner: 3:55 at the same event five years earlier. But speed was beside the point. He had rediscovered his passion.

Little’s mother, Eden Capsouto, said she too had felt the emotional tug of inclusion.

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