Catching Up With Ben Rosario
The 2013 USA Cross Country Championships are still a couple months away from taking place in Saint Louis, Missouri (February 2, 2013), but the hard work has been going on for months. We recently caught up with Ben Rosario, who leads the organizing committee putting on the championship, where he discussed a variety of topics around the event, as well as some the great work he's done over the past few years to build the local running community. As the USA Cross Country Championships approach, we'll be talking more with Rosario, as well as doing interviews, previews and features around the event.
Scott Bush (SB): The U.S. Cross Country Championships are under two months away. How's the planning going at this point?
Ben Rosario (BR): Planning is going very, very well. We were able to do something unprecedented in that we got all of the local run-specialty stores in Saint Louis to come together as members of the host organizing committee. The Saint Louis Track Club is also a part of that committee. Combining all those databases has helped us get the word out about the event to pretty much every single person who has ever run a road race or bought a pair of running shoes in the entire Metropolitan area. Plus, the committee is just bigger now which means more ideas and more connections.
SB: How has the athlete response been with regards to getting the top professional runners to commit?
BR: It's been good. Of course, as is the nature of this particular event, you never really know who's going to come until the last couple of weeks. It's not like a major marathon where athletes are getting appearance fees and signing contracts to come run the race. It's more just me emailing athletes, coaches and agents and saying, "Hey this year's event is going to be incredible and we'd love to have you/your athlete come be a part of it." I can tell you, though, that the responses I've received have all of us in Saint Louis really excited. With the IAAF going to an every-other-year format for the World Championships it seems to have created a sense of urgency for some of the top pros to make this team. You never know how many more chances you may get and say what you will, World Cross Country is still one of the deepest and most prestigious races in distance running.
SB: In terms of involving the community, what type of outreach have you been doing to get the community excited for the championship event?
BR: Well, I'd like to believe this is where we are really doing a great job. It's a passion of mine to "bridge the gap" between the hundreds of thousands of people who call themselves runners and the somewhat niche community of professional running fans. One of the big things we did was partner with the Saint Louis Track Club and a popular event they put on each winter called the Frostbite Series. The Series consists of five road races from December through February that they put on in Forest Park where the Championships will be held.
For this year only they've added the Championships as a special bonus race for all Series participants. They usually have about 1500 runners in the Series and all of them can run in either our FLEET FEET 4K (community race) or the Big River Running Company High School 4K. Having that many participants between those two races will mean that many more fans for the Championship races.
We also have a great pre-race pasta dinner lined up complete with a special viewing of the cross country documentary, The Long Green Line, followed by a Q&A with legendary coach Joe Newton as well as his former assistant coach Charlie Kern. Race day will include a special Nike hospitality tent for all the middle and high school athletes so they can hang out together and cheer for their favorite pros. Of course as your question suggests, you also need to promote the event throughout the months leading up to it. To that end we are offering free cross country workouts on the course each of the four Saturdays before the Championships. That way folks can come out and get some actual practice in to prepare them for the race. We did those last year as well and they were a lot of fun.
SB: You are doing more from a digital marketing perspective than most other U.S. championship events in our sport have done before. What is your rational behind this and how do you plan to build up these channels as the championship nears?
BR: My feeling on events like this is that sometimes a planning committee gets so focused on race day itself that they forget the fact that other people are not going to be as excited about it as they are. It's your responsibility as the organizers of an event to make other people excited. Otherwise, the event can go off without a hitch but it's like a tree falling in a forest. In this day and age it's easy to promote using social media and that has indeed been successful for us. Our website just gives the event more credibility locally. It's hard to claim you are going to have this huge National Championship and then not have a website. You need somewhere for folks to go to see pics and videos and get details about race weekend, etc.
As we get closer to the event that site is going to be full of athlete bios with links to races they've run and interviews they've done, etc. We need to tell the stories of these athletes so the spectators can pick who they want to want to cheer for on race day. We are a culture of stars so we need to make stars out of the men and women that will be up front on February 2nd.
SB: St. Louis isn't known as a hot bed of distance running. What makes St. Louis a good host of the U.S. Cross Country Championships?
BR: Saint Louis is a town that is absolutely crazy about sports. The St. Louis Sports Commission, who are the co-hosts of this event along with Big River Running Company, have done an amazing job bringing National Championships of all sorts to the city. We've had NCAA men's and women's Final Fours, the Frozen Four, the NCAA wrestling championships and that's just to name a few. So we're a great sports town for one. As for running I'd challenge you to find too many markets that have grown as much as we have in the last few years in terms of total number of runners, road race growth and certainly with youth running.
Perhaps I can say this since I no longer own the stores and it won't sound too much like bragging but I do believe Big River Running Company has had a lot to do with that. Between their summer and winter running camps, the Forest Park Cross Country Festival (a 3,000 runner high school meet) they host in the fall and the Big River Festival of Miles charity track meet in the spring they've really brought running to a whole new level in Saint Louis. The local Milesplit network, MoMileSplit.com, has also done a wonderful job promoting the sport and I don't want to take anything away from the other local running stores either.
I think it's been a combination of a lot of hard work from a number of different people but I would call Saint Louis a great running town at this point. I think the attendance and atmosphere that we'll have at the Championships will prove that.
SB: Some may not know your background in the sport. Can you give us a quick two minute recap on how you got involved in the sport, your own running accomplishments and Big River Running Company?
BR: I was your typical kid who loved sports and played a little bit of everything growing up. I liked running from the get-go and was lucky to have a middle school coach who got me really excited about it and then a high school coach who was absolutely as good as they come. I ended up going to Truman State University, a D2 school, for college and I was fortunate that we had a very good team. We were fourth in the nation my senior year and my career there was okay but I felt like I could do more. I was lucky that Keith and Kevin Hanson thought so too and I joined the Hansons-Brooks team right out of college and ran there from 2003-2005. It was a really cool time to be on the team as it was the period where Brian Sell, who is just a fantastic guy, really came into his own. It was inspiring to see that transformation happen on a daily basis. Anyway, I left there to take a job with the GO! St. Louis Marathon as special events director but continued running at a fairly high level. I finished second at the U.S. Marathon Championships in the fall of 2005 and eventually used that money to help start Big River Running Company, along with my longtime friend Matt Helbig, in 2006. From there it was all about the stores and within five years we had three of them and were doing quite well.
SB: What made you decide to bring the U.S. Cross Country Championships to St. Louis?
BR: I was fortunate to have run in many of the big Championship races during my career and I just really loved the atmosphere at Winter Cross. When else can you see all the very top guys and gals running in the same race? I wanted to bring those athletes to Saint Louis and have the running community see how absolutely amazing our sport can be at its highest level. Plus, I think all of us who ran in high school have a special place in our heart for cross country. For my money there is nothing better.
SB: What's been the most difficult part of organizing this event in particular?
BR: Well I'm sort of an eternal optimist but I don't think it's any harder than most things we did at Big River. I suppose I'd say that it's frustrating not being able to know exactly who's running until almost the last minute. If I already knew with 100% certainty who was coming I'd be going crazy on the website and social media promoting the heck out of them. That will all have to come in the last three weeks or so but there's not a whole heck of a lot I can do about it.
SB: Forest Park is one of the better known venues in St. Louis. How would you describe the course the championship will be run on?
BR: Forest Park is truly one of the best city parks in the country. In terms of size it is actually bigger than Central Park in New York City. It's been around since the 1904 World's Fair and certain events in the 1904 Olympics were even held there including cross country! The course is run on a set of ball fields in the middle of the park. It's a nice set-up because the fields are on top and then the ground slopes down around them. It allowed us to create a really true cross country course with something for everyone. There are long flat sections for the rhythm runners but there are also little ups and downs for the hill specialists. It's not too terribly hard but it's not easy either. Just ask Sara Hall and Molly Huddle how they felt on that last loop!
SB: You've been a professional runner, a business owner, a coach and a meet director. Which of the four roles has been your favorite and where are you headed professionally now?
BR: Well right now I am the marketing director for McMillan Running Company in Flagstaff, Ariz. I had pored so much time and energy into Big River for six years and I was just totally fried. Flagstaff has been a great next stop and I really enjoy working with Greg McMillan. Right now my focus is on continuing to expand the McMillan brand and make sure that our website, mcmillanrunning.com, is the most comprehensive training site in the world. Moving forward, I am extremely lucky in that I have a brilliant wife, Jen, and she and I have bantered around the idea of starting our own business again down the road. Not exactly sure when or where that would be but it would certainly be running-oriented. It's all I know.
SB: There will be a ton of build up to the championship, but what type of legacy do you see the U.S. Cross Country Championships leaving in St. Louis?
BR: I think there are two things here. First and foremost I hope we can give the Saint Louis running community an amazing weekend. I hope that it will create tons of new fans as well as inspire a new generation of young runners. That would be a great legacy. Second, I hope Saint Louis can leave a lasting impression on all of the athletes, coaches, agents and fans that will be coming to town for the event. I would love to see more big-time running events choose Saint Louis in the future so I feel a responsibility to pull off a first-class meet that won't soon be forgotten.
SB: Recruiting professional athletes can be a difficult process, especially as so many of our sport's athletes are gearing up for track or a spring marathon. What do you feel is the number one selling point for this event specifically and why a pro should travel to St. Louis to compete?
BR: The number one selling point in my mind is "Why not?" We know everyone will be in their base phase which means everyone will be really strong. The Championships are a great way to break up the monotony of training and see where you are fitness-wise. Plus, at the core of all the top athletes is a love to compete and a desire to prove themselves against the very best competition in this country and across the globe. I say let's get everyone to Saint Louis, line them up and see who's the best on that day. Then let's take those six men, six women, six junior men and six junior women to Poland and have them take on the rest of the world. How 'bout that!