The Revolution is Nike? Staying fit in the era of ‘Big Running’

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Photo: Lindsay Kobayashi

Photo: Lindsay Kobayashi

Two nights ago, I ran the Nike ‘We Own the Night’ 10 kilometre run in London, United Kingdom.  ‘We Own the Night’ is targeted at women, encouraging health and fitness in a safe and non-competitive environment.

WE. JUST. RUN.

WE ARE GIRLS INSPIRED.

WE OWN THE NIGHT.

IT’S MORE THAN JUST A RACE.

IT’S A MOVEMENT.

'We Own the Night' race gear | Photo: Lorena Fuentes

‘We Own the Night’ race gear | Photo: Lorena Fuentes

What’s the movement? Well, it’s about being a healthy and fit runner, where you are also empowered as a woman by running at night time.  And of course, it’s about wearing Nike while you do it.  Is this a bad thing?  At a time when lack of physical activity and the epidemic of overweight and obesity is one of the biggest global health concerns, the increased popularity of running events like ‘We Own the Night’ could be a positive sign for social trends in activity.

Pre-race group shot | Photo: Lindsay Kobayashi

Pre-race group shot | Photo: Yegee Lee

I rolled up to Victoria Park in London with my two female friends who cajoled me into entering, and we marvelled at the watertight organisation of the event.  There might as well have been giant neon Nike signs directing us to the park.  In some places, there really were.  Bright green and purple (the race colours) lights illuminated the trees leading up to the park.  Feeling like lemmings, we joined the steady stream of girls dressed in neon spandex and the identical turquoise race t-shirt that we were all instructed to wear.  We checked our gear bags, danced around to the DJ already spinning beats from the massive festival stage, and went to warm up.

At this point, we began to realise that this event was not about running at all.  It was about Nike making money, capitalizing on a discourse of empowerment and health for women by partaking in ‘We Own the Night’.  On our way to warm up, we passed two girls decked out in their race gear, downing ice cream from the food carts – with 15 minutes to go before the race start.  Everyone was snapping pics with the Nike branding washed over the park and checking out the shopping and photo ops in the Elle tent (a co-sponsor of the event).

Aside from us and one lonely male runner – no one out of the 10,000 entrants warmed up on the park’s track specifically designed for running.

An empty running track at warm-up time

An empty running track at warm-up time | Photo: Lindsay Kobayashi

Instead, there was an official warm-up, where instructors decked out in Nike gear on the main stage led the group through a series of aerobics.  Ok, a warm-up is good… But since when have aerobics been a preparation strategy for long distance running?  When was the last time you saw Mo Farah do aerobics before crossing the start line of a 10k race?  I understand the nature of the group event that includes all fitness levels, but if Nike really wanted to empower women to begin and continue to include running in their lifestyles, maybe they should take away the pre-race ice cream cart and teach us how to properly warm up for a running distance that requires a delicate blend of speed and endurance.

The start line | Photo: Yegee Lee

The start line | Photo: Yegee Lee

And how was the race itself? It was mostly great.  The course was clearly marked, helpful volunteers were everywhere, and there were water stations and live music at various points.  The level of organisation, demonstrative of the power Nike has to throw around, was a nice benefit to being at corporate event.  At the finish line, we all received a custom-made necklace by a London designer, Alex Monroe.  Monroe designs jewellery for Liberty London, who also has a partnership with Nike.  The necklace was gorgeous.  I overheard many women laughing while citing the necklace as their main reason for entering.  Is that the right type of motivation for exercise?  Let’s not forget that Nike wants us (Londoners in particular) to purchase from their Nike X Liberty Collection and this run was a prime opportunity for advertising.  They have the money to spend on these necklaces if it generates future purchasing and brand loyalty, as I’m sure it will.

And what about feeling empowered, in the first place as being a woman who runs, but also as a woman running at night time?  Does ‘Owning the Night’ mean that I’m a strong, determined, goal-achieving, and perhaps even a feminist woman? If it means that I’ve just participated in a big-branded event that featured running in addition to major product placement under a tenuous discourse of empowerment and fitness, then not at all.  But sure, it can be about empowerment (and I would not say female empowerment, but rather athletic empowerment), if ‘Owning the Night’ is about completing, or hitting a personal best for a 10k run.  And that’s all it needs to be.  As a regular runner who’s done several long-distance races in the past, I didn’t feel like this was a huge milestone for me.  But, I do remember how gratifying and empowering it was when I first began running.  Discovering how far your body can go is a high that’s completely indescribable.  I’m sure that many women felt that way on Saturday, and that is a great thing.

The necklace | Photo: Lindsay Kobayashi

The necklace | Photo: Lindsay Kobayashi

Running doesn’t need to be so branded.  To be active and healthy, we don’t need to be ingrained to desire the latest Nike Free shoes or Nike+ SportWatch, or especially any of the women’s apparel from the ‘Own the Night’ Boutique (yes, it exists, and we were all encouraged to go shopping there before the race).  Running is one of the most accessible forms of exercise out there – all you need are shoes and pavement and you’re set.  If more people ran, the population would enjoy incredibly higher levels of health and well-being.  It’s important to not get tied up in the discourse of feeling fit and empowered because the branding makes you feel that way, rather than because you are actually getting fit and achieving goals.  Of course, the two things aren’t mutually exclusive – corporate sponsorship and athletics have gone hand in hand for years.

But, the bottom line remains that Nike, among all other brands, just wants us to buy their stuff.  It’s arguable that there are many greater evils than selling fitness, but that’s a whole other conversation.  Of course, Nike does do positive, action-based things – they hold races this like one, organise running clubs, donate to charities, and provide training plans, but that’s also part of their marketing strategy.  If you exercise, you are also a consumer and the bottom line of big companies like Nike is always to profit from you.  Don’t get me wrong, ‘We Own the Night’ was great fun and memorable event.  I will probably purchase from Nike in the future, and I am definitely going to wear my Alex Monroe/Nike branded necklace.  I just refuse to accept the subtle marketing idea that I need Nike (or any other big brand) to be an empowered, healthy, and fit individual.  We need to be aware of the effect branding can have on us, especially when it comes to health.  Focus on feeling empowered, healthy, and fit because it comes from within you and what you do, rather than from buying into a brand that sells you that image.

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