Each Sunday, we send newsletter subscribers one piece of longform journalism we call The Sunday Long Read. In this edition, Vancouver-based contributor Josh Kozelj delves into the the burgeoning world of running YouTube stardom. Sign up here to receive the Sunday Long Read each week.
Morgan McDonald had a script prepared. He bought a camera, learned how to edit videos on the fly, and jotted down the reasons why he wanted to start a YouTube channel.
It was mid-December in Austin, Texas - the sky was dull and overcast, and burnt orange leaves dangled on nearby trees. The 24-year-old distance runner, walking with his camera on a paved pathway in a beige t-shirt, was hesitating to press record.
McDonald wanted to nail the first video — he had shown his script to a friend who politely pointed out that it was slightly jarring. The first draft didn’t feel like it portrayed McDonald’s personality, a daunting thing to expose to potentially thousands of viewers.
For runners on YouTube, broadcasting the highs, lows and intricacies of their training already takes a great deal of vulnerability. Yet, the last thing McDonald wants is to portray himself as someone other than who he is: an Australian distance runner with a lovable and cheery personality, running professionally for Under Armour.
So he throws out the script and tells himself to complete the take in one go. Like for so many of us, speaking into a camera doesn’t come naturally to McDonald, but he’d rather his video be raw and personable than feel stilted and stale.
He struggles to find his voice in the first three tries — it's a learning process he imagines other YouTubers go through when starting their own channels.
So, still without a script, McDonald fires up his camera once more, points the lens at himself like one would do when taking a selfie, and combs his hands through his wavy, chocolate-coloured hair. He smiles, strolls along the paved Austin path, and prepares to speak into the camera for the fourth time.
“Alright,” he says. “What’s up guys!”
Growing up in Australia, McDonald would devour any running content he could find online. He wanted to be a professional runner one day, and saw moving to the United States for university as a great opportunity to get an education and develop his talent.
“I was watching these college races [in the U.S.] and it just looked so amazing,” McDonald said over the phone from Austin just after Christmas Day. “The depth of these 18 to 24-year-old runners who are really good was so appealing to me to go and race.”
Listen to a podcast conversation with the writer, Josh Kozelj:
Distance running is one of the most accessible sports in the world — 60 million people participated in running or jogging in the U.S in 2017, and it was one of the five most popular sports in Canada in terms of participation in 2016. Yet, it is often considered a niche sport, with interest waning in non-Olympic years.
The Guardian hypothesized in 2013 as to why running has issues attracting widespread attention. Among the reasons cited, author Dean Hardman wrote that a lack of narratives around athletes, and not enough of a "relatability factor" were two of the primary reasons why the sport struggles to grow an audience.
While he took pleasure in the racing videos he could find, McDonald truly enjoyed raw, behind-the-scenes running coverage that highlighted the personalities in the sport — he particularly enjoyed FloTrack’s “Workout Wednesday" series and The Real Maine, a mini-series on Kyle Merber and a group of other runners working out in the summer.
“I wanted to be a pro runner, and watching these pro runners go about their day… something about that is inspiring and entertaining.”
In 2014, McDonald enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and established himself as one of the premier distance runners in the NCAA. After winning four individual NCAA titles, including the 2018 cross-country championship at home in Madison, McDonald signed a professional running contract with Under Armour in the summer of 2019.
At Wisconsin, McDonald took pleasure in balancing school and a social life with running. Although life as a professional runner has lived up to everything he thought it would be, one of the biggest aspects McDonald misses from university is having a pastime aside from running. A YouTube channel, he thought, would give him a new creative outlet.
“I don’t really like putting myself out on Instagram, for whatever reason, it doesn’t feel right to me," McDonald said of his decision not to focus on arguably the easiest way to engage on a superficial level with fellow runners on social media. "But I think it’s pretty undeniable that YouTube is the medium that allows viewers to engage with professional runners on a much deeper level.”
McDonald said that for as long as he runs professionally, he will prioritize proper training over his channel’s obligations — after all, his contract depends on his race results. But the channel will serve as an outlet he’d been seeking since turning pro after university.
“I’ve struggled with this a lot," he said. "When you get a little too caught up and you get an injury or something doesn't go your way it really impacts you more than it should."
In recent years, several professional and amateur runners like McDonald have taken to Youtube to post commentary and content about their own training — gifting the running community with the personal narratives for which it had clamoured.
Gwen Jorgensen, an Olympic gold medalist in triathlon and current runner for the Bowerman Track Club, and Emma Abrahamson, a former University of Oregon athlete with over 70,000 YouTube subscribers, have channels that intersect training, nutrition and allow runners to peer into the pro runner's lifestyle.
Last summer, without an official outdoor track season due to COVID-19, University of Oregon student Ben Crawford built a devout following for his videos chronicling how various NCAA runners were training and time trialing amid the pandemic. Allie Ostrander, three-time NCAA steeplechase champion and current Brooks Beasts runner, just started her own channel earlier this month.
Perhaps most notably, Georgetown University varsity runner, and current member of the Brooks Beasts Track Club Spencer Brown created a channel, The Athlete Special, in 2016 that now has over 60,000 subscribers. Brown gained popularity for his ability to provide candid takes on his running career, and serious thoughts on topics such as “the process of running” and the mental side to the sport.
Brandon Bonsey, Head Coach of the men’s cross country team at Georgetown who coached Brown in university, says he never minded Brown’s filming, and that his authenticity is one of the reasons his channel has received over 9 million views.
“Even when he runs a bad race he still posts a video, and I think because he had ups and downs and wasn’t afraid to show those is a reason why he became pretty popular,” said Bonsey in a phone interview.
Brown’s popular channel is a reason that he found a spot with the Beasts, signing a one-year contract with the track club in August. In a MileSplit article, Brown admitted that the Brooks marketing team saw the value in signing Brown for his large online following.
“You learn a lot about Spencer through his videos, but I think the one thing you don’t learn is how much he cared about team success, his teammates being good, and his loyalty to me, the team, and Georgetown,” Bonsey said.
“He really is a team guy and I know that Brooks is very team-orientated in what they’re doing with the Beasts, so I think that’ll suit him well.”
Lately, an increasing number of training groups are also taking to YouTube to market themselves and give insight into their routines. Bowerman Track Club and HOKA NAZ Elite channels took flight in the last calendar year, and the Tinman Elite team in Boulder, Colorado have entranced the running world with videos that portray not only their training but positive team camaraderie in and out of the sport.
“We’ve been called ragtag, a mob, the Beastie Boys of running," said Sam Parsons, creative director and member of Tinman Elite in a 2019 Runner’s World feature. "Some people don’t understand how we’ve done what we’ve done in such a short time span.”
These groups, like Brown, reap the benefits of heightened visibility, like making some income from merchandise. McDonald acknowledges that by creating his own YouTube channel he’s taking a step to increase his own marketability. He hopes his channel will help create interest in his own training and professional team at Under Armour, as there is a demand for that content—which is evident by the 3,000 subscribers he’s already garnered.
While a channel can be a boon for sponsorships, McDonald said there can also be a stigma that comes with growing an online following.
“In professional running, everything is performance-based and putting yourself out there for other stuff definitely makes you vulnerable,” he said. “In some ways you get looked down on a bit because I think there’s a mentality where it’s like ‘well, this person is trying to make up for not being good at running.’”
Still, McDonald enjoys the creativity that goes into making a YouTube video, and how it serves as an outlet from his day job as a pro runner. Each video is a unique representation of his personality, his voice, his routine, his interests outside the sport — for viewers, it’s a glimpse behind the curtain of what it’s actually like to be a professional athlete.
There’s nothing McDonald loves more than receiving a comment from someone who was inspired to go for a run themselves after watching his videos. At one point in his life, he was the one watching behind-the-scenes videos of professional runners — dreaming, that one day, he would become one of them, too.
When asked what he hopes viewers can take away from his channel, McDonald is quick to reply.
“I really just hope they enjoy watching my videos.”
On a warm late-December day in Austin, McDonald is running on a dirt trail alongside a local lake.
He’s running 18 miles, clicking along at an under 6-minute per mile pace with a camera operator following on a bike. It’s the third video he’s filming for his new channel.
Battling heat and fatigue, wearing a white Under Armour cap, and a neck gaiter that has the smell of maple syrup, McDonald looks at the camera and jokes that he’s contemplating taking off all his clothes and jumping in the lake.
“I’m considering announcing my retirement from the sport of running, and moving into scuba diving,” he says between breaths.
McDonald is experiencing the dull, persistent pain that every runner experiences at some point in a hard training run or race. Except, this time, he’s filming this run for an audience of thousands on YouTube. There’s no hiding now. He can’t fade away from the camera as one might do in a race or stop his watch in the middle of a workout.
Huffing and puffing along the trail, with his maple syrup-tasting gaiter bouncing on his neck, McDonald looks directly ahead.
“Three miles to go, I think I can do this.”
Josh Kozelj is a writer from Vancouver, whose work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The CBC and Canadian magazine The Tyee. He's also run 14:37 for 5,000m.