Mina Guli demurs when someone has the audacity to call her a runner.
“I feel like I’m not an athlete,” she said via Skype from a hotel room in Shanghai. “A runner? I’m not that, either.”
She had just run a marathon that day, and was about to run another one the next day, then another the day after that, and after that. Her goal: to run 100 marathons in 100 days to raise awareness of global water issues.
These are not official marathons, of course, but 26.2-mile runs that she mapped out and then documented with photos on Twitter, where #runningdry became a thing in running circles.
How can she afford this?
Guli, 48, is part of a class of runners now picking up sponsorships the same way top-level runners coming out of college do. They won’t be winning the Boston Marathon or Olympic medals, but they offer something that shoe brands want to be a part of at a time when the top of the podium isn’t the only spotlight.
Guli is sponsored by Reebok, which gives her gear, a media campaign around her quest and, maybe most important of all, for the logistics of her quest, money. She is not entirely an unknown — she is the founder and chief executive of Thirst, a nonprofit that raises awareness about the global water crisis — but she is hardly a social media star. Her Instagram account has just over 3,000 followers, a pittance in the influencer world.
In other words, Reebok isn’t just throwing products at runners in exchange for pretty pictures on their Instagram feeds. Rather, Reebok and other companies are going after unique narratives they hope will inspire people. They’re doing this at a time when participants are as likely to be influenced by what someone who looks like them is wearing as the runner who ends up with a gold medal.
“Ultimately, they want to be able to tell a story,” said Merhawi Keflezighi, founder and president of HAWI Management, which represents athletes like his brother Meb, the long-distance runner, and the Paralympic sprinter Jarryd Wallace.
Meb Keflezighi was second in the Olympic Marathon in 2004 in Athens, and won the New York City Marathon in 2009 and Boston in 2014. Merhawi Keflezighi has been an agent since 2005, and seen the types of sponsorship deals widen in that time. “People can relate to others when it’s not just the fastest person in the world or the strongest person in the world,” he said.
Case in point, Justin Gallegos, a runner with cerebral palsy whose video of getting a contract from Nike went viral. “People admired that passion that he has for running,” Merhawi Keflezighi said.
Gallegos first connected with Nike in high school. At the University of Oregon, where he ran for a club team, he worked with Nike on the development of the FlyEase shoe, which is designed for athletes with mobility impairments. Getting the Nike offer caught Gallegos off guard, though he did know it was a possibility. His manager, John Truax, is also a Nike employee.
“I think it puts a statement on what being an athlete truly means,” Gallegos said. “Yes, talent is important. Don’t get me wrong. But you can have all the talent in the world and not have any passion.”
Gallegos is now planning to run his first marathon — he wants it to be the Chicago Marathon in October. He is campaigning for more runners with cerebral palsy to run longer distances at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. He would like to run the 1,500-meter race, but said that the standards for it right now are not achievable for someone with cerebral palsy.
“It’s important for these companies to expand their horizons because there’s lots and lots of talented athletes out there,” he added.
While Nike and Reebok assisted in arranging interviews with their athletes, neither company responded to follow-up requests to comment on why they chose to sponsor such runners.
Mirna Valerio, 43, started a blog called, “Fat Girl Running,” in 2011 while training for her first marathon. She named it that “because I was fat and I was a girl and I ran,” she said. “It’s as simple as that. I knew that it would be a little controversial, and I was O.K. with that.”
She has since run the Javelina Jundred 100K in Arizona and the six-day, 120-mile version of the TransRockies Run in Colorado. She also wrote a memoir, “A Beautiful Work in Progress.”
While none of the runners interviewed for this article would share how much these contracts were worth because of nondisclosure agreements, Valerio said being sponsored was enough for her to quit her teaching job and run full time. She said she was able to do so with the financial support of Merrell, Skirt Sports, Hyland’s, Swiftwick and Custom Performance of New York.
“She’s got a passion for being outside and testing and challenging herself and her own evolution and development of someone who’s passionate about the outdoors,” Strick Walker, chief marketing officer of Merrell, said.
Valerio said the support for nonelite runners had been a long time coming, though she understood that like all businesses, the companies were investing in everyday runners because they thought that doing so could make them money.
“They’re realizing that their bottom line can be enhanced by including more people, including different communities,” she said. “They will say it’s about inclusivity, but when you get down to it, it’s about your bottom line and market share, and you don’t want to lose market share by not being inclusive.”
Of course, just like the elites, everyday runners experience their own pitfalls, whether they have sponsorships or not. Guli was scheduled to run her 100th marathon in 100 days in New York City on Feb. 11, but she fractured the shaft of her right femur and could only run 62. The one in New York went on, anyway, with runners who she said had come out to raise awareness of the global water crisis, and she crossed the finish line, set up in Central Park, on crutches.
“I’m just a normal person who set out one day to make a difference in this world, and it turned out running was a way to make it happen,” she said.