A shorter version of this interview appeared in the October 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.
When the ING New York City Marathon rolls through the five boroughs of the Big Apple on Sunday, handling the broadcast duties on ESPN2 will be "SportsCenter" anchor John Anderson, 47, a former college high jumper who ran the 2010 edition of the race in 4:44:52 in support of the Pat Tillman Foundation.
How did your college track career at Missouri go?
I managed to get through an entire four-year career without ever scoring in a conference meet. I no-heighted at the Drake Relays in front of my family, one of the highlights of my career. Went there, missed three times, got my per diem and rode on the bus home.
My coach was a legendary guy named Bob Teel. We go to the first meet and he comes back from the coaches' meeting and says, "OK, men, tomorrow we're starting at 6-8½," and I'm like, "Great. We're going to start at my PR."
We go to this first meet. First jump -- boom! -- over the bar, I'm done. I've made the track trip, I've made the traveling team, I've made a height, didn't matter, I had no chance of going higher. The guy who won jumped like 7-5. Afterward I went to Coach Teel and said, "I will never be that guy. I can be here for four years, and I don't know what kind of potential I have, but I don't have that potential. I know that right now." So he said, "I'm going to tell you a dirty little coaching secret. All they ever tell you when you're a kid is if you work hard, and you lift weights, and you run your sprints, and you eat right and get lots of sleep and do everything right, you'll win. Sometimes, the other guy is just better. Sometimes, the other guy just got more pixie dust. It's not your fault. It's OK, you can be a productive member of the team, sometimes you'll be an asset, but even if you're not scoring 10 points every meet, you'll get a lot out of it." And so he encouraged me to stay on, but it was a middling career.
I have a letter jacket, and I busted my hump to get that. You will not find me in the Missouri record books other than participation. But it was the greatest time I ever had; I had great teammates and went a lot of places. It was a wonderful experience.
Did you run much after college?
The second my college career ended, I said, "I'm not running again until the fire comes back." About 15 years and 40 pounds later, the fire wasn't coming back, but the cholesterol level was going up, so I started running again. A lot of times people ask, "What are you training for?" and I answer, "I'm training for my kids' graduation so I can be here when they graduate from high school and college."
How did you train for your first marathon in 2010?
I blew up my ankle once in college, so I can't run more than 10 miles at a time. I figured if I could run eight miles, then walk one, three times during the race, I'd be home and it wouldn't be awful.
Did that work out?
I got psyched up by the crowds and ran the first 19, then I had to walk. Then I ran again to 22, and by then my ankle was trashed, so I had to walk again. In the distance I could see the 23-mile sign, and at that point a guy in a banana suit comes running by me. I get that I was an athlete, I get that Pat Tillman gave his life for the country and I should have some sort of internal fortitude that should drive me, but it was the thought of my son seeing me lose to a guy in a banana suit that drove me to run to the finish.
How will your experience aid you in the marathon broadcast?
I have a relatability to the effort, that regardless of whether you're in the first 10 or last 10, everyone's got that same struggle, just to a different degree. Whether you're trying to run 4:52 per mile or 14:52, you're experiencing, to some degree, the same thing, mentally and physically, as everyone else.
Why doesn't running get more coverage in the media?
That's one of the things that bothers me. It draws so well every four years, right? It's one of the glamour events of the Olympics. Swimming, gymnastics, track and field -- period. We saw more of track and field in the London Olympics than we did the men's basketball team. And then it just dissipates in the background. I think that's some of the backlash that Lolo Jones has to go through; "Oh, she didn't medal." Well that's because you paid attention only every four years, but in the interim she's been really good and won indoor world titles. I'm astonished as to why it's not followed more closely in those down times. I wish I knew why, I wish I could help.
Running seems to be something that people would rather do than watch, whereas the average American is relegated by circumstance to be a spectator in most sports. Distance running hasn't been able to make that viewership grab.
I can see where that's hard. You look at a road race and there they go, and they are doing the same thing constantly, it doesn't appear that the circumstances change. We're talking about the coverage here ... you know you get the mile splits, but if there was a way, maybe through GPS or tracking people, to see sort of the game within the game, when somebody at 17 says, "Let's clip one off at 4:30 and see who's with us." And yet that's so subtle to try to see in running, so you do fall into that, so visually it becomes the exact same thing. In New York there's a lot of other stories you can do. Obviously we don't want to lose sight of the leaders -- the elite field is the major story -- but over that length of time, two-and-a-half, two hours and 10 minutes, you can take a break and explore other stories, other people, other elements of the race that I think hopefully broaden that spectator perspective.
A big criticism of past marathons on TV is that broadcasters have tried to "dumb it down" and interject human interest pieces, and worse, at critical times. Any difference in ESPN's approach or your philosophy in that regard?
How do you generally interest people without turning off the core audience who's tuning in because they want to see it all and know the subtleties of what's happening? Our production people seem to think there are elements of technology we can bring into it that will help with that. I think there will be some innovation, that's what ESPN is known for, whether it's the K Zone for a baseball game or what they come up with for the New York Marathon.
Do you think the relative lack of Americans among the elites in the marathon inhibits viewer interest?
No matter where the elites are from, they're all people, and all those people have a story. If you can make them relatable, I don't think it matters where they come from. I do think an American winning or being close is significant. I think when Meb [Keflezighi] won it was a big deal. I do think if you could have Americans competing at a high level it would boost the interest level for a while. I think all those people have great stories no matter where they're from. It doesn't seem to punish other sports as much. But there's more familiarity with those guys because you seem them every day, or every week. Even the world's best marathoners are running maybe three times a year, and two of those they might be in London or Berlin.
Is there anything you're going to try to bring, individually and as a network, from covering major sports, to the marathon, maybe a different approach?
The idea is that we bring the appropriate size, not to make it bigger than it is, but so people realize how big it is, how significant it is. I think people in the marathon community understand it, but I'm not sure the average viewer understands how significant the marathon is, in athletics in general.
Will you run another marathon?
I can see the marathon again someday in my future. But I read a great quote from Frank Shorter, who said, "The key to running your next marathon is forgetting about your last one," and since I haven't forgotten about the last one yet, I'm not ready for the next one.
What are your favorite running highlights?
I ran an exhibition 100-meter race with Usain Bolt [on the ESPN campus]. Lost. Right afterward people were saying, "Dude, you just got dusted." I'm like, "I don't know if you've noticed, he dusts everybody in the world. As far as I see it I'm tied for second, no worse than everybody else." And then in the marathon, since Haile Gebrselassie dropped out [of NYC], technically I beat him. I may have lost to Bolt, but I have beaten perhaps the world's greatest distance runner in a marathon.