Since I don’t really have anything else to post at the moment – and I don’t want people to think I’ve given up on the site – here’s an interview I conducted for the MDRA's magazine. Note: this is the unedited, full-length version that you won't find in RunMinnesota.
While I don’t have a lot of knowledge regarding the coverage of the running scene in other states, I find it hard to believe that many other states can top Minnesota. When you take into account things like the number of fine regional publications, websites, electronic newsletters and the Minnesota Running Data Center [by the way, check out their new website], just to name a few, we look pretty solid when it comes to covering our running scene. And the good news is we continue to improve – in a big way.
Down the Backstretch, is a relatively new website that’s dedicated to providing in depth coverage of the local running and track & field scenes. Their coverage is wide-ranging, accurate, entertaining and timely – even providing real-time coverage in some cases.
I recently posed some questions to the website’s creators, Charlie Mahler and Pete Miller.
When did you guys start your blog and how did you come up with the idea?
PM: Charlie came up with the idea to start a blog to cover running and track in Minnesota. He is the main force behind Down the Backstretch (DtB). I contribute occasionally, but he's really driving the bus. Anyway, the idea just made sense. I’m actually surprised that no one thought of it sooner. We bounced some ideas back and forth via email and went live on January 9. The planning went very fast. It was all very virtual. We didn’t actually speak to each other about Down the Backstretch until it had been up for a couple of weeks.
CM: Good question! I actually just dug through some old emails now to figure out how it was we got started. The tipping point, I think, was when I mentioned, almost in passing, to Pete Miller that I was thinking of starting a little Minnesota track and running website. I was actually doubting the advisability of it, truth be told. But Pete wrote back saying he had a similar idea. Pete has always struck me a level-headed guy – and someone I’ve always enjoyed working with – so I figured it wasn’t that bad an idea, if Pete was thinking about it too!
As a sidebar, people might be interested to know that Pete and I didn’t talk face-to-face or even on the phone for the first two or three months of Down the Backstretch’s start-up. We did everything via email and with Google Documents. When I finally swung by his house to pick up a proof of Minnesota Running & Track, the magazine with both work on, it hit us that it was the first time we’d actually talked! Tales from the Internet Era, I guess.
What do you guys cover with your blog?
PM: Pretty much anything related to Minnesota track and field or distance running. One of the great things about our sport is the variety. There’s always something new to cover.
CM: Let me just take issue with the term “blog” for a second. I don’t really think we are one. We’re on Blogger and we follow the format and templates of a lot of blogs, but I think of us as a running and track news website. Blogs suggest, to me anyway, a lot of first-person and opinion-centered content, and that’s certainly not what we are. We try to be about reporting news and sharing interesting feature stories. End of sermon!
The way I look at it, anything running and track related that is in any way connected to Minnesota is part of our beat. I think we try to put a big tent over the sport in all its forms and use an expansive definition of “Minnesotan.” So, we’re covering high school track and cross country, the college scene -- including Minnesota kids who leave the state -- and post-collegiate folks who have any connection to Minnesota. From sprints and field events to racewalking and ultras, we’re interested in it. I guess one way we do narrow things is that we’re focused on the competitive aspects of the sports, rather than the “up close and personal” aspects.
Basically, I think we’re covering what, in a more perfect world, the sports pages would cover, if they gave a crap about running and track.
Are you happy with what you’ve been able to accomplish in this first year?
PM: Yes. Down the Backstretch has become something that people value. I’m happy that people are getting information that they can’t find from any other source.
CM: Absolutely! It’s been one of those rare projects, I think, that just takes on a life of its own. It was only a few weeks into the life of Down the Backstretch that I remember saying to Pete, “I can’t believe someone else didn’t think of this before us!” Readers were finding the website, the athletes we wanted to report on were very happy to answer our questions, people offered photos, I’d bump into people at track meets and they’d greet me by saying how much they liked the site. It was – and is – very gratifying.
During the track season, Chris Marshall helped keep a list of the top boys’ distance times. Is the addition of other contributors something you’d like to expand on in the future and, if so, what are you looking for?
CM: I’m very much interested in expanding the scope of Down the Backstretch. Right now it is largely what I have the time and interest to report on. Pete has authored a bunch of posts and is a great person to have on board to bounce ideas off of. Chris, whom I coached at Carleton last year, was interested in DtB from the beginning and made it all the better with his record-keeping on high school boys distance running and with his technical work for our video coverage of the Hamline Elite-Meet and the MSHSL State Meet. We’ve also had Jim Ferstle, Jess Koski, and Rick Trueman write pieces for us.
Down the road, I’d like to have more people involved writing columns, short essays, reporting on special areas of interest and such. I’d love to have a jumps or throws or sprints nut really follow those areas of the sport for DtB, I’d love to have performance lists across the board like Chris did for the boys distance events, or maybe someone to focus solely on the small college scene or ultras, or someone offering interesting diary entries about their team during the season.
I guess I’m interested in talking to anyone who wants to contribute! I’d very much like DtB to be more of a concert and less of a solo in future.
What kind of feedback have you guys been receiving?
PM: I’ve only heard good things. It seems that fans of our sport are starved for information. They appreciate everything that we give them.
CM: Not a single person has come up to us and told us they think we suck, I can tell you that much!
Seriously, I’ve been surprised from the start how quickly people found us and how much they liked us. I think we really found a niche that needed to be filled. I’ve been involved with USATF – Minnesota’s magazine Minnesota Running & Track for a number of years, but I never got the kind of reaction from it that we got immediately from Down the Backstretch. And, I think people like MnR&T!
More quantitatively, we’ve been happy with the statistical feedback we’re getting. We get more than 3,000 “unique visitors” – different readers, that is – to the site each month, so by that measure we feel like we’re doing something that a lot of people value.
Do you guys receive any financial support or is the site a labor of love?
CM: No support yet! My joke is that DtB is something I do in my pajamas with a cup of coffee in my hand before the real day gets started. That is, it’s something I’m trying to fit into the rest of my life. Now that we see that the endeavor has some legs, though, I’m looking for ways to make it more sustainable – financially and as a part of the rest of the responsibilities I have.
In the coming months I expect people will notice some changes to DtB. We’re hoping to have some of the stakeholders in the sport in Minnesota partner with us – in the spirit of supporting an endeavor that promotes a sport that doesn’t get a lot of promotion elsewhere. Also, with the readership numbers I mentioned, I’m thinking there will be some advertisers out there who are interested in getting their names on the computer screens of 3,000+ fans of the sport.
Besides the blog, how else are you guys involved with the sport?
PM: I’ve been involved with USA Track & Field Minnesota for years. I’m currently the association’s publication chair, overseeing Minnesota Running & Track magazine. I also help direct two of their events, the Fort Snelling Relays and the Brian Kraft Memorial 5K. In addition, I’ve been a member of Team USA Minnesota’s board of directors since the program’s inception.
CM: My standing joke used to be that I was trying to wear every hat there was in the sport. I’m a runner (although I don’t race much any more), I’ve been a college and post-collegiate coach, I’ve done administrative things for USATF, – both in Minnesota and nationally – I was an elite recruiter for Twin Cities Marathon for a number of years.
I got involved in reporting on the sport about eight years ago and have done a fair amount of freelance reporting since then. I’ve covered the 2005 World Championships in Paris for the Denver Post, I’ve written for the Running USA Wire and Runners World Online, and I’m a correspondent for Track & Field News. All the other experiences have been good for me as a reporter; I think I have a pretty good “Big Picture” of how the sport works.
What are your own running accomplishments?
PM: I competed in both track and cross country at Bemidji High School and at the University of North Dakota. After graduation, I focused on road races and discovered that I was pretty good at the marathon. But I’ve scaled way back on the training now that my wife Kris and I have two young sons.
CM: I’ve been running for 31 years now, that’s probably the proudest accomplishment! I can’t really think of what my life would be like without distance running. I was a 4:18/9:23 guy in high school in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I was a cross country and track all-American at St. John’s in the mid-1980s. I still hold the MIAC indoor two mile record … and will forever since they’ve discontinued the event! I also won the first-ever TC 10 Mile, which makes me a good trivia answer, if nothing else.
What advice would you give to other budding journalists who want to cover our sport?
PM: I don’t consider myself a journalist. I’m just a fan of the sport. Charlie is the one who actually interviews people and writes original content. My only advice is, “cover what you know.” We limit the content on Down the Backstrech to Minnesota-related material because that’s what we know. If we attempted a broader scope, we would just be a low-budget Track & Field News.
CM: Offer your services to Down the Backstretch!
Seriously, I think those folks should find a way, any way, to go out and do it. I always thought writing about running and track would be a cool thing to do, but I didn’t actually do anything of the sort until fairly recently. I owe it to Ryan Lamppa – a former Minnesota running star himself – at Running USA for getting me started by liking my work and giving me opportunities. With the do-it-yourself opportunities from sites like Blogger, though, if someone wants to, say, cover all the aspects of high school pole vaulting in Minnesota, they can!
(And, DtB will link to their stuff, too!)
Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know?
PM: We’ve always hoped that Down the Backstretch would be more interactive. Our one disappointment is how few people comment on the posts. All you need is a Google account. It doesn’t cost anything.
CM: Two things, I guess: First, just how much we appreciate their continued support of Down the Backstretch. On the one hand, we’d probably still be doing this if the readership was a quarter of what it is, because we’re interested in finding out the Minnesota running news ourselves. But knowing that there are a few hundred people each day clicking to our site and wondering what’s new, keeps us honest and motivated.
Second, I think it bears underscoring just how fortunate we are in Minnesota to have such a vital running and track community. Up and down the levels of the sport and across the various disciplines we’ve got strong athletes and healthy support structures, by and large. We’ve got a lot of good happening here when you think that we have Big Ten Champion-level track teams in the Gophers, strong small college teams and individuals, a high school track scene that seems to improve each year, plus national-class stars like the Team USA Minnesota folks, Shani Marks, Jim Dilling, plus great events like Grandma’s Marathon and Twin Cities Marathon – to say nothing of all the local, community-oriented road racing opportunities – plus strong organizations like USATF-Minnesota and MDRA organizing a lot of programming for the sport.
I think it would be hard to do what Down the Backstretch is trying to do without all the people and organizations also doing such good work to make so many newsworthy things happen in the sport in the state.