Life During Lockdown: Ben Rosario
I started collaborating with Ben in about 2013, when he arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona with his wife and young daughter, to work with Greg McMillan’s professional running team. In 2014 Ben and Jen started their own team with with some of the same athletes and then secured sponsorship from Hoka One One. HOKA NAZ Elite was born, and it’s grown steadily into one of the world’s top professional running teams. They asked me to join their board of directors right at the beginning, and I’ve served as a marketing advisor since then. In February, team athlete @peterabraham/life-during-lockdown-aliphine-tuliamuk-6f5d35c4c89">Aliphine Tuliamuk won the USATF Olympic Trials Marathon to make Team USA for Tokyo 2020 (now 2021). That was a huge milestone for the team, but I’m proud of so many things they’ve accomplished before that.
Ben and Jen are both unafraid of opinions and input and enthusiastic about collaboration. When I come to them with crazy ideas — a video about what was going through Scott Fauble’s head as he was running a 2:09 marathon in Boston, having a photographer follow Steph Bruce around London during that marathon — their response is usually, “Let’s figure out how to make it work.” NAZ Elite is a contemporary version of a professional sports team, with a mission statement (Train hard, race fearlessly, share every part of the journey.) and an understanding of media and community management that sports teams in the endurances space don’t have. It’s not enough anymore for a team to say, “We run fast.” That’s only part of the equation now, and I credit Ben with building out a platform that serves athletes, sponsors, fans, events and charity partners. Importantly, Ben is also a lot of fun to work with. He brings a positivity and energy that attracts you into his orbit. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram or wherever the team is racing.
1. Give me some highlights and lowlights from your first two months in lockdown mode.
My highlight was this past Saturday for sure. We organized a COVID-19 Relief Drive for the HOPI Village of Kykotsmovi where a friend of mine is from. That village, like so many Native communities, has been hit hard by the virus and really needed some help. We launched the Drive on Tuesday and by Saturday had raised more than $6,000. We had gotten donations from lots of big names in the running world and from fans as far away as Switzerland. We also had more than 50 households in Flagstaff donate items which we drove around all day and picked up from every corner of town. Two people I have a ton of respect for, Vince Sherry who owns Run Flagstaff (our local running store) and Mike Smith who coaches the Northern Arizona University cross country and track teams, helped with the pick-ups. My wife Jen, as is often the case, organized the whole thing. And then Vince and I made the 90-minute drive out to HOPI and delivered everything. I had more adrenaline coursing through my veins that day than I’d had since the Olympic Trials. I found it to be incredibly rewarding and it meant a lot to see how much the Drive was appreciated by the HOPI people in person.
The lowlights have been seeing my daughter, who is nine years old, break down a few times because she misses school and misses her friends. She’s an only child and I think that’s probably a tougher deal for a kid during this time. The weekend when everything really started to shutdown we were supposed to be on vacation. We made the first leg of our trip, back to Saint Louis where my family lives, and the plan was to have her stay with her cousins while Jen and I traveled to Mexico. But everything happened so fast. We decided not to go to Mexico, and because my sister has a daughter who has heart issues and is thus considered high risk, the family decided to cancel having the cousins see each other as well. So we just flew back to Arizona after only two days. That was pretty tough.
2. How have you grown personally and professionally during this disruption?
I would love to say that’s happened. I am not sure though. The most challenging time professionally was deciding how to handle practice. It was very difficult to make the decision to have everyone train solo, knowing how much our team culture has been built on being together, and knowing how much of a mental release it is to run with others, especially during stressful times. I did not take that decision lightly, and it caused some sleepless nights. But once we were about a week or so in to everything being solo, it did feel like the right choice. The easier decision was coming back to training together in small groups after the Governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, laid out his case for a gradual re-opening. We really just followed the lead of the State government, and that too felt right.
Personally, I suppose I did do a fair bit of reflecting. I have a job that I am very passionate about. But I’ve always stressed to the athletes that you need more in your life than just running. So I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I felt that I needed to make decisions for the group that reflected a level of solidarity with our fellow man. Decisions that went well beyond what is best for our running. During the six weeks or so where I wasn’t going to practice I took a lot of long walks, and they turned out to be very cathartic. Sometimes I listened to podcasts and completely relaxed. Other times I simply let my mind go wherever it felt like going. I don’t think I had any grand visions on those walks that changed my entire outlook on life, but at times I did feel a deep sense of gratitude. I hope to continue those walks and give myself a chance to take a breath every now and again and realize just how darn good I have it.
3. Has your relationship with running and the NAZ Elite community changed as a result of having no races or group workouts on the calendar?
I don’t think my own personal relationship with running has changed a whole lot. But I would say that the HOKA NAZ Elite community has grown even stronger. We’ve always tried to be relatable, but we couldn’t possibly relate to our fans any more than we do right now. They are struggling. We are struggling. They want to race. We want to race. We’re really in a very similar boat, at least in terms of our running. And I’d like to think we’ve helped each other. The first month or so our athletes did a ton of interactive things with the fans; Instagram Live, Facebook Live, etc. Those things gave us something to look forward to. They really did. More recently, as we’ve gotten a little bit fitter, we’ve been able to do a virtual race, and a time trial. Those things have been received very well. We did the COVID-19 Relief Drive. We’ve been putting out our e-newsletter every week. I know we get a good amount of praise for how much we share with our fans, and I appreciate that, but I think we’ve been even more active over these last couple of months which makes me really proud.
4. Can professional sports teams create positive change in the world during the pandemic?
Of course they can. First of all, on a somewhat superficial level, they provide entertainment. For many, they are the number one source of entertainment. As a huge sports fan myself, I can tell you there’s been a real sense of loss to not have the NBA Playoffs, and the NHL Playoffs, and don’t even get me started on the Masters being postponed. When you’re a sports fan, your calendar is based on those annual events, and times of year. My point being, if they can come back, even without fans, they can bring a whole lot of fun back to our days and weeks. On a more serious level, I’ve been proud of sports. The major sports cancelling their games back in mid-March was what opened the world’s eyes to the severity of the Pandemic. I really believe that. The swiftness with which each league made tough decisions to halt their seasons probably saved lives. That sounds crazy but seems hard to argue given what we know about the danger of large gatherings. And the way they are all being careful about coming back is setting the tone for the population at large. Never have athletes and teams needed to take their position as role models more seriously than right now, and they’re doing so. I hope that continues.