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Why I’m No Longer with Nike

posted by Ask Lauren Fleshman
Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 8:15pm EST

Welcome to Ask Lauren, where you get bomb diggity advice from a pro distance runner who's been through it all. Also, don't be afraid to check out the Journal for some unfiltered pro-runner life, Lauren style. Peace out!

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So I’m in our Picky Bars staff meeting a couple weeks ago.

The way it works is, before the meeting, we all post an outline of the topics we want to discuss on one shared Google doc, and then we work our way through it one person at a time. I’m scanning through the agenda and get to Polster’s section, (our marketing and design guy pictured throughout this blog,) and suddenly blow orange juice out my nose:

Item 7. Media update: hilarious rant on website message board about Lauren leaving Nike because she is making 5 million a year on Picky Bars. Unless of course there is something you should be telling me?

As it turned out, my announcement that I was “peaceably parting ways with Nike” led to several interesting speculations as to why and how it went down.

Polster from back in his Laguna Beach Days

I think it's important that you know who Polster is (left), and that he was on the show "Laguna Beach," which we don't give him nearly enough shit about.

Let’s back up a second. Polster up close

Polster.

Loren’s discovery came form Letsrun.com. It’s the most comprehensive running website with up-to-date news, and the Johnson brothers do a good job of representing both the female and male sides of the sport. The message boards, like all anonymous comment forums, are another story all together.

Stanford had a “no posting policy,” but I used to read the boards in college before I knew better, mostly for a laugh. At first it’s this amazing discovery: People are posting about my sport! They have strong opinions! People actually care! But the second you become “fast,” people start posting about you, with everything from opinions about your training, to a litany of reasons you should be dropped din the middle of the Sahara to die, to debating whether you are “hot,” “cute,” or “lucky to get laid by a zombie.”

At some point, every pro runner decides its best to stay off the boards completely. Six years on the wagon now and I’m not missing anything, I can assure you. That is, except for the gems Polster shared with us.

Polster camping

Polster, seeking design inspiration in the wilderness.

Back to the Meeting

Polster is not a runner and has no idea what Letsrun is. He stumbled upon the message boards after getting a Google alert and couldn’t believe his eyes. As I mopped the OJ off my laptop, Jesse and I had him read out loud some of the speculative comments so we could have a good giggle. Now I will summarize my favorites and share them with you.

Why Fleshman Left Nike: Myth Busters

#1: She’s making about $5M/year from Picky Bars so she can just run for fun now.

This is the one that resulted in the orange juice nasal squirt. Don’t get me wrong, Picky Bars is doing great but it takes startups several years to be profitable, particularly for the founders. Since the inception of Picky Bars, I’ve made a whopping ZERO dollars. Of course, we hope it leads to something, but for now, it’s not financing my running career.

#2: Her dad works in Hollywood so she has lots of money.

Another classic. Yes my dad worked in Hollywood, as a prop maker. Translation: construction. Translation: working class family living in a 1000 square foot house 50 miles outside of Hollywood with a bitch of a commute. Translation: my inheritance will consist of a sweet 1996 Bose surround sound unit and a potty mouth.

#3.: She’s Jewish.

I assume this is also to imply great wealth. The Fleshman’s may have been Jewish at some point, but if so, it was prior to 1717 when they took the boat from Germany to America as indentured servants to the English Governor of Virginia. True story. But thanks for all the mozel tovs anyway! I’ve considered converting; the Maccabiah Games, AKA Jewish Olympics, are an Olympics I just might be able to qualify for and medal in.

#4: Nike dropped her because she’s pregnant.

This one is partially true: I am pregnant and pregnancy is not part of Nike’s bread and butter marketing plan. But no, there was no dropping, firing, axing, canning, etc.

What Really Happened, The Three Reasons for Moving on: 1. Planning for the future an example of a 30 something who kicks ass

Jen Rhines: a great example. 14:56 PR and Olympian at 35. Has humbled me many a time.

I’m 31. I don’t bring that up because it means I’m over the hill; I know plenty of 30 somethings who have set PR’s, made Olympics, and kicked my ass when I was in my 20′s. I bring up my age because I’m entering what will be the last stage of my running career, and the prime of when my physical development and career experience overlap. This last contract is special. What will I be left with when it’s over? Bottom line: I want to put my heart into something with more of an upside.

  1. The Missing Piece

Nike was a good fit for me for a long time. They supported me financially, gave me world class equipment, and I was part of an elite group of over 200 sponsored track and field athletes and runners worldwide. It was amazing in so many ways. But there was always one area that never quite fit. I’ve always wanted to do more for the sport off the track, helping to make it more accessible…and while there were individuals within Nike who championed that with me, the structure simply didn’t exist to make it happen. Believe me, we tried, multiple times. But the system and complexity of Nike’s structure always got in the way. That’s just part of being a big company. Bottom line: I want a smaller work environment better suited to collaboration.

  1. A Philosophical Shift

Lastly, I started to develop a divergent philosophy about sports marketing from Nike’s sports marketing department. My first few years, Nike seemed to value athletes based on a mix of performance, personality, and accessibility. But in the past few years, things shifted. Places and times, records and medals, meant everything. This philosophy makes it easier logistically to manage a budget and create a consistent standard for 200+ athletes and angry agents, and maybe it’s the only way you can manage a group that large. It is undoubtably a fair system. But I think it creates a culture of fear and insecurity rather than enthusiastic, loyal brand ambassadors in a sport where you will always have up and down years. Bottom line: I want a more holistic marketing philosophy I can invest myself in.

The Decision Is Made

All things considered, I survived quite well at Nike. I won two US Championships, made 3 World Track Teams, finished top 5 at the World Cup and top 7 at the World Championships. I ran between 14:58 and 15:02 for 5k 4 times, and under the current Olympic A standard (15:20) 16 times. I also led the USA to a team Bronze medal in XC. But, I had three bad injuries at the wrong time, which left an Olympic sized hole in my resume.

With my 2012 contract coming to an end, and a baby on the horizon, I approached Nike several months ago to talk about my future and my goals. They expressed an interest in keeping me on, at a lower, but still decent salary with room to grow. A good situation. But something had changed. Based on those three main things, I couldn’t get excited about it. Ten years had changed me, and I realized it just didn’t fit anymore.

 

Polsters new life

From the humdrum of reality TV to the fast pace and excitement of Picky Bars: everyone needs a career change now and then. Even Polster.

I have been so lucky to work with incredibly smart, talented people at Nike that I respect immensely. These people blew me away with their creativity and passion, and some will be my friends long after my running career is over. Change is scary, but developing a vision for what I wanted next helped give me courage.

When I finally got up the guts to tell the boss at Nike, he didn’t put up a fight; he wished me well. The time was probably right for him too. I am, afterall, 31, pregnant, and a pain in the ass. We had a special relationship but I’m sure he won’t miss me always trying to push Nike’s boundaries. :) Or who knows, maybe he will, just a little bit. Everyone, deep down, wants to be missed.

 

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