An Exclusive Interview with Co-Founder Weldon Johnson
Weldon and Robert Johnson (twin brothers) are the founders of LetsRun.com, the internet’s most comprehensive site for all things running. Established in 2000 while Weldon was living in Arizona and training for the Olympic Trials, the site was formed to promote the coverage of running as an elite level sport and to create a place where renners could share and spread training philosophies. What you will read below is an exclusive interview between Level Renner columnist Kevin Gray and Weldon Johnson.
KG: Can you give us a bit of background on yourselves (where you grew up and where you guys went to college)?
WJ: Robert and I grew up in Dallas. I ran at Yale and Robert attended Princeton but did not run there, though he lived with Chris Lear (author of Running with the Buffaloes and Sub 4:00).
KG: I can remember the influx of the internet and how it transformed the sport of running. I think TNFmedia.com was one of the only sites around prior to the birth of LetsRun, but it wasn’t nearly as thorough in its coverage as you guys now are. Personally, I love that you can go right to LetsRun for links to watch live NCAA Cross Country or coverage, say, of the New York City Marathon. One of the greatest aspects of the site is that results are available almost instantly either through links on the site or on the message boards.
WJ: I met a fan of the site in South Korea, and I think he summed it up nicely when he called us the drudge report of running. It is a collection of all articles running related, and we don’t try and keep the reader on LetsRun like other running sites but want to direct them to the best coverage of the events. For example, with the Boston Marathon, Boston newspapers are going to have the best coverage, so we will post links to their articles and the same with London Marathon a week prior. Our goal is to find the best coverage of the elite side of running and aggregate it each day on the front page of LetsRun.com. We also decided to supplement things with our own coverage of select events, offering our own opinion (sometimes critical) with the hope of opening dialogue with regards to running as a legitimate sport (something that we felt was severely lacking in the coverage prior to LetsRun). We like to express our opinion and let people express theirs. Just because we may have criticized something or someone does not mean we do not like them. People will also often times make the mistake that something they read on the message boards represents what Robert and I believe. They have a hard time differentiating between LetsRun and something a poster said.
KG: I know that Robert is the cross country coach at Cornell but was wondering if this is your full time job? You guys do a very timely job in keeping the site current (it is always updated when I check the site early each morning). Can you explain who does the “grunt work,” scouring the web for all articles running related? I believe that you have one employee (aptly named LetsRun employee #1) besides the two of you? I’m assuming that because you guys live in different parts of the country, in different time zones, it must be a challenge to communicate with one another regarding how the site will look the following day?
WJ: I live in Texas and Robert is in Ithaca. I’m doing the site full time and Robert is coaching in addition to working on the site. We are currently onto LetsRun employee 1.1 (Steve Soprano) and in the past Emory Mort (LetsRun employee 1.0) has helped us out, and then there is the guy who made the whole site possible, coaching guru, John Kellogg. I owe my success in running to him.
The site is updated throughout the day, with one big update at night. Robert and Steve focus on The Week in Review, some of the content with the site (although I will help out as well), and we all will search around some of the better newspaper sites that write about running. After doing this for a while, we know which sites have the best running articles and we try to focus on those. And then there is the business side of things, which I handle and we all interact with our visitors, as we get thousands of emails per month, and we all play a part in responding.
KG: The site seems to have started as a hobby between you and Robert, an outlet for your passion for running. I noticed, a few years back, the site had a major overhaul and now looks much more professional. Can you bring us through the progression of the site?
WJ: The site had the overhaul that you mentioned in 2008. We are currently averaging around 600,000 unique visitors per month and are over 4 million message board posts, so it has really grown since its launch in 2000. Although we are happy with the new layout, we think it can still be improved aesthetically as there is a lot of information on the page. We aim to keep the trust of the visitor first and the rest will take care of itself. The knowledge of the visitors really makes the site and helps to harness the wealth of information.
KG: I’m sure that LetsRun has taken you on many journeys (both emotionally and physically). Can you share some of the highs you have experienced running the site?
WJ: In terms of events I’ve attended, the highlight was the 2007 World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa, Kenya. It was close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and tens of thousands of fans were packed along the course like sardines. I’ll never see something like it again, and in terms of the running experience in Kenya, until you’ve been there and seen the training camps, you don’t really understand it. It is just an amazing experience. The biggest compliment we get is when I go to events and meet journalists from around the world, and they say they appreciate what we do at LetsRun. That’s when I know we’re doing our job. We’re definitely not traditional journalists but when we get the seal of approval from traditional journalists, it means a lot.
KG: I guess any interview with you guys would be incomplete without mentioning the “World Famous Message Boards.” The message boards do have a reputation for being negative and somewhat nasty. What are your thoughts personally regarding this negativity, and the fact that the boards do not require registration, allowing people to post anonymously? Some people are critical of your hands off approach to the message boards. Can you speak to your critics?
WJ: I think the vast majority of visitors enjoy the message boards. In terms of negativity, I think it’s a lot less negative than what you’ll read on the comment section of a newspaper article on a prominent person or prominent sports team. Having said that, any community, online or real, is going to have its problems and troublemakers. We have that in ours.
Sure we have discussed the idea of registration but have decided that ultimately that limits the free flow of information. Moderating is more art than science, but we have the “Report a Post” feature and anyone can report a post they want reviewed. We’ve removed hundreds of thousands of posts.
Sure there is stuff on there that I am embarrassed by, but we remove it and get on with things. The biggest troublemakers cause trouble, no matter what we do, banning IP addresses, etc.
I think some people’s response to the “negativity” on our message boards shows how small our sport is. Do you think Derek Jeter cares what someone is saying about him on a New York Yankees message board? Hard core fans of sports have knee-jerk reactions to the their sports and share their opinions. So Galen Rupp or Chris Solinsky has a bad race, well some hard core fans are going to act like it’s the end of the world. I live in Fort Worth, and the reaction after the Cowboys lose is ridiculous on sports radio here. LetsRun is the place where fans of the sport of running gather to overreact as well. It’s far from a perfect community but I think the vast majority of people contribute positively and understand it is an anonymous message board and what that means.
Thank you very much to Weldon Johnson for taking the time to sit down for an interview. We look forward to seeing what LetsRun has to offer in the future. Haven’t been to LetsRun.com yet? Shame on you. Check it out and see what you’re missing.
Kevin Gray can be found running on trails with Isabella and Daisy, his two dogs.
This was originally printed in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Level Renner magazine.