Thursday, April 11, 2019

This Royal Runs

Denmark's Crown Prince Changes His Nation 
as Aarhus 2019 Changes Cross Country

by Mark Cullen/ © 2019 All Rights Reserved
Sebastian Coe and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark in Aarhus
Photo Credit: Lars Moller

Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik inspires not only by who he is but what he does. Frederik - an ardent runner - led a national running challenge called The Royal Run in honor of his 50th birthday last May.

Races were held in five different cities.

He ran in all five - on the same day. Four one-mile legs and a 10k anchor for an impressive total of 10 miles.

An engaging and accessible monarch-to-be, Frederik, 50, has inspired many in his country to higher levels of fitness and health. It is reliably estimated that over 63,000 Danes ran the inaugural Royal Run, and the event was front page news in Denmark.

Widely known as an engaging, enthusiastic, and accessible man, the Crown Prince makes a visible commitment to the people he was born to serve. His informal manner commands enormous respect and generates remarkable levels of popularity.

Late at night after the World Championship XC races had finished, a server at my restaurant in Aarhus sang her crown prince’s praises for inspiring her to raise her fitness game. She participated in the 2018 Royal Run, has been running consistently ever since, and looks forward to competing in the second iteration of the event. 

The 2019 edition will be held over the course of 10 days, with the bulk of the running on June 10. Princess Margrethe will lighten the Crown Prince’s load by running one of the races. Well over two months in advance, three of the five legs are sold out.
Crown Prince Frederik presenting the silver medal to Ethiopia's 
Dera Dida
Awaiting her gold medal: Hellen Obiri, Distance Queen
Photo Credit: Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly
My mother was Dutch - I lived in the Netherlands for two years as a child - and I came to understand the emotional power a royal family can have in even progressive countries like the Netherlands and Denmark. The royals have the opportunity afforded them by fate to do good in this world; think of Lady Diana’s crusade against landmines.

Crown Prince Frederik’s commitment to his nation’s health is visible: he lent not only his name but his time and his presence to the World Cross Country Championships. While he was scheduled to run in the Mass Race Relay at the end of the day, Frederik sat this one out - due to a back injury - in favor of June's big event. 

However, Danes took note of his royal stamp of approval, and his presence was one of many factors that inspired 10,000 spectators to come to Aarhus to witness the birth of a new generation of cross country.

“As a keen runner, who celebrated his 50th birthday last year by participating in mass participation road races all over Denmark, Crown Prince Frederik is a man after my own heart," said IAAF chief Sebastian Coe. "The Royal Run has now claimed an annual place in the Danish sporting calendar and the prince’s enthusiasm for health and fitness sets a great example."

Jakob Larsen, Championships Meet Director, Director of the Danish Athletics Federation, and course design genius, said, “Having the Crown Prince present is a tremendous boost for us as organizers, not only because he is royalty but also given his role as an IOC (International Olympic Committee) member. His presence adds credibility at the national level, and gives us even more leverage when telling the story of cross country.”

This from the man who, with his inspired and inventive Aarhus course design, changed how the story of cross country itself will henceforth be told.

"At the IAAF we also want to inspire people around the world to be fitter and healthier," said Coe, "which is why we are encouraging mass participation events alongside our elite championships."

"At the World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus... thousands of recreational runners had the chance to run in the footsteps of our great distance running champions on the official world championships course," Coe continued. 

"We will be offering more such opportunities in the future as it’s a great way to connect our elite athletes with the global running community and inspire more people to join our sport.”

It had been announced well in advance that the Crown Prince would be present; I was quite surprised that he stayed for four hours. The warmth of the friendship between Coe and Prince Frederik was evident as they hung out in the infield and enjoyed the races, the atmosphere, and the medal ceremonies. Someone observing them without context might have thought that two good friends were having a remarkably good time, and wondered how they got such good seats.
Coe and the Crown Prince
Photo Credit: Lars Moller

As Championship Saturday continued and Frederik emerged as a visible part of the fabric of the day, I began to think it might be interesting to get his take on this cross country festival. I enlisted the aid of the Director of Communications, Henriette Leth Nielsen, in seeing if an interview could be arranged. I’m grateful for her efforts on what surely was one of the busiest days of her life. It turned out to be too late as it was after 15:00 and the Crown Prince was about to leave. We both were quite disappointed. 

If only I’d thought of it earlier.

I gave up - for a few moments.

About to leave?

There's an opportunity.

I bolted from the finish line press tribune and walked a long way around several fenced off security areas. I tried to keep my eye on the prince as I hurried over. By the time I reached the road and the exit gates from the infield, I had lost sight of him and thought he had left.

But two cars - not limousines, exactly, but tastefully understated jet black S-Class Mercedes Benzes with deeply frosted windows - crept by as if expecting someone. I thought he was in one of them, but it was hard to tell.

To my surprise, Frederik emerged from behind the immense start/finish line structure. He had stayed for one more victory ceremony.

I glanced at him and back at the cars and wondered which exit gate he would use. I picked the one that seemed most logical and planted myself in front of it.

“This is either going to work or it’s not,” I said to myself.

He made a beeline for my exit and was there in moments. 

I raised my press pass so he could see I was credentialed and he slowed. I extended my hand and he took it as I introduced myself and asked if he had a moment to speak with me.

His reply was a gracious, thunderous, "Yes."

Everything that happened in the next minute happened very quickly. In fact, the time on my voice recorder says 1:28, but our exchange really didn't last that long.

Three times back and forth.

After two exchanges, a very strong hand clasped my left shoulder from behind. Firm and directive, with a gracious but clear message: "There's only so much unscheduled time you get with royalty."

Think of it this way: how much time would you get with Queen Elizabeth?

We concluded our third exchange and I said a simple, “Thank you very much,” to which he replied, “No worries.”

An older couple standing immediately to my left beamed as the Crown Prince approached, and were thrilled that he stopped so close to them. The looks we exchanged afterwards needed no translation.

I scurried back and found Nielsen.

"I got it," I said.

"Got what?" was her reasonable reply, as my simple declarative statement  had seemed so unlikely only minutes earlier.

On the day that was the culmination of several years' work, she was visibly moved.

While I was in the media center transcribing the interview, a volunteer
staffer named Jakob came in. I paused the recorder, took off my headphones, and said, "You might be interested in this.”

I pressed 'play' and immediately and without hesitation, Jakob said, "The Crown Prince."

Jakob turned beet red.

When I first published my brief interview on race day, I presented the verbatim transcript but realized soon afterwards that the words by themselves did not effectively communicate the nature of our conversation. By themselves, they came across as stiff and formal, and our conversation was hardly that.

There was a laugh or a chuckle of appreciation from the Crown Prince after each statement. There was thoughtful energy in our exchanges. He was gracious and welcoming, but also, in concert with his security detail, able to signal non-verbally when our encounter was about to end.

Here is my brief interview with Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark, after he served as starter and medal presenter for many of the World Championship Cross Country and community races in Aarhus on March 30. 

MC - Would you please say a few words about what you thought of the event today?

"The event is a big success for everybody - I hope you ask some of the participants (for their perspective), too!"

I nod in agreement.

"This is a major event for this country, we have amazing surroundings, we have a lot of backup, a great audience, and the weather was also looking our way."

He chuckles a bit at their good fortune.

MC - People came from around the world for this...

"Yes, I don't have a country count..."

MC - 70, I believe.

"...but there are beautiful colors and flags and sportswear (representing these countries)."

Clearly, he enjoyed the spectacle of the day.

MC - I assume that Denmark would like to host events like this again in the future.

(The hand appears on my left shoulder as Frederik makes eye contact with his security personnel over my right.)

"Yes, it's not the first time..."

He pauses.

"We've hosted big world championship events in a variety of sports, 
so it's going to happen again."

(It’s time for me to go.)

MC - Thank you so much.

“No worries!”

He finishes with a grin and a handshake. He seems bemused and in fact charmed that I would step forward to make this request of him, and he is genuinely pleased to have been helpful.

Later that evening, the same server at my restaurant says of my royal encounter, “This is a once in a lifetime experience, isn’t it?”


It is inspiring to witness what happens to his nation when this royal runs.

I am deeply grateful to those who took time out of schedules which remained intensely busy after the World Championships to support this article: Jakob Larsen, Sebastian Coe, Henriette Leth Nielsen, Jane Monti, and IAAF Director of Communications Nicole Jeffery.

Mange tak!