Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Towards a Million Fattie March

I first heard about Fat March in the magazine of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, to which I am a contributor. The RTC (no, not that RTC) helps to fund and lobby for the creation and maintenance of rail-trails throughought the country. They sponsor a useful database of rail-trails and other greenways throughout the country.

Rail-trails are good for a number of reasons. They give people a place to exercise and connect them to nature and parks. Overall, they provide a safe route for non-motorized travel, which can be hard to come by in many parts of the country. In many ways they're more useful than hiking trails, because they generally have low grades and wide curves, and many of them connect transit, residential areas and parks. There's something a little sad about them, though: once a right-of-way has been railbanked, it's very unlikely that train service will be restored.

Rail-trails are very well suited to long distance walking. The Fat March route used a number of trails in the Northeast, including the Hop River rail-trail in Connecticut and the Northern Central rail-trail in Maryland. The show's producers had help from the RTC in picking trails. Executive producer Julie Laughlin said this about rail-trails to Rails to Trails Magazine: "They're absolutely perfect for us. When you do a reality show, there is quite an entourage that goes with it. It's hard to be on city streets." By contrast, walking on roads is "nerve-wracking, it's noisy and it's hard to talk with one another." Fat March trainer Steve Pfiester told the magazine that the trails allowed the marchers to make the most progress. "When we get on [the rail-trails], we're just hauling butt."

Rail-trails and other greenways (and pedestrian infrastructure in general) could use some help. A large number of households are located in areas where it is not safe or comfortable for people to walk. By any measure, pedestrian projects receive only a tiny fraction of the public money spent on transportation. Many of the greenways are not connected to each other, or to transit, at more than one point, making them difficult, if not impossible, to access without a car. Many of the longer greenways do not have accessible hotels or campgrounds, making it difficult to arrange multi-day trips.

As a big fan of rail-trails and long-distance walking in general, I was thrilled to see them get exposure on a high-rated national prime-time television show. This will allow even more people to make the connection between rail-trails and health. I was disappointed that, although you see lots of trails on the show, the trails are never mentioned by name. Neither is the RTC or the East Coast Greenway Alliance, which has done a lot of work promoting trails in this area.

There isn't even a link to RTC or the ECGA on the Fat March website, and most surprisingly, there's no mention of it on the websites of those organizations. The RTC already had the product placement; I would have expected them to negotiate having the trails named on the show, or even buy an ad on the show or sponsor the website. A co-branded website could have brought in tons of donations and political support for rail-trails. I think they missed a big opportunity.

It's still not too late, though. Hopefully there will be another season of Fat March next year. In the meantime, I'll be that some of this year's Marchers are available for sponsorship. Imagine a commercial featuring Chantal or Matt saying "Donate to the Rails to Trails Conservancy. Because we all need a place to walk." Imagine a press release for a trail ribbon-cutting "featuring Sam from Fat March!" Imagine Anthony sending a letter to his fans asking them to write their representatives for more money for transportation enhancements.

In any case, this is your Cap'n speaking. I encourage you to donate to the RTC or the ECGA, and to write a letter to your representatives saying that you support greenways - for our health.

Too Fat to March?

I just finished watching the pilot season of a new reality TV show, Fat March. I actually watched the whole thing on streaming video from ABC's website, and I highly recommend it. This post contains spoilers, so watch it before you read beyond the third paragraph if you don't want your experience spoiled.

From what I understand, Fat March is based on Too Big to Walk?, a reality show produced by Channel 4 in Great Britain. I wanted to watch the British version, but Channel 4 doesn't even offer clips for free. I tried to pay to watch it, but they won't even allow you to do that if you don't live in the UK.

The show begins in Boston with twelve people, ranging in weight from 225 to 500 pounds, all classified as morbidly obese by their body-mass indices. Accompanied by a staff of forty people, including two personal trainers, production crew and medics, they set out on foot for Washington, DC, a distance of over 550 miles. The show was filmed over a ten-week period, divided into seven "stages," and an episode was broadcast devoted to each stage. The marchers slept in tents every night, but every stage featured a "challenge" where the participants had a chance to win additional prizes, usually including spa services and a night in a hotel.

Every marcher who made it to DC on schedule received a share of the prize money, and at the end of each stage the participants had a chance to "vote people off"; anyone who got at least one vote had to leave the show. The twist was that the prize money decreased by $10,000 per person for everyone who left the show, so the marchers had an incentive to cooperate.

I found the show to be entertaining and inspiring, and I'm hoping that ABC continues it, but there are a few things that I hope they do differently next season. The first is that the producers seemed to see interpersonal drama as a necessity to keep viewers hooked, so every episode devoted a significant amount of time to squabbles within the group. I was interested by the challenges of building and maintaining a team that could last through challenges like this, but I wasn't too interested by the "romantic" angles or the bickering. I would rather have seen less of this.

The next is that the guys who left the show were all the heaviest ones. I think that undermines the message of the show, and gives a contrary one: that some people are "too big to walk." Two of them had legitimate health problems that prevented them from participating, but the other two were voted off because their teammates thought they wouldn't be able to keep the pace set by the producers. To me that suggests that the pace was too tight. Can we imagine a show like this where the only reason people leave is because they're lazy or disruptive?

I've got a lot more to say about the show and long-distance walking, but this post is long enough, so I'll write about that soon.