From Pole Vaulter to Marathon Vlogger: Q+A with kofuzi

Mike Ko (kofuzi) runs a race holding a selfie stick.

You never know what might happen before you take that first step. When Mike Ko bought a refurbished GoPro to use as a creative outlet from his daily nine-to-five, he figured he’d film some videos for fun on YouTube. Never did he imagine that over 140,000 people would subscribe to his channel, anxiously awaiting his next shoe review video or race recap vlog.

Ko, better known by his handle kofuzi online, has made a name for himself in the running community. He’s built a massive following over the years and has transformed his online community into a real-life network of both new and experienced runners, meeting up at races across the globe. But Ko wasn’t always so comfortable on camera.

“I grew up at a time when the most common Asian stereotype was a Japanese tourist with a camera,” he says. “There aren't a lot of pictures of me growing up because I hated cameras and would run away. Sometimes I feel like it’s the ultimate irony is that my current persona is an Asian dude with a selfie stick.”

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we sat down with Ko to learn about his experience as a runner and creator and what it’s like to race with a selfie stick.

Mike Ko runs with a selfie stick at the Chicago Marathon.

FF: First, tell us about your background and how you started your YouTube channel.

MK: I've always had creative hobbies, so before videos I was taking a lot of pictures, and before that I was doing a lot of writing. That’s where the creative itch started. Once digital cameras became more affordable, I started playing around with those.

I bought a refurbished GoPro, which was my first action camera. My original goal was to take an action camera and take videos that aren’t in a typical action camera setting —- like the inside of a bounce house at a four-year-old’s birthday party. I'm not a bungee-jumper or a skydiver, so what are some other fun things I can do with this camera that are interesting? I was poking a little bit of fun at the medium too.

When I got into shoe reviews, I was heavily influenced by the tech world on YouTube. I was watching a lot of videos about phones, laptops and camera gear. I think it's bizarre that no one watches the video on the latest iPhone and just starts giggling! They’re taking an inanimate object like an iPhone and are making all this B-Roll about it. It’s super laughable and silly, but it's also beautiful.

As I was watching these videos and thinking about what’s around me, I realized I’ve been running a lot lately and have got some running shoes, so let’s do the same thing. Let’s put some nice graphics and nice imagery around a really mundane object that no one else is talking about. Let’s take this Nike Pegasus 32 that’s really dirty, it’s got 300 miles on it, it smells like death, and let’s give it the ‘iPhone Release Party” treatment.

FF: How did you get into running?

MK: I started running track and cross-country in high school and joined the collegiate track team. I was never really great at anything [on the track team], but I was good enough to stick around. I tried every event once, but my coach never really wanted me to do anything twice. I was a small, lanky kid and people would say, “You look like you should be really good at the mile…but you’re not!”

We had a pole vault bit but no one was really using it, so one day the coach asked if anyone wanted to try it…so I volunteered to try. It was fun! You don’t have to run as much as anyone else and you’re bouncing in the air. I ended up being a long jumper, high jumper, pole vaulter and every so often I would jump into the hurdling events. The 400-meter hurdles is definitely the toughest event on the track. But it’s also a great source of laughs because people fall a lot—including me.

Mike Ko stands in front of the camera wearing a T shirt that says "Non Elite"

FF: You ran your first race with your Dad, is he someone that inspired you to start running more seriously later in your adult life?

MK: My dad has inspired me to run in a lot of unintentional ways. He didn't even invite me to run that first marathon with him, I just decided to join him. He was turning 60 that year and I was turning 30. I thought it would be fun to hit those milestone birthdays together.

Then, in 2015, he came to visit me, coincidentally at the same time as the Chicago Marathon. He wanted to go watch the race. I wasn’t really interested in running a second marathon, but he was dragging me around to all different parts of the course. The 3:10 pace group ran by and he said, “Check out those guys. If you’re going to run another marathon, you have to at least do it this fast.” I said, “Dad, my marathon was 4:40.” But he said I could run a lot faster than that. Being around the spectators and all the energy made me think that maybe I did want to do another marathon. That reignited my fire, I found some shoes that really suited me and things finally clicked.

FF: The majority of your channel focuses on running shoe reviews. What do you love about running shoes?

MK: That's really simple—when distance running finally clicked with me, it's because I finally looked at shoes as something that could make the whole experience better. Instead of just taking the first shoe that was suggested to me, I tried a few on and found one that I actually liked.

I remember thinking, “I bet if more people just got a different pair of shoes, they might actually enjoy this!” But there’s this giant wall of shoes at the store that are all different, and not everyone is going to like the same pair of shoes. Thanks to the internet, you can research a little bit about what you want before shopping in-store. I wanted to share that experience with other people. My ultimate goal is to give people more information than what’s on the marketing tech sheet, the website or the advertisement. Short of putting the shoes on your own feet, I want you to be able to experience the shoe as best you can.

FF: How has your YouTube channel influenced your relationship with the running community?

MK: This has been a really peculiar development that I didn’t foresee happening, but I'm so glad it did. It makes the experience so much more rich.

In most other areas of social media, the comment section or the livestream chats aren’t positive places to hang out in, but on my channel they are. People are self-policing and self-regulating, and people who are there to be nasty and negative don’t get a lot of traction because no one is taking the bait.

With many of my followers, I only know their screen names. There’s a small number of people I've been fortunate enough to meet up and run races with, taking that digital connection and making it real. That has been a unique and surreal experience for me. I’ve made all these cool friends, and they're making friends with each other. For people who don’t know anyone as obsessed with races and shoes as they are, there are plenty of people in the comments who are just as fanatical about it. It's one of the things that I’m the most proud of and also the thing I have the least control over.

This is why I always record my races with a selfie stick. I exist in this space because people are interested in my reviews and in my training. These people have supported me through my training preparations and all the ups and downs. It would feel weird to not bring them along for the race, too! I could maybe gain a couple seconds by ditching the selfie stick, but it wouldn't be worth it if they couldn’t come along with me.

Mike Ko high-fives spectators while running in the 2023 Boston Marathon.

FF: When you first started running, did you feel that the running community was inclusive of AAPI runners? Why or why not?

MK: To me, the running community felt welcoming in the sense that my high school track team didn’t have a cutoff. Anyone who showed up could be a part of the team, and, in the nineties, that was the definition of inclusive. I still experienced some of the normal Asian and immigrant barriers that exist, but they didn’t come from the running space.

At the time, it felt really welcoming because we were all the weirdos. Sometimes people forget that long-distance runners were the weirdos in high school. It's true for adults, too, but we've all found each other. We need to make sure we’re maintaining that weirdness and keeping it alive.

FF: There has been an increased focus on diversity in the running community since the events of 2020. Did it affect you or your channel? Do you think any positive changes have been made since then?

MK: It definitely affected me as I have a more nuanced understanding now of what inclusivity means. I think we have a welcoming community and a welcoming channel, but I did realize there were other things I could do to make it more welcoming. While my heart was in the right place and I was supportive of my running friends, I realized there were things people were going through that I didn't go through. I wanted to speak up for them, if they wanted me to do that, and stand behind them.

While the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was gaining much more attention, there was also a rise in violence against Asian Americans, so there was a lot of stuff happening in the world that permeated through the running community. I started to get more comments on my channel that seemed to be housed in racism or have an unnecessarily level of hostility, but once the uptick in violence against Asian Americans came to light I realized that's why it was happening.

The silver lining was that these events turned away a lot of people who didn't align with the values of my community. As I mentioned before, the community self-policies, so the people that stick around are the people who want to make running more inclusive and who want to understand the barriers that prevent people from being able to run. For me, the biggest barrier was not finding the right pair of shoes, but for others the barriers are much more substantial and feel much more insurmountable. That was something that was eye-opening for a lot of people.

I want everyone to feel like a runner and that they belong. One thing I always try to do now is, on a shakeout run, everyone gets to run at their true shakeout pace. That means no one gets left behind, no one has to run faster than they want to on the shakeout run before their marathon. When I say “all paces welcome,” it means all paces welcome. That’s a little thing I can do, and when there are bigger things I can do to stand up, it's an obligation that I will gladly carry.

In response to the Newton Police incident during the Boston Marathon, I added a fundraiser to my Boston Marathon 2023 video for the Center for Policing Equity. I found out later in the day what had happened through Reny, who had filmed the video and was someone I met in the comments of my channel many years ago. It was really disheartening to know that this event that was so exciting for me, and something I spent years looking forward to, wasn’t as exciting for some people who were treated differently. I put the fundraiser on my channel to highlight the fact that not everyone was being treated equally and fairly on that day. I know that some actions have been taken, which I think is a positive step, but this was a sad reminder of how much work we all have to do to make sure everyone feels like they’re welcome.

Catch Kofuzi at the 2023 Chicago Marathon and follow him on YouTube at @kofuzi.

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