Marathon Handbook

Thomas Watson, Editor & Founder

Madrid, Spain
Thomas on a run Teammate Katelyn running
A marathon, not a sprint

In 2014, Thomas Watson started running adventure races — grueling ultramarathons in remote places that push runners over several days. “I got pretty hooked on them for a while,” says Thomas. “And one day I realized I had a bunch of experience with multi-day races but there was very little information out there about how to prepare and train for them.”

So Thomas started the Marathon Handbook in January 2016 — but traffic was slow at first. “I really never knew what I was doing,” says Thomas. “I remember one post was about taking a toothbrush on a race and it literally had two lines on it. I just didn’t know how to build a website or structure content.”

But like a runner settling into their pace, Thomas developed a rhythm with his content. “Little by little, mostly on weekends and in the evenings, I would write more and more,” he explains. “Though I wasn’t focused on SEO, visitors started to trickle in through Google. It's been a very slow learning process — and I probably made every mistake in the book — but over time I started to get more traffic as I wrote general guides with broader appeal.”

With the surprise bump in traffic after pivoting to a more general health and fitness website, it was time for Thomas to figure how to turn his burgeoning audience into a sustainable business model.

Thomas running in Cambodia
Hitting their stride

“I initially didn't set out to make something commercial,” says Thomas. “This was just a passion project. But over time I started to realize we had an audience. So first we started developing paid courses and training plans, which we’re proud of - but they didn’t scale.”

“At first I was unsure about putting ads on the site. I was worried about user experience, and I assumed they didn’t make that much money. But one day I decided to try out Google AdSense — and realized pretty quickly that I could incorporate ads in a way that wasn’t intrusive.”

It also allowed Thomas to scale his business in ways he didn’t think possible. “Ads allow us to offer our resources for free to people all around the world. There’s something really wonderful about helping guide people on their running journey.”

Thomas soon saw money come in, in small amounts at first. But he was starting to see the direct relationship between traffic and ad revenue. Now instead of just breaking personal records on the running trail, he wanted to break new records for traffic.

“Throughout 2020 and 2021 we really did focus more and more on SEO. As we built out our team, that's when our ad revenue went from, say, $14 a day to three or four digits a day.” Eventually the Marathon Handbook hit the traffic threshold to qualify for Mediavine, a Google Certified Publishing Partner, giving them the support and resources they needed to execute their ad strategy. “Today, we’re an organization that generates enough revenue to maintain our full-time team of four great coaches and writers, and many more freelancers - and 90% of that income is from ads,” says Thomas.

Senior editor Katelyn after a run
Creating on their terms

As traffic and revenue grew, Thomas was able to make an important decision about his own professional trajectory. “I was working from home full-time amid the site’s creation — and as I got busier with that job, it got difficult juggling full-time work and the site.”

“After long conversations with my partner and my parents, I decided to leave my job and go the entrepreneurial route, committing myself fully to Marathon Handbook. I had to give my full energy to the site — because if I didn’t, I could risk losing out on this amazing community we’d built.”

Leaving his nine-to-five wasn’t an easy decision — but the rewards have been undeniable. “My time is more flexible, which means I get to spend more time with my kids. I have the time to walk my son to daycare every morning. My old job would have required me to travel more— now I’m so relieved I can stay home and make my family a priority.”

Thomas has extended this flexibility to his growing staff. “At least four of our team-members that work for us are basically full-time now — and they love it because they too are working on their own time. They do work at their own pace. We don't manage their hours, we manage their output and it's not just been good for me and my family but it's been helping these guys, too.”

“Today, we’re an organization that generates enough revenue to maintain our full-time team of four great coaches and writers, and many more freelancers - and 90% of that income is from ads”
Off to the races

Now over three years out from embracing ads, Thomas sees that moment as the turning point for his business and career. “Putting ads on the site changed my life — if I could go back in time, I never would be able to predict our business would be in such a good position at this point.”

An athlete’s competitive instincts die hard — so Thomas can’t help but get excited to see his site catch up to some of the established names in his niche. “We’re about 95% the size of the biggest informational running site on the internet — and I think we’re in a good position to keep growing and become one of the top health and fitness sites overall.”

“But it’s not about winning for us,” explains Thomas. “We’re just a group of people who like to write about running, and find ways to help others run — it’s not about becoming some big conglomerate that takes down the competition. We just want to continue doing what we love, and I think we’re all excited to see what kind of growth we can achieve.”

About the Publisher

Thomas Watson is a running coach, ultra-runner, and the founder of Marathon Handbook. When he's not working on helping others with their running, he's spending time with his two young kids or exploring the trails near his home outside of Madrid, Spain.
Zach's headshot