Despite conventional wisdom that tells him to do the opposite, Michael Ko reads nearly every comment posted under the videos he makes for his popular YouTube channel, which he’s had for more than 14 years.
Ko, who is in his early 40s and is best known for creating running content in Chicago under the handle “Kofuzi,” says he has gotten used to skipping past the handful of trolls so he can keep in touch with the people who have been watching him for years. Recently, brands like New Balance have invited him to collaborate and his long-time viewers keep him honest, by telling him when it sounds like he’s becoming biased.
“I’m very much guided by the regulars,” he says. “I know their handles. Working with brands is a double-edged sword. It’s great because it gives me access, but it’s hard as someone who reviews things and is trying to stay objective. I rely on the comments a lot to remind me when things are getting a little too cozy.”
It's important for Ko to retain a sense of authenticity: Before reviewing any running shoe, he likes to disclose the fact that he purchased the shoes himself and that nobody is paying him to make a video. And he tries to put at least 100 miles on a shoe before sharing his thoughts with viewers.
“My point of view has always been that I’m just the guy who’s in your run group who happens to have run in the shoes you were looking at the other day,” Ko says. “I don’t get into too much detail about what the upper is exactly made of. When I don’t include certain stats, I get some grumpy comments. I’m trying to stop talking about stack heights, but I think it’s going to take a long time for people to stop caring about stack heights.”
Although Ko usually doesn’t pay attention to the haters, there’s one category of obnoxious comment that he’s happy he doesn’t have to deal with anymore: the one that questioned him as an influencer in the running community because of his marathon times. That’s because in June, at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, Ko ran a 2:58:36—his first sub-3-hour marathon and an impressive feat for any serious runner.
“Something that was a struggle for me early on in making running content was there’d be those nasty comments that were just like, ‘Who’s this guy? He ran a 3:30 marathon—why would I listen to anything this guy says?’ Not that speed makes me invalid for any reason,” Ko points out. “Like, you don’t have to give me a nasty comment to make me want to improve—I want to improve already! I think that breaking three was something I wanted to do for a while and it also kind of lifts that negative weight, too.”
Start of the Channel
Ko grew up in New Jersey and was on his high school’s cross-country team, but only as a means to spend time with his friends. When he moved to the Midwest to attend Washington University in St. Louis, he joined the track team not as a runner, but as a pole vaulter, trying to do as little running as possible. He met the woman who would become his wife in St. Louis, but she was living in Chicago, so he eventually moved there to be with her and go to law school.
In 2010, Ko’s father told him he was planning on running the Baltimore Marathon and Ko invited himself to join him, thinking it wouldn’t be too hard.
“At the time, he was exactly twice my age,” Ko recalls. “I was 30 and he was 60. I basically did a couch to marathon that year and it was absolutely terrible—I was injured pretty much the whole time. My dad beat me by, like, 20 minutes. And I thought, ‘You know what, that’s done and I don’t have to do that anymore.’ And I didn’t run again for six years.”
Ko worked as a consultant doing litigation support, focusing on technology for courtrooms, but needed a creative outlet outside of his day job. He started by blogging on Tumblr, but soon, inspired by the video content put together by the wildly popular vlogger Casey Neistat, decided to become active on YouTube, first making vlogs of his dog, Buddy, and then showing snippets of his family life, usually garnering less than 100 views per video.
In 2016, a friend from law school asked Ko to run a 10-mile Memorial Day race with him at Soldier Field, a stadium near the South Side of Chicago. He spent two months training for the race, documented it, and felt fantastic.
“At this point, people were beginning to use Strava and running on Instagram and tweeting about their running,” Ko says. “A lot of that kind of stuff is interesting to me, and it took me more than 30 years, but running finally clicked for me and it was the first time in my life when I was like, ‘Hey, I actually like the running for the running.’”
He also noticed that his running vlogs were gaining more traction than his other videos: His Soldier Field race vlog received more than 1,000 views. Another one of his videos, a review of cheap Bluetooth earbuds, garnered more than 7,000 views. As fate would have it, Ko’s new love of running and for reviewing products was the recipe he needed to grow a devoted audience, which has reached 110,000 subscribers.
When Jeremy Hall, who runs with 7 on Sundays on Chicago’s South Side decided he wanted to run a marathon, he headed to YouTube in search of advice.
“Kofuzi was one of the first running YouTube channels I came across that I regularly watched to learn how to structure things and he helped me understand what I should be looking for in shoes,” Hall says.
Sharrie Huang, who lives and runs in New York, says she first stumbled on Kofuzi in 2018 while searching for shoe reviews and liked that he provided unbiased opinions.
“I like that [Ko] is just an average person like everyone else,” she says. He doesn’t come from an elite racing background. He’s a father and lives a very normal lifestyle. He logs all of his runs on Strava, so he offers total transparency into his training and doesn’t give any excuses.”
“Kofuzi, being from Chicago, definitely became the main channel that I watched,” Hall adds.
This last point is important because Ko’s homebase of Chicago played a starring role in most of the videos he’s posted to his channel. The streets of Chicago were the backdrop for almost all of his shoe reviews.
“A lot of people have astutely pointed out that my YouTube channel is basically one very long extended love letter to the city of Chicago,” Ko says. “I love running along the Lakefront. From the too-hot summers to the too-cold winters, I love it all. It all makes Chicago a special running city—not only because of the scenery but because of the terrain. Chicago is very flat along the water and there’s a lot of concrete, so the kind of shoes that I would review reflect that as well.”
Last year, Ko and his family left Chicago for the suburbs in search of more space and he says his wife was more concerned than he was about the effect that that would have on his YouTube channel.
“Out here in the suburbs, I’m running a lot more in city parks and conservation areas,” Ko says. “The views are different, but the running is very similar. I think that ultimately the reason why I think it was okay in terms of leaving Chicago was my work wasn’t tied to it anymore. And the channel is at a point where it wasn’t just about running shoe reviews anymore. One of the big pushes that I was able to do this year is focus on the running community. There are races that you can go to that are local, there’s races you might travel to—where you can meet your Instagram friends in person. Those kinds of things are what I’m trying to do a lot more of. I want to show what running is like across the U.S. and travel to a couple of international locations, too.
What's up next?
As Ko contemplates how to evolve his channel, he’s taken viewers to races and cities all across the U.S. in the last year, including Clearwater in Florida, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Boulder, Colorado. He documented the 50th Anniversary of the New York City Marathon last year not as a runner, but as a spectator (even dedicating some air time to Bandit’s own Tim Rossi).
He's also given some thought to what Kofuzi looks like off of YouTube in an age where so much running content happens on platforms like Instagram or TikTok, which has exploded in popularity among creators in the last two years.
“What does Kofuzi look like on Instagram? I’ve been experimenting with that quite a bit,” Ko says. “It’s all reels because that’s what Instagram likes. In terms of TikTok—I have no idea what TikTok likes. I think maybe I’m too old to understand it. A lot of people on YouTube are very fatalistic and say, like, ‘YouTube could shut down tomorrow, what are you gonna do?’ I think you have to leave space to be nimble and be able to shift quickly if you really need to make a big shift.”
In September, Ko joined a collective of runners and content creators called Relay, which includes two-time Olympian Kara Goucher, Zoë Rom, the editor-in-chief of Trail Runner Magazine, and Matt Chittim, host of the "Ramblin’ Runner Podcast.” The group collects subscriptions on Patreon and splits the revenue equally.
“I’m creating content exclusively over there,” Ko says. “I’m dabbling to see if I can make my Instagram account grow really fast. Then there are things like Twitch, too, that are out there. I mean, I think if I got a job at Trader Joe’s I would probably make more than I’m making as a YouTuber. So, like, I can always get a real job, you know?”